First came the stomach cramps and nausea. Next came dizziness and disorientation. It was the chills, fever, diarrhea and vomiting that finally sent them to their doctors. Nearly a thousand of them.
In September, 1984 The Dalles, Oregon was a small town of 11,000 located on the Columbia River in the northern part of the state, one of the oldest incorporated cities west of the Mississippi River and the seat of Wasco County. In the mid-19th Century, The Dalles had been the end of the overland Oregon Trail, from which settlers either traveled the treacherous Columbia River or crossed the Cascades via the Barlow Toll Road to reach the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. In 1984 it was a stop on Interstate 84, where travelers frequently stopped to eat at one of the 38 town restaurants.
Not far from The Dalles was a very different type of community, an agricultural commune settled in 1981 and currently populated by 4,000 members of the Rajneesh religious cult. Followers of an Indian guru known as Bhagwan Shree, the Rajneeshees counted among their members highly educated lawyers, doctors and engineers, as well as homeless transplants from New York and other cities. In the three years since they had purchased their 64,000-acre property, the cult had transformed the barren land into a small city, including a major hotel, shopping mall, casino, airstrip, and sophisticated water and sewage plants.
Although the Rajneeshees preached about beauty and love, and spent plenty of money in the community, their relations with the county were strained. Two years before, the group had purchased property in a nearby town, then had taken control of the town council and renamed the town Rajneesh. Citizens of Wasco County, concerned about cultural values and land-use issues, believed the commune was intent on expanding again, in violation of zoning restrictions. This time, cult members were seeking posts on the county commission, and it seemed they would do whatever it took to win the election, scheduled for November.
The first symptoms of illness began on September 9. Dozens of employees and patrons of a local restaurant became violently ill. Using stool samples, the local hospital identified salmonella as the cause. Eight days later the Wasco-Sherman Public Health Department began to receive additional notification of about 20 patrons from two additional restaurants becoming ill with similar symptoms. On September 21, specimens sent to the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory in Portland identified the bacteria as Salmonella typhimurium, an unusual strain but one that responds to antibiotics. The illness typically lasts about four days but could be life threatening to the elderly or very young, or if dehydration is not treated with fluids.
By the time the bacteria was pinpointed, new cases of the illness were tapering off. Then, abruptly, a second outbreak struck in late September. Ten different restaurants were identified in the latest wave of sickness. Local resources were stretched to their limit as nearly a thousand people sought treatment. Mid-Columbia Medical Center, the local hospital, was filled to capacity and patients were held in the hallways. The laboratory ran out of culture media. Patients and their families were scared and angry. The outbreak ended with no deaths and 751 confirmed cases of salmonella. America had just experienced its first major act of bioterrorism, and no one even knew it.
The County Public Health Office found a tentative link between the salmonella victims and salad bars at the restaurants. The state of Oregon sought federal help from the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and several officials from CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service came to The Dalles to lead a epidemiologic investigation into the outbreak. EIS worked with more than 20 local public health workers and state health officials to interview hundreds of victims, food handlers, and restaurant patrons who had not become sick, to determine what they had eaten. Using credit card receipts, they tracked down people from out of state who had eaten at the restaurants. They also inspected food handling practices at the restaurants and visited farms, dairies, and water systems that that supplied the establishments.
Implicated food items on the salad bars differed from one restaurant to another. The investigation did not identify any water supply, food item, supplier, or distributor common to all affected restaurants. Traces of salmonella were found in the coffee creamers in one of the restaurants, and in the blue cheese dressing of another. However, interestingly enough there was no salmonella found in the mix used to prepare the dressing, which meant that the contamination had occurred after the dressing had been prepared.
Based on their investigation, the state epidemiology office concluded that there was no evidence to support any hypothesis that the outbreak was the result of deliberate contamination. Instead, the conclusion was reached that the contamination was most likely caused by poor sanitary practices by food handlers. Although intentional contamination had been considered as a hypothesis early in the investigation, investigators were focusing on disgruntled employees and found none. The added fact that no group claimed responsibility for the incident and no demands or ultimatums were issued caused investigators to dismiss the hypothesis.
There were many in the county who didn’t believe the report. The Rajneeshees were now openly battling with the county, and some county officials reported being harassed by cult members and receiving threats in the mail. A year before the outbreak, two of the county commissioners had become sick, one seriously, with similar symptoms, although they had not been tested for salmonella. Their illness began a day after the two men had visited the Rajneesh compound on county business, and had accepted drinks of water in paper cups. The commissioners were sure the cult was behind the outbreak, but they couldn’t get the state or the CDC to agree with them.
The Truth Emerges
It was in-fighting within the cult that finally brought the cult down. In September, 1986, two years after the outbreaks began, the Bhagwan – who was feeling his power slipping away - accused several female cult members of criminal activity, including attempting to contaminate the water supply in The Dalles. Based on his claims, federal and state police obtained warrants to search the compound, including their sophisticated medical clinic where they discovered a clandestine laboratory that had been used to prepare germ cultures. There, police discovered glass vials containing salmonella bactrol disks which proved to be of the same strain that had contaminated The Dalles the previous year.
That wasn’t all they found. They also discovered invoices showing the cult had purchased such dangerous pathogens as Salmonella typhi, which can be cultured to cause typhoid fever, francisella tularensis, which causes tularemia, as well as several others. The germs had been bought in the name of Rajneesh Medical Corporation from commercial medical supply companies, who provide them for research and standard diagnostic tests, and would have been considered unnecessary in the Rajneesh laboratory. The pathogens were never found.
Several cult members began to talk. A story emerged of the commune’s determination to win the county election at any cost. Within the inner circle, two highly ranked women, known as Sheela and Ma Anand Puja, liked the idea of incapacitating non-Rajneeshees at election time to prevent them from being able to vote and thereby influencing the outcome of the election. Hepatitis and typhoid were considered; so was the idea of putting dead rodents in the water supply. Eventually the women settled on Salmonella typhinurium and ordered germ disks from a Seattle-based medical supply company. The germs were cultured to produce quantities of the bacteria.
Eventually Sheela and Ma Anand Puja confessed to plotting to poison the county commissioners in 1983 and to contaminate salad bars in The Dalles in 1984. Prosecutors believe the cult also carried out similar attacks in other Oregon towns and cities which were never discovered. According to testimony, cult members sprinkled “salsa” on lettuce and other fruits and vegetables and put salmonella in restaurant coffee creamers and salad dressings. The Rajneeshees reported that they were more than willing to sacrifice one thousand “unenlightened people” to preserve the vision of one “enlightened master.”
Several cult members were tried and found guilty in 1986 of violating immigration laws and consumer product tampering. There were no antiterrorism laws to break that year. Their sentences were light and all were out of prison within four years. The story of how 1,000 people were deliberately poisoned in an attempt to fix a county election never made headlines much outside of Wasco County. Public health officials, fearing side effects similar to the copy-cat poisonings following the Tylenol-cyanide
It would be nearly 20 years before the next major bioterrorism attack would strike America. That story, of anthrax-laced letters, would make headlines around the world.