Rancho Rajneesh lives with its memories of red-garbed ghosts

David Usborne reports from Antelope, Oregon, where a cult housed its Rolls-Royces and pedalled its Buddhist beliefs
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The Independent Online
Here, deep within a hidden canyon in central Oregon's high desert country, the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh could have been on a different planet to the rest of us. In a way, with their less-than-orthodox lifestyle of free-love and meditation, they were. The trouble came when they began trying to push out their horizons - their Buddha field - into the rest of the state.

Standing now at the heart of what once was Rancho Rajneesh, I strain to see its red-garbed ghosts - the three thousand or so cult members, many of them sons and daughters of rich industrialists and politicians, bustling in the service of their eccentric prophet. Ahead of me is the airstrip, still in perfect repair. I can see dormitory blocks, the old book-shop where the Bhagwan's bearded face used to stare from the windows on the covers of "Bhagwan Magazine". In the distance there are several huge sheds. Perhaps one was the dairy; another a garage for the wise one's collection of 93 Rolls-Royces.

Turn around and there, almost obscured now by tangles of weeds, is Jesus Grove, a cluster of neat A-frame dwellings that were home to the upper echelons of the commune's hierarchy. It was in one of these, in the bedroom of the Bhagwan's famously acerbic personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, that a plot was hatched in spring 1985 to assassinate the state's highest legal officer, US federal attorney, Charles Turner.

Mr Turner was close to uncovering a pattern of immigration fraud at the commune, where new foreign recruits, many from Britain, entered in sham marriages with US citizens. It was their attendance at these meetings called by Sheela to arrange the disposal of Turner that brought the two British women, Sally-Anne Croft and Susan Hagan, into a Portland federal courthouse a decade later and to their joint trial which ended yesterday.

Now living at large in Switzerland, it was Indian-born Sheela who chose for the cult this 100-square-mile ranch, the "Big Muddy", just outside the tiny town of Antelope, population 39. John Silvertooth, an Antelope native, remembers well that first contact with the cult followers and how the novelty of their arrival became a nightmare. By the time the commune had taken over political control of the town, renamed it Rajneesh and formed its own heavily-armed police force, John, like most of his neighbours, had fled.

"It was kind of like living somewhere that had been occupied by a foreign military power," he said.

Early on, for instance, Rajneesh would go out for a daily spin alone in one of his Rolls-Royces, passing through Antelope on his way to nearby Madras. Not a skilled driver, he would occasionally slide off the road and await the assistance of the local tow-truck company. Over time, these outings developed into virtual military manoeuvres, with heavily armed outriders.

There was much else that was more sinister, however. Aside from targeting Mr Turner - who was never harmed - extraordinary tactics were employed to take control also of the surrounding county, stretching north to the Columbia River. They included bussing in thousands of homeless from around the US to flood the local polls and food poisoning critics to prevent them voting.

The ranch too has bared some unsettling secrets. Beneath those A-frames, for instance, there is a maze of underground tunnels and dwellings, built as a last retreat from the feds for the commune's leaders. Sheela's room has a control panel for an electronic eavesdropping system that extended over the whole campus.

Now returned to Antelope, Mr Silvertooth has no recollection of Ms Croft or Ms Hagan but his main regrets is that it was not Sheela, considered the real mastermind of the plotting, who was in the dock.