Bio-Attack [Forensic Files] Rajneeshee and Anand Sheela Case Study

Summary of Bio-Attack

A small town “The Dalles” in Oregon witnessed the first-ever case of a biological attack. On 25th September 1984, Dave Lutgens (who owns a hotel) and Sandy Lutgens, along with many other residents became ill with cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. 

Microbiological tests revealed Salmonella which is very rarely fatal. After 10 days, the second wave hit affecting hundreds of people. The water supply test also revealed nothing.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was assigned to trace the outbreak. Dr. Michael Skeels observed a very rare strain of Salmonella in all patients. After 2 months, the State of Oregon reported poor hygiene and cross-contamination causing the outbreak. 

But, the local police were suspicious of a religious cult “The Rajneeshees” started by “Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh” in 1981 and operated by “Ma Anand Sheela” which had a political conflict with the local commune. 

On October 1985, Bhagwan was charged with lying on the visa application. The officials along with Dr. Skeels, upon raiding the compound, found vials of various bacteria including “Salmonella typhimurium”. 

CDC analyzed the samples using the “Plasmid profiling technique”. The plasmid profile matched the profile of bacteria found in patients. It was revealed that Rajneeshees caused the outbreak. 

Rajneesh was arrested in North Carolina, pleaded guilty to immigration violations, fined $400,000, and sentenced to leave the country. 

Sheela and Puja (Head of Rajneesh medical clinic) were extradited from Europe, pleaded guilty to attempted murder and engineering the Salmonella outbreak, were fined $469,000, and sentenced to prison. 

Forensic Evidence Against Rajneeshee in the case

1. Bacteria samples along with the vial of Salmonella typhimuriumOn searching the medical facility in Rajneeshpuram, Dr. Mike Skeels and FBI officials found various bacteria samples and a vial of Salmonella Typhimurium. The Plasmid profile matched with Salmonella found in patients. This was the first direct evidence of the involvement of Rajneeshee in the outbreak.
2. Manuals for making explosivesFBI also found many manuals for making explosives while searching the compound for immigration violations. 
3. Bio-terrorism/Bio-warfare articlesFBI also found many articles related to Bio-terrorism and Bio-warfare while.

Who was behind the Dalles Outbreak? Why they poisoned the residents of Dalles, Oregon with Salmonella?

“The Rajneeshees”- a religious cult founded by “Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh” were behind the Dalles outbreak. 

The chief planners were: Sheela Silverman (Maa Anand Sheela), Rajneesh’s chief Lieutenant, and Diane Yvonne Onang (Maa Anand Puja).

  1. The Rajneeshees were led by Maa Anand Sheela for the planning and implementation of the Bio-attack. Initially, she worked as a personal assistant to Rajneesh. Later, she was appointed as president of Rajneesh Foundation International.
  1. Diane Yvonne Onang (Maa Anand Puja) worked as a nurse practitioner and secretary-treasurer of the Rajneesh Medical Corporation.

The Rajneeshees were being denied building permits for Rajneeshpuram (An international community in Wasco County, Oregon). So, they wanted to take control rest of the county (After gaining control of “Antelope”) by winning November 1984 County election. 

Hence, they planned to poison the voters of The Dalles (where most of the county’s voters reside), making them sick and incapable to vote.

How did Rajneeshees plan and poison Dalles residents?

The plan for poisoning the Dalles resident took place in several attempts as follows:

1st experiment (August 1984): The commune’s people (dressed in regular clothing) sprayed the bacteria on door knobs, handles, and produce in local supermarkets. The attempt was unsuccessful.

2nd experiment (September 1984): They sprayed on the salad bars in 10 local restaurants. The delivery tactic was to contaminate the salad with brown liquid (Salsa which contains Salmonella). This attempt made approximately 750 people ill. 

The final plan was to contaminate the city’s water supply before the November election.

What were the common places that be the reason for the Salmonella outbreak?

The places that were the reason for the outbreak were ten local restaurants.

The Rajneeshees (pretending to be residents of the city) carried a plastic bag containing brown liquid (referred to as “Salsa” containing Salmonella) and spread it over the food at salad bars or poured it into salad dressing.

What are Plasmid profiling and Working? How does it help the case and Forensic Science?

Plasmids are extra-chromosomal molecules of DNA, which are circular in structure and capable of replication. These are found in many bacteria. They vary in length in various species. 

Plasmid profile analysis consists of the study of the size and number of plasmids occurring in a bacterial species. This forms the basis of the differentiation of various bacterial species.

The general procedure of plasmid profiling consists of the following steps:

  1. Lysis of bacterial cells.
  2. Separation of chromosomal DNA, proteins, and RNA.
  3. Concentrating plasmid DNA.
  4. Restriction enzyme digestion of plasmid DNA.
  5. Separating the restriction digest of plasmid by agarose gel electrophoresis.
  6. Visualization of the gel and comparison with the species of interest.

Advantage: A single set of reagents and equipment is applicable to a wide range of bacteria.

In this case, the matching of the plasmid profile of Salmonella obtained from the medical facility at Rajneeshpuram with that of Salmonella from the patient’s samples leads to the fact that Rajneeshees were involved in the outbreak.

Further investigation leads to Sheela’s involvement in planning and Puja’s involvement in designing and executing the attack.

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General FAQ

Who were Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Ma Anand Sheela?

  • Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Also known as Osho) was a mystic guru from India who led the foundation of the Rajneesh movement. He preached the benefit of meditation and free love.
  • Maa Anand Sheela was the personal assistant of Rajneesh. Later, she became president of the Rajneesh International Foundation.

Who was the suspected biologist that possibly build the Salmonella strain?

  • Diane Yvonne Onang (Maa Anand Puja) working as the medical practitioner in the medical facility possibly build the Salmonella strain. 
  • She was convicted of attempted murder, electronic eavesdropping, and engineering Salmonella outbreak. 
  • She was sentenced to 15,15,7.5 and 4.5 years of prison. But, on account of her good behavior, released on parole after 29 months.

Are Rajneeshees successful in their first plan?

In the first trial, the Rajneeshees sprayed the bacteria on the door knobs, handles, and produce of grocery shops. This was an unsuccessful attempt.

What were the charges/conviction against Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Ma Anand Sheela?

  • Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was charged with deliberate violations of immigration laws. He received a ten-year suspension and a fine of $400,000.
  • Maa Anand Sheela was charged with multiple charges for poisoning, attempted murder, wiretapping, and immigration fraud. She was sentenced, in total, to 64 years of prison and a fine of $469,000.

Where Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Ma Anand Sheela now?

  • Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, after deportation from the US, returned to India, revived his ashram in Pune, and died in 1990.
  • Ma Anand Sheela was released on parole after 29 months due to good behavior and deported to Germany. Later she married Urs Birnsteil in Switzerland. She now manages two nursing homes.

What happens to Rajneeshees after both of their leaders get caught?

  • In 1985, the city of Rajneesh was disbanded by the district court in Portland.
  • After the conviction of both leaders, many members left the cult and joined their families. 
  • Many sold Rolls Royce and started new lives.
  • Some continue to travel in search of purpose.


  • Bioterrorism: Challenges and considerations [NCBI]
  • The Cult Behind The Largest Bioterrorist Attack In U.S. History [YouTube]
  • How a Cult Used Salad Bars to Orchestrate the Worst Bioterror Attack in US History [Vice]
  • The Story behind netflix new Docuseries… [Businessinsider]
  • Use of plasmid profiles in epidemiologic surveillance of disease outbreaks….. [NCBI]
  • Plasmid [Nature]
  • Plasmid Profile Typing and Plasmid Fingerprinting [Springer]
  • Plasmid Profile Analysis [Slideshare]
  • A Large Community Outbreak of Salmonellosis….. [CDC]