Same Old Leopard, Same Old Spots

Remembering Here&Now

Part three of Max Brecher’s analysis on the ‘Controversial American Commune’.

For those sannyasins who could stomach reading even snips and bits of “For Love and Money” it was like watching some of their most memorable and meaningful moments ripped out of context and pasted into a porno flick. And it left them with a lasting loathing for the likes of Les Zaitz.

How dare they? Hadn’t they taken his best meant efforts a bit too personally back then, Zaitz queried in his February 18, 2011 email to Ma Anand Bhagawati. And weren’t they being a tad too touchy and “paranoid” now?

So, for those who still harbor their misgivings, I find that unfortunate. They must still fear the truth, and that’s all I’ve ever been interested in. I truly thought my effort to reach out globally to solicit memories would be welcomed. I have had some wonderful responses ‑ honest, candid and sharing. This remains a chance for many of those not responsible for the criminal conduct to share with the greater world their perspective on these matters. That responding to such a request somehow might not be a good idea implies somehow that being honest is not a good idea.

Oregonian Front Page 17 Sept 85

Apparently, Zaitz is a true believer in the old adage that the best defense is a good offense. And giving offense is something he’s very good at. But even if the sannyasins had been absolutely correct about his unbalanced and biased reporting in the old days, they might be totally wrong about him now. Right? After all, a lot of water had gone down both the Columbia and Ganges since then, and some leopards do change their spots.

Any delusions about that being even a remote possibility was put to rest in the first two paragraphs of the new, improved five part series (six if you include his “personal” story and the non-interview with Ma Anand Sheela he flew all the way to Switzerland to get). [1]

In a nearly unbelievable chapter of Oregon history, a guru from India gathered 2,000 followers to live on a remote eastern Oregon ranch. The dream collapsed 25 years ago amid attempted murders, criminal charges and deportations. But the whole story was never made public. With first-ever access to government files, and some participants willing to talk for the first time, it’s clear things were far worse than we realized.

What follows is an inside look ‑ based on witness statements, grand jury transcripts, police reports, court records and fresh interviews ‑ at how Rajneesh leaders tried to skirt land-use and immigration laws only to have their schemes collapse to the point they decided killing Oregonians was the only way to save their religious utopia. [2]

By now it shouldn’t be rocket science to recognize the same old spots firing on all 12 cylinders. But it will take more background than the average ‑ or even educated ‑ reader has to notice and remark on the false advertizing, lack of professionalism and unrepentant prejudices running rampant throughout those 124 words and the nearly 10,000 waiting in the wings. So much so that a plain vanilla journalism professor could use it as a textbook example of how not to write a story purporting to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

First, the sense of breathless revelation. This is new stuff, folks, and you’re hearing it for the first time and from yours truly. In fact, what Zaitz was slopping out in heavily larded and lurid detail was old wine in even older bottles. Crimes, such as the salmonella poisoning of more than 700 people in The Dalles and the attempted murder of Swami Devaraj, Rajneesh’s personal physician. And plots like the conspiracy to kill the US Attorney in Oregon Charles Turner and Les Zaitz himself.

All these old hats were first made public in September and October 1985 after Sheela, Rajneesh’s secretary who had increasingly seen her “boss” as a dispensable eyesore in her global vision, had flown the coop. A few former co-conspirators remaining at Rajneeshpuram then came out of the shadows and disclosed a goggle of “Huh? What?” activities top management had been up to and thinking about.

Some of those witnesses were, to say the least, in very compromising positions. Others were insiders pur sang and up to their hairlines in complicity and guilt. The first thing Rajneesh did was blow the whistle on “Sheela and her fascist gang” and urge all sannyasins who knew anything about what had been secretly going on to fully cooperate with a whole gamut of state, county and federal officials. There was no standard damage control, coverup and containment, and thus nothing for intrepid Tintin reporters to expose or reveal. [3]

If anyone knew all that, it was The Oregonian reporter who had been living, breathing, eating and sleeping with this story for as long as he could remember. But then and since he has righteously refused to accept that the scandals were the work of a limited number of individuals and the buck stopped at Sheela. For as far as he and a lot of others are concerned ‑ indeed the overwhelming majority of his eternally outraged and personally offended target audience [4] ‑ Rajneesh’s claim about not knowing anything about the criminal acts was a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Zaitz and they believe in their hearts, minds and guts that Rajneesh was Top Dog out there, and not only knew about everything going on in the “buddhafield”, but had also actively masterminded it. That no two ways about it message was repeatedly drilled in and droned out in a special 10 page wrap up about Rajneeshpuram on December 30, 1985 and again in the latest contribution to the annals of propaganda posing as investigative journalism.

v “Government authorities in India, weary of the Rajneesh’s growing notoriety, cracked down on his group’s unseemly and illegal behavior, including smuggling and tax fraud. The guru ran, ending up half a globe away at the Big Muddy Ranch, 100 square miles of rangeland an hour’s drive north of Madras.”

v “In India, trickery and bribery got results. Why would Oregon be any different?”

v “Coached by the Bhagwan, Sheela became adept at using the press to her advantage.” [5]

v “KD [6] complained in a letter to the guru that the insults were impairing efforts to build the commune. The guru’s response was blunt: You’re a coward. KD swallowed the insult and kept his place at the inner circle of the ranch. Later, he used his insider knowledge to get a lenient plea deal for himself ‑ and to help send Sheela to prison.” [7]

v “Yet the guru they worshiped, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, pushed for even more extreme acts.” [8]

That’s another difference between an investigation and prosecution. In an investigation you are innocent until proven guilty. In a prosecution it’s the other way around.

But in a bizarre stories within stories, where you couldn’t keep track of all the players and plots with the most up to date scorecard, there was for once some prima facie logic in the assumption of Rajneesh’s direct involvement. So in February and March 1989 I, the out of state boy, interviewed most of the up to speed local players in the investigations. US Attorney Charles Turner, Assistant US Attorney Robert Weaver, Governor Vic Atiyeh, Wasco County District Attorney Bernie Smith, and Robert Hamilton, the attorney general in charge of the organized crime section of the department. In short, just about everyone who would talk to me.

I asked them if there was any credible evidence for Rajneesh’s participation, active or otherwise, in any of the plots and crimes exposed. And if so, I’d like to see it. Their responses differed in degrees of frustration and varieties of “you’d have to guess” and “KD has a theory about”. KD, as we know, was Krishna Deva, later David Knapp, the former mayor of Rajneeshpuram who was no escape clauses active ‑ not merely “participating” ‑ in all the heavy criminal activity.

But by then he had seen the light at the end of a going to jail forever tunnel, made an extenuating circumstances deal with Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, and Hey, Presto!, was suddenly on the side of the angels. And from that moment on everything he said that was in strict lock step and lip sync with what various prosecutors’ wanted to hear ‑ that is, their versions of the truth ‑ was miraculously made not only credible, but also true.

But even with his “tell all” testimony ‑ trotted out repeatedly over the years and at perpetual gunpoint ‑ the bottom line was that there was no credible evidence linking Rajneesh to any of the crimes, much less all of them. Nothing that would stand up in court and under the intense scrutiny of well paid, highly trained and no holds barred defense attorneys and a judge, jury and public demanding to know the full truth, not one sucked out of a whole range of conspiracy theorists’ thumbs and photoshopped.

Game over? In an investigation, yes. In a prosecution, no. In a prosecution the game’s never over until you finally find what you’ve been looking for all along. Even if it’s not there.

As far as I know, which is pretty far, local boy Les Zaitz never asked these for him easy to reach officials anything so straight from the hip. Or if he did, he never printed it. Why not? Because the bottom line answers didn’t slot neatly into his hard fought for and supposed to be page turning ‑ and possibly Pulitzer prize winning ‑ narrative. In fact, they contradict and even undermine it. And such a non-story is not only inadmissible evidence, it is also a personal affront to everything the senior investigative reporter has up to now stood for and on.


[1] “I’d traveled halfway around the world to interview her about her days in Oregon 25 years earlier as Ma Anand Sheela” is how he described it. (“The Oregonian’s Les Zaitz on investigating the Rajneeshees (personal essay)”, Part 6, April 2011)

[2] Les Zaitz, “25 years after Rajneeshee commune collapsed, truth spills out”, Part 1, April 14, 2011

[3] Howard Kurz of The Washington Post recommends the following strategy for media outlets caught with their pants down. “If there’s bad news, break it yourself. There’s nothing worse than watching helplessly while rival media outlets slice you into little pieces. By getting out front, you get to dictate the spin on the story and ensure that your explanations are included in everyone’s follow-up piece.

“If you admit to a negative, you get credit for a positive. Eating a healthy serving of crow helps shift the spotlight from the original blunder to your valiant efforts to deal with it. A full confession also removes any taint of a coverup.” (Howard Kurz, “Why the Press is Always Right”, Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 1993, p. 35) But that tactic only works if people are willing to give the offending organization a bit of slack. Which was not at all the case with the Rajneeshees ‑ then or since ‑ in Oregon.

[4] Media critic Edward Herman has written, “And if the story has been portrayed with authority and indignation as true, it becomes difficult to imagine an alternative view as credible. This helps to close down critical investigation into the issues and to justify exclusion of dissenting opinion.” (Herman, op. cit. (see note 7 above), p. 138)

[5] The source of this scoop is Sheela, as reported in one of Zaitz’s own earlier stories (“Guru a master of publicity stunt”, The Oregonian, October 29, 1985). “‘I think that even if one would spend a fortune to study professional publicity, one couldn’t learn as much as I have with bhagwan,’ Sheela said in a recent interview published in the German magazine Stern. ‘And he never ran out of ideas. He had an acute sense of timing when journalists started to get bored with his insults on Mother Teresa. That’s why we had to come up with something new.'”

[6] Swami Krishna Deva, aka David Berry Knapp.

[7] All four quotes from Les Zaitz, “25 years after Rajneeshee commune collapsed, truth spills out”, Part 1, April 14, 2011. For this KD letter and “response”, see the scoop from Ma Ava Avalos below and my comments on them. As for his testimony sending Sheela to prison, those even partially in the know should ask, “What specific testimony is Zaitz talking about?” and “Sent her to prison for what and how long?”.

[8] Les Zaitz, “Rajneeshee leaders take revenge on The Dalles’ with poison, homeless”, Part 3. While the date on The Oregonian‘s official website is listed as April 14, 2011, I assume that it was actually printed on April 16, 2011. Thus, as with the previous series, “For Love and Money”, one part a day. But I could be wrong.

 

Max Brecher is a communications specialist living in Amsterdam. Besides  A Passage to America, he is the author of 9 more books. 

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