Rajneeshpuram: Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago, on November 14, 1985, Osho left the United States of
America. His leaving was the beginning of the end for Rajneeshpuram, the
miraculous sannyasin city that had sprung up in the desert of Oregon only
five years before. It had been home to Osho and to thousands of sannyasins
for those years, and the experience left its indelible mark on all who went there. To mark the occasion, we are printing two stories – one is the story of Osho’s lawyer during the terrible days of Osho’s arrest, incarceration, and release; and the other is a wry look back at one sannyasin’s years of adventures since that time.


A Master’s Flight

by Swami Prem Niren

On the late morning of October 24, 1985 I received a phone call from Ma Prem Isabel, my beautiful wife. She said, in an uncharacteristically anxious tone, without preamble, “Meet me at Jesus Grove right away.” Knowing that something big was up, I headed over to Jesus Grove, the residence and work place of Ma Prem Hasya, Osho’s new personal secretary.

When I reached Jesus Grove, Isabel told me that she had just gotten a telephone call from Richard Draper, a television newscaster for the CBS affiliate in Portland, Oregon. Draper said that he had received a rumor that indictments were imminent for Osho and others for immigration fraud. After telling Hasya and Swami Dhyan John of the rumors, Isabel and I tried to check them out more deeply. Within a couple of hours, we had discovered that the source of the rumors was within the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, and that the report had been given to CBS Evening News in New York. The rumor seemed reliable.

Still, that same rumor had arisen on a couple of prior occasions over the past year. An Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) investigation had been going on for almost four years, and over a year before had been referred from the INS to the US Attorney in Portland for criminal investigation and prosecution. Every time the rumor reoccurred, the usual levels of high anxiety would go through the roof, and I would try to chase down the rumors and prepare for the possibility of Osho being arrested. I was horrified at the potential of my Master being incarcerated in some jail and was doing everything possible to prevent it.

In June of that year, when similar rumors had surfaced, I had found and retained Peter Schey, a nationally respected immigration lawyer from Los Angeles, to represent Osho. In July Schey had met with Charles Turner, US Attorney for Oregon, to discuss the possible arrest and prosecution of Osho. Both sides expressed great concern at the potential for violence if federal officials attempted to “invade” the Ranch to arrest Osho.

During the July meeting, Turner confirmed the existence of an ongoing investigation, but would not confirm an imminent indictment or arrest. Schey and Turner reached an agreement, however, that if an arrest warrant were issued against Osho, Schey would be contacted by Turner’s office and given an opportunity to meet with him to discuss voluntary surrender. Turner assured Schey that in the event an agreement could not be reached, the matter could be taken before a United States magistrate before Osho would be taken into custody.
After verifying the rumors, I telephoned Schey that afternoon. I told him of the rumors, and he agreed to immediately fly to Portland to meet with Turner. The next day, Thursday, Schey met again with Turner. Turner again refused to confirm that any indictment had been issued, but reaffirmed the agreement to negotiate for voluntary surrender before any arrest. In light of this reassurance, Schey returned to Los Angeles.

Two days later, on Saturday, I received further information from several sources that an indictment had been issued and an arrest was imminent. I again called Schey, and he flew back to Portland and met with me. On Sunday I met with Schey and Jack Ransom, another highly skilled criminal defense attorney who had been helping the commune deal with the criminal investigations. We agreed that another effort had to be made to arrange a voluntary surrender. At approximately 4 pm Schey telephoned Turner at home and told him that he had further information that an indictment had already been issued. Turner again told Schey that he could not confirm the issuance of an indictment.

I phoned Hasya at the Ranch and told her of the substance of the conversation. While we attorneys were readying to head for the airport to fly back to Rajneeshpuram, I got a call from Isabel. Isabel asked, “What’s going on?” I told her of the conversation with Turner. Isabel said, “I don’t mean that. What is happening?” I asked her what she had been hearing. Isabel said that she had just been told by people at the airport that Osho had gotten onto a private jet at Rajneeshpuram. “Oh shit,” I thought, and felt sick to my stomach. We then left and headed for the airport in Portland.

Immediately after we got on the ground in Rajneeshpuram we piled into a car and headed to Jesus Grove. Hasya confirmed that Osho had flown out with a few close disciples on two jets, for a “vacation.” Hasya said that since the US Attorney had denied the existence of an indictment or an imminent arrest, she had suggested that Osho go away for a few days because of the intense pressure – including the threat of an invasion of the Ranch by the INS and the Oregon National Guard, with a high probability that there would be violence directed at Osho’s disciples. Osho had agreed to the suggestion, and He and eight sannyasins had flown out of the Ranch at 5:30 pm. The pilots of the rented jets had filed flight plans with the FAA, giving Charlotte, North Carolina, as their destination. There was no apparent effort made to conceal His departure. As it happened, undercover federal officers were at Rajneeshpuram and had observed the jets taking off.

All of the attorneys looked at each other with shock and dismay. They told Hasya that leaving Oregon, or the United States, at this stage of the investigation could create serious problems and the perception of flight from prosecution. We strongly urged Hasya to try to reach the plane and to tell it to turn around. For the next several hours, repeated efforts were made to reach the people on the planes by phone and radio but they were unsuccessful. Repeated requests were made to the FAA for them to contact the plane by radio, but they never did.
At about 11 pm Hasya received a call from Charlotte advising her that the planes had landed and that all of the passengers had been arrested. Immediately, a hurried effort was made to find a lawyer for Osho in Charlotte. A sannyasin from the area recommended a man named Bill Diehl, who I telephoned at his home. After briefly discussing the case, I asked Diehl if he would have any problem representing the leader of a minority religion, a so-called cult. Mr. Diehl responded in his slow, sleepy, southern voice, “Well, you’ll have to decide for yourself, but I’ve represented a lot of people who you couldn’t call popular.” Feeling a moment’s relief, I put my hand over the phone and said to Hasya and the other lawyers, “I think we’ve got the right guy.”

I arranged to meet with Mr. Diehl the following morning, and asked him to find out where Osho and the others were being held, and to go there to try to be of assistance. Hasya, Schey, and I arrived in Charlotte the next morning. Bill Diehl advised us that a 34-count federal indictment, naming Osho, Sheela, and six others, had been issued on October 23. An arrest warrant had been issued the same day. Thus, the indictment and arrest warrant, which Mr. Turner had refused to confirm or deny, had been issued before the meeting between him and Schey. Despite his promise to do so, Mr. Turner had refused to discuss voluntary surrender with Schey. Osho had been denied the information that He was about to be arrested because of Mr. Turner, and so the government had been free to ambush and arrest Him in Charlotte. This served to further their goal of destroying the commune and getting Osho out of the country, even without any real evidence to support the case against Him.

After Federal District Court Judge Barbara Delaney refused to grant bail in Charlotte, Osho was flown from jail to jail around the United States, until He was finally returned to Portland on November 7. Following His release on bail on November 9, after 12 days in custody, a plea deal was negotiated with the US Attorney. Osho’s arrest, and the following days in which He was moved around the country, gave the US government and Turner the opportunity to put pressure on Osho to leave the United States. Otherwise, their case would likely have been defeated in court.

After Osho was released on bail and had returned to the Ranch, He met with me, Jack Ransom, and Brian O’Neill, a prominent Los Angeles criminal attorney who we had hired to help with the criminal case. Osho asked all the lawyers their opinions about the case, and all the attorneys replied that the case against Him was very weak, and that He would probably win. I looked at Osho and said, “They want to get you. If they are ready to act against their own laws, as they have already done, they will not stop even if you win this case. They will try something else. Their illegal and violent acts prove to me that we cannot guarantee your physical safety.”

Osho was silent for a few moments and then said, “If they would fight fair and in court, I would fight this to the end. But my body cannot stand any more of what they have done. Make arrangements for me to leave.”

Jack Ransom led the negotiations with Charles Turner. Turner, knowing he had a very weak case, was very eager to make a deal. The hardest part for us lawyers was that the government case was so weak that we had a hard time finding facts that we could agree the government could prove, which is an essential element of the technical form of plea we were using. We finally agreed on facts about Sheela’s actions, with respect to which there was really no evidence that Osho played any role. But it was enough to get a deal done.

n November 14, at 4 pm, Osho appeared in Judge Leavey’s courtroom in the United States District Court, and entered the negotiated plea, while continuing to maintain His innocence. He then went immediately to the Portland Airport and boarded a private jet to leave the United States – never to return. I stood watching the plane taxi away. The cold Oregon wind was cooling the tears running down my face. I watched the jet slowly rise against the darkening sky and Osho’s departure from America. I was relieved that Osho was at last safe from further government assaults on His body. I was exhausted, empty, overwhelmed with loss, and still overflowing with the love of my Master. This incredible Master of Masters, who brought love and truth to America, had now been driven from America. Not for anything He had done, but for who He was and what He shared: sat-chit-anand, truth-consciousness-bliss.

I have always felt that the events that led to Osho leaving the Ranch were the most ambiguous events of a very ambiguous time. Everyone had their own experience, and no one has the truth. When Charles Turner was interviewed after Osho’s departure from the United States, he acknowledged that the criminal legal system had been used to solve a political problem. He stated that he believed if they could get Osho out of the United States His community would dissolve. Perhaps that is why he failed to keep his agreement to negotiate a voluntary surrender. It gave the government the opportunity to arrest Osho, and then drag Him from jail to jail, endangering His health. The upstanding and self-righteous guardians of “the home of the brave and the land of the free” required Osho’s departure from America, despite the weakness of the legal case against Him.

A note: It has taken me years to recover from the trauma and loss of the Oregon experience. I remember walking down Portland streets during the Ranch days, and hearing people yell at me, “Go home!” Born in Oregon, I wanted to yell back, “I was born here. I am home.” But it wasn’t home, except when Osho was there. While He was alive, home for me was where He was. In the years since, I have sought the home within, to which so often He pointed. I still feel tremendous sadness that His love and vision remains largely unknown amidst the insanity and violence of the planet. Every day I love Him, find Him in my heart, and am grateful.

©2005 Philip Toelkes