After more than three decades, John Silvertooth, believed he’d finally put the memories to rest about the time the Indian cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and thousands of his devotees in bright red clothes descended — and then took over — tiny Antelope, Oregon, in the early 1980s.
Over the course of four years, the self-styled “sex guru” and his followers unleashed a campaign of terror in central Oregon that included a mass salmonella poisoning which sickened over 700 people, murder plots against public officials, a massive wiretapping campaign, voter fraud and arson.
“We were victims who got turned into pawns and captives,” Silvertooth, 66, the last remaining resident of Antelope who lived through the commune’s siege, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “We never thought they would leave.”
Rajneesh died in 1990, but the cult leader — who owned a reported 85 Rolls-Royces and whose teachings included a mishmash of meditation techniques, open sexuality, raunchy jokes and an affinity for luxury items — is back in the news thanks to the popular Netflix documentary Wild Wild County.
And the millions of viewers who have watched the six-part series can’t stop talking about the heavily-armed group’s riveting, long-forgotten story that many Oregon officials at the time feared might end in a massive loss of life.
“It’s been exciting to see so many people really dive into the complexities of this story,” says filmmaker Chapman Way, who, together with his brother Maclain, created the series that chronicles the clashes between the Rajneesheess — as Bhagwan’s followers were called — and Oregon locals. The series relies heavily on long-lost archival footage and interviews with many key figures.
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By the time the strange chapter was over in 1985, Rajneesh, along with 21 of his closest followers — including his deputy/spokeswoman Ma Anand Sheela — who attempted to build a utopian society on a 64,000-acre ranch, known as Rajneeshpuram, outside of Antelope, were indicted on dozens of federal charges that included immigration fraud, conspiracy and attempted murder.
Many cult followers went to jail. Rajneesh, who was arrested while trying to flee the country in his private Lear jet, later pleaded guilty to immigration law violations, fined $400,000, before returning to his native India where he died in 1990 at 58 of heart failure.
“It was a very tense time,” recalls former Jefferson district attorney Michael Sullivan, who spent 12 days in an intensive care unit after the group reportedly poisoned him with arsenic-laced coffee in 1983. “Those of us who lived through it are just grateful it ended peacefully.”