I’m a few months late in noting a milestone in American cult history: the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh‘s commune in Oregon, after his followers’ unsuccessful attempt to tilt a local election by tainting some local salad bars. Though I was still in grade school when this all happened, I have vivid memories of the 60 Minutes exposé that showed the commune’s orange-clad denizens lining up to greet their leader as he trundled by in one of his 90-odd Rolls-Royces. Even at that young age, I could tell that something was amiss. The residents of Antelope, the Oregon town that Rajneesh’s disciples tried to take over, certainly agreed; they considered the cultists to be invaders, and celebrated the commune’s disintegration in a fashion typically reserved for military triumphs.
When the cult finally did fall apart (at least on these shores), there was plenty of detritus to sift through. As the trailer for the Swiss documentary Guru makes clear, the Oregon commune boasted considerable stockpiles of both cash and weapons; the settlement’s police, euphemistically known as the “Peace Force,” all brandished late-model Uzis, for example. But the Bhagwan’s most visible asset was his Rolls-Royce collection, and it became an object of desire for a Dallas auto dealer named Bob Roethlisberger—as well as a footnote in the massive savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. An old Texas Monthly story has the goods:
Three days before Thanksgiving of 1985, Dallas luxury-car dealer and Sunbelt Savings client Bob Roethlisberger landed in a private jet at Rancho Rajneesh, Oregon. The ranch was home to the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and Roethlisberger had come to the remote desert community to buy more than seventy cars from the Bhagwan’s Rolls-Royce collection. It would be a difficult deal to finance, because the final sticker price for that many exotic cars would run into the millions. Selling the cars would be equally difficult once they were purchased; 36 of them had been painted by one of the Bhagwan’s staff artists, designed with peacocks and geese in flight and decorated with two-toned metal flake and cotton bolls. That many luxury cars painted in that way would be hard for any market to digest. But Roethlisberger bought 84, and the deal was financed with a note of more than $6 million from a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sunbelt Savings.
Roethlisberger did manage to sell a fair number of the cars, but not nearly enough to pay back his debt obligations. (He died in April 1986, at the age of 40.) Among the vehicles he was unable to unload was a green-and-gold-lace number with teargas guns secreted beneath the fender. Here’s to hoping that it would up in the hands of someone who could appreciate its bizarre lineage.
And by the way, if anyone knows how I can see Guru here in the States, please advise. I’m especially keen to hear the tale of the former Ma Anand Sheela (now Sheela Birnstiel), who was either the Bhagwan’s Lady Macbeth or his convenient scapegoat. She now runs a couple of nursing homes in Switzerland, which is presumably how the Swiss filmmakers got access to her.