Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Where the Gaudy Wheels Went

January 12th, 2011 · 10 Comments

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.


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    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brendan I. Koerner. Brendan I. Koerner said: How the Bhagwan's Rolls-Royce collection played into the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis: http://bit.ly/e0nOre […]

  • Captured Shadow

    Wasn’t it Congressman Weaver who accused the Rashnesees of crimes (from the floor of the house where libel laws don’t reach)? I thought he was kind of nuts, then the salad bar attack was revealed – although the Department of health missed it at the time.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Definitely check out Weaver’s own recollections of the drama, published last October in The Register-Guard:


  • scottstev

    I’d be interested in that film, but Bloom County’s treatment of the subject sets a high bar (as always).

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: Heh, had totally forgotten about Bloom County’s Bhagwan satire. Tough to overstate how much I loved that strip in junior high. Next time I go back to my Los Angeles, I’m digging all my Bloom County collections out of storage. They need to become part of my adult library.

  • ADW

    When you find out where to view this gem, let us know – please.

    As a ’70’s child of the Bay, I’m absolutely fascinated by cults. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been approached by recruiters, all wearing that blanked-eyed stare. I will admit that I was somewhat traumitized by the Jonestown event. I was young and my parents knew people who perished. On the playground, my friends and I would play games where we’d pretend to drink the kool-aid and die while someone pointed a shotgun at us. Sounds sick, but kids deal with death in strange ways. And, boy, was it a fucking doozy, very close to Harvey Milk & Mayor Moscone being shot (I was home alone from school that day, and saw the events unfold in real time.) Also, my very early youth was spent worrying about Patti Hearst, who was kidnapped ten minutes from my house. On the t.v. every night, it would read something like, “Patti Hearst kidnapping, day 182.” The trifecta of whatthefuckery of my youth.

    As a result, I’m not a joiner. No organized religion – nothing. But, I’m absolutely fascinated by people who fall prey to these guru/messiahs. WTF?

    The tale of the cars is hilarious. And scary. Like, wouldn’t the people be suspicious of a religious figure with such an interest in material things? I look around today to answer my own question – nope.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @ADW: Right, never understood why some people can’t see that certain leaders are all about the money. They don’t do much to hide that fact–and sometimes, they even celebrate their wealth as part of their aura.

    The last interview in Murakami’s “Underground,” about the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, nails the mindset. Worth reading if you haven’t already.

  • Joyce Tandry

    Yes, those Rajneeshees were some cult all rght. Educated people, working long long hours to build their dream utopia when they could have been earning high wages and living in great luxury in cultivated jobs in Salem or Portland… laughing, singing, having a good time, enjoying both the material extravagance of a vegetarian diet (vegetables! Yuk!) And indulging in the glamorous sultry landscape of a John Wayne desert… and all dressed in weird bright colours. Red and orange clothes for heaven’s sake – what could have got into them? They must have been drunk! So glad we got rid of them – after all, five thousand people living together (together, imagine that!) on a remote desert ranch full of dust and mud… what could have been more dangerous and threatening? And singing and making music while their guru drives by in a Rolls Royce!…. bless my soul, how scary and ungodly.

  • Mark

    I know where one of the cars ended up: in my mother’s driveway. Yes, she purchased Rajneesh’s 1982 Silver Spur in possibly the ugliest baby blue one could imagine. It had what we know as the gold package, hood ornament and all – dipped in gold. I remember reading through the owner’s manual as a 15 year old and seeing the oringinal warrnanty card that read Rajneesh Investments. My mother was, as the time, president of the now defunct KIAB, Channel 23 in Dallas. This would have been her third Rolls Royce. She was as gay as a french horn and the cars fit her well (I was an adoptee).

  • The Fate of a Rajneeshee Rolls | Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

    […] And so let me offer a cosmically enormous high five to the reader who recently responded to this January 2011 post about the Rolls-Royce fleet once owned by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. I mentioned that 84 of the cars […]