Ore. Town Never Recovered From Scare

The Associated Press/October 19, 2001
By Gillian Flaccus

The Dalles, Ore. -- In 1984, followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh spiked salad bars at 10 restaurants in town with salmonella and sickened about 750 people.

The cult members had hoped to incapacitate so many voters that their own candidates in the county elections would win. The scheme failed, but the episode spread fear in The Dalles and drained the town's economy.

Seventeen years later, there are lots of things this quiet town would like to be known for - its lush cherry groves, its renovated downtown and its grand views of the sweeping Columbia River, among them. But not its role as the site of the first bioterrorism attack in modern U.S. history.

Some townspeople are bothered that the story is being retold as the news media cover the national anthrax scare.

"We didn't ever expect it to raise its ugly head again and it's not good,'' said Karen LeBreton, a food-poisoning victim who was Wasco County deputy clerk at the time. "For us, in small-town America, it was very overwhelming.''

The Dalles, a town of 12,000 people about 80 miles from Portland, is suffering badly in the weak national economy, said Susan Huntington, Chamber of Commerce director. The closing of two aluminum factories and a downturn in the cherry market have cost 700 jobs in the past year, she said.

The renewed publicity about the 1984 poisonings "doesn't exactly make people want to pack up their families and move here,'' Huntington said.

There was little national attention given to the salmonella poisonings in the years immediately afterward, largely because it occurred in a remote town and was perpetrated by a fanatical fringe group, said Gary Perlstein, a Portland State University professor and terrorism expert.

"They assumed that it would never happen again,'' said Perlstein, who wrote about the poisonings in his 1991 book "Perspectives on Terrorism.''

A brand-new book on bioterrorism, "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War,'' devotes an entire chapter to the outbreak.

Some residents say the episode was good preparation for the anthrax threat.

"We lived with that fear on a daily basis,'' said Sue Proffitt, who was Wasco County clerk in 1984 and was among those who fell ill. "We understand in The Dalles how bioterrorism can happen.''

Beginning in 1981, Rajneesh assembled nearly 7,000 followers on a 100-square-mile ranch south of town. The cult members incorporated their commune as a city, created an intimidating police force, stockpiled weapons and took over the city council of nearby Antelope.

The cult plotted to win two of three Wasco County judgeships and the sheriff's office by incapacitating non-Rajneeshee voters in The Dalles.

The cult members had planned to contaminate The Dalles' water supply. The salad bar contamination was a test of the salmonella.

Residents suspected the cult members were behind the poisonings, and went to the polls in droves to make sure they didn't win any of the county positions.

The outbreak cost restaurants hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Dave Lutgens, former owner of Shakey's Pizza Restaurant, said he lost about $300,000 in sales and $165,000 in liability claims when 400 of his customers got sick.

"We were thinking it was dirty employees or hepatitis,'' he said. "Health inspectors checked all the food and closed the salad bar.''

In the months that followed, many residents feared cult members would try to spread the AIDS virus or poison the water.

"People were so horrified and so scared,'' said Laura Bentley. "People wouldn't go out, they wouldn't go out alone. People were becoming prisoners.''

The cult came apart in 1985 and some cult leaders became prosecution witnesses.

In 1986, two leading cult members pleaded no contest to the salmonella poisoning, among other things, and served four years in prison. They then fled to Europe before prosecutors could pursue further charges.

The cult's leader, Rajneesh, was fined $400,000 for immigration fraud and died in India in 1990.

More than 20 other cult members were indicted on charges ranging from immigration violations to concocting a plot - never carried out - to murder a federal prosecutor.

A bronze statue of an antelope stands in front of the county courthouse in The Dalles, a gift from Antelope. A plaque reads: "In order for evil to prevail, good men should do nothing.''

"That's kind of our ongoing message - that you can't just stand by,'' Huntington said. "We certainly survived it, and I think the nation also needs to hear that. It's a great American message.''

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