Peace, Love & Poison

Like a lucky horseshoe, The Dalles runs along a bend on the south side of the Columbia River.  In the 80’s the sleepy little town had just a few thousand people, but was still the largest community in rural Wasco County. 

Fishing and farming were popular activities in this beautiful part of north central Oregon.  And, once night fell, there was little more than a movie theater and a Shakey’s Pizza to keep folks entertained.

One Sunday night in 1984, the owner of that pizza place was getting ready to call it a day when he suddenly doubled over in pain.  Wracked with stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea,  Dave Lutgens would later recall it was the worst he’d ever felt in his life. 

His wife soon became ill as well, and the couple decided it was time to go to the hospital. What they saw there was shocking.

The waiting room was full of people similarly doubled over in pain. They were lining the hallways, and there were patients in every exam room.  Nurses, doctors and other hospital staff were rushing around trying to make more space as the ill continued streaming through the doors.

Within the next week, nearly half of the Shakey’s 28 employees and dozens of their customers all came down with the same kinds of complaints.

Dave began to worry. How did it happen? Could it have been something in the salad bar that was so popular with the Shakey’s crowd?  Or maybe an employee who wasn’t diligent about their hygiene?

The local health department started asking questions as well, as the number of ill continued to climb… 100 cases… then 200. And they discovered that some of the patients hadn’t eaten at Shakey’s, but at a different restaurant in town.

A pathologist identified the problem as Salmonella, a common bacteria that can contaminate food. But, there was nothing common about how this outbreak was spreading.  In the end more than 700 people would fall ill in less than one month.

And, it wasn’t just one or two restaurants involved, but nearly a dozen all across The Dalles and the surrounding area.  Most of those who fell ill reported eating at salad bars.

The county ordered all salad bars shut down and they called in the C.D.C.

Health investigators spoke with patients and their families, inspected restaurants and suppliers, tested the water supply and soil samples.

Salmonella was found in coffee creamer at one restaurant and in the blue cheese salad dressing in another.  But, the question remained: How did it get there?

The C.D.C. decided it was a case of poor hygiene. Someone who didn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom must’ve touched the items on the salad bar.  It seemed far fetched, given how many restaurants were involved, but they simply couldn’t see any other possible explanation.

But, nearby in the tiny town of Antelope, they had a different theory.  They pointed to a mysterious religious leader from India and his thousands of followers who had built a massive commune that they claimed promoted a kind of spiritual rebirth.

It was hard to fathom that this mild-mannered messiah could have been behind such a violent attack.  But, in the end, even the great Bhagwan himself pointed the finger at a member of his flock, his second in command and personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela.

But was Sheela behind the poisonings or was it done on the Bhagwan’s orders?  Why would this group of free-loving farmers, practitioners of meditation, pursuers of spiritual awakening target their small-town neighbors in what had become the largest bioterrism attack in the nation’s history?

And why did it take the F-B-I nearly a year to figure it all out?

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