Wild Wild History: Key Players in the Rajneeshpuram Episode Come Together for Famous Cases Discussion

By Douglas Pahl

Philip Toelkes was known as Swami Prem Niren when he served as the attorney for Rajneeshpuram. All photos by Owen Schmidt.

In 1981, the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and their community of followers purchased the Big Muddy Ranch near the tiny Oregon town of Antelope. The ambitious experiment soon ignited great concern among the citizens of Antelope as well as among state and federal officials. The resulting legal and cultural controversies – many of them caused or exacerbated by supporters of the Bhagwan – played out in state and national media and in state and federal courtrooms.  Events spiraled from challenging to bizarre to quite dark, and the initially challenging issues of constitutional, voting rights, and land use law issues gave way to fairly obvious issues in the realm of criminal law.  

Judge John Jelderks shares memories and newspaper articles of the time.

On June 27, before a crowd of approximately 300, leading advocates from both sides of the Rajneeshpuram episode revisited the events that captivated Oregonians and the nation in the 1980s and continue to reverberate today. Three speakers made prominent appearances in the highly acclaimed Netflix Original documentary series Wild Wild Country.  The lively event was the latest installment of the Famous Cases series.  The U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society was joined by cosponsors the Oregon Historical Society and the Perkins Coie firm.  Oregon Supreme Court Justice Tom Balmer moderated the discussion by:

Philip Toelkes (a.k.a. Swami Prem Niren), attorney for the Rajneesh

Robert Weaver and William Gary listen to the Wild Wild History presentation.

Robert Weaver, assistant U.S. attorney at the time and lead federal prosecutor

William Gary, lead counsel for Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer on the matter

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Jelderks, who presided over a number of the state court legal proceedings

Thirty-five years later, Oregonians continue to grapple with the Rajneeshpuram episode. It is an extraordinary story of a religious utopian experiment gone wrong.  The strong feelings engendered by these events remain, highlighted poignantly by proceedings in Oregon courtrooms. The Famous Cases program brought together the leading legal advocates to reflect on the most significant issues they faced in and outside courtrooms during that tumultuous time.

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