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Sun, Oct 21, 2001 - Page 4 News List

Bioterror's first US victims offer hope to a nation

CULT ATTACK The small town of The Dalles, near Portland, Oregon, was in 1984 the first place in America hit with germ warfare. The people of the town say that the country will get through this as well


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 US 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 130km 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 40 hectare 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.

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

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.

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