PORTLAND, Ore. -- A $40 million suit was filed Friday against an Indian guru, charging that homeless people bused cross-country to a remote commune were forced away penniless after they refused to become followers.
Attorney Fred Smith filed the federal suit on behalf of three homeless people and asked that as many as 3,000 others eventually be added in a class action against guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
'They put people out of Rajneeshpuram with no clothing or anything, only red pajamas,' Smith said, referring to the sunrise colors worn by the disciples in the guru's city, which is named after him. 'They were promised tickets home and they ought to have got them.'
Rajneeshpuram Mayor Swami Krishna Deva called the charges in the lawsuit 'baseless.'
The Salvation Army and other service organizations in Portland have been inundated with homeless people who left Rajneeshpuram in central Oregon in recent weeks, seeking aid and a trip back to where they had lived.
Many of the street people said they were promised return bus trips to where they were recruited but that they were taken no farther than Portland, 150 miles from the commune-city.
The Rajneesh followers insist that all homeless people promised return bus tickets are getting them.
Attorney Smith said the indigent people received indoctrination in the Rajneesh religion and were repeatedly urged to register and vote in the Nov. 6 election. Wasco County officials charge the guru is attempting to take over local government by electing followers to offices.
The influx of street people in recent weeks has swelled Rajneeshpuram's population to 7,000, making it the seventh largest town in the large land area east of the Cascade mountains in Oregon.
Plaintiff Willie Heart said he was told that he had to 'worship' a minimum of five hours a day and that if he did not agree to this he could 'start walking.'
The suit charges the Rajneeshees told the plaintiffs they could remain in the commune only if they accepted the Rajneesh religion, worked for the religious groups or its various entities and agreed to vote in the election.
Michael Stoops, operator of a service agency for transients in Portland, said many street people told him they were forced to leave the commune without belongings and with no way to get back to where they had lived.
'I could dig up 100 people who would be plaintiffs in this case,' he said.
Smith said he expected all of the homeless people who had been lured to the commune will have left by shortly after the Nov. 6 election.
The suit seeks $10,000 on behalf of each of the homeless, plus $10 million punitive damages. The plaintiffs are John Andrew Irwin and James Michael Taylor, recruited in Richmond, Va. and Heart.