The popular Netflix series, Wild Wild Country (which just won an Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series), has placed the compelling story of the Rajneeshee cult community back in the spotlight. Led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Ma Anand Sheela, the commune was active in Wasco County, Oregon during the early 1980s. Tonkon Torp attorneys were involved in three well-documented lawsuits that helped to halt the fraudulent actions of the Rajneeshees and restore assets to former members of the cult.
In the earliest lawsuit, retired founding partner Don Marmaduke and former Tonkon Torp attorney Mark Cushing defended Rosemary McGreer, a Wasco County rancher. The Rajneesh religious organization sued McGreer for defamation over remarks she made on an episode of the Merv Griffin talk show in 1982, which included a statement that religious donations were used to buy Rolls Royce cars for the Bhagwan. The attorneys counterclaimed for defamation after Sheela called McGreer a bigot and a habitual liar on radio and in print. In Multnomah County Circuit Court, presiding Judge Charles Crookham struck the Rajneeshee pleadings and entered a default judgment when the Bhagwhan refused to appear for a deposition. The Rajneeshees tried to stop the judgment through an unsuccessful First Amendment complaint in federal court. A trial was held in Multnomah County on the issue of damages and Rosemary McGreer was awarded $75,000.
In 1985, Mark Cushing represented Rajneesh follower Helen Byron, who sought recovery of a $380,000 loan she made to the Rajneeshees. The Rajneeshees refused to pay Byron back and claimed the loan was a donation. Cushing filed a lawsuit for nonpayment and for fraud. During a trial held before Judge Owen Panner in Portland’s U.S. District Court, he won the lawsuit and prevailed on a claim for punitive damages. Tonkon Torp was able to quickly enforce the $1.7 million judgment by foreclosing on a building the Rajneeshees owned in Los Angeles.
Tonkon Torp attorneys also led the effort that would ultimately tip the commune into bankruptcy. Former Rajneeshee Eva Maria Mann hired the firm in 1985 to recover an $800,000 loan she had made to the commune. At this point, the Bhagwan had left the country and an exodus was taking place from the Ranch and Rajneeshpuram. Concerned that there would be no assets left to repay Mann, the attorneys on the case convinced two other creditors (including Wasco County, which had a $40 claim) to join in the effort of pushing the commune into involuntary bankruptcy. Tonkon Torp partners Rick Martson (retired) and Scott Seidman traveled out to the ranch with colleagues and a group of accountants to obtain financial documents and take depositions. Upon arrival, the team learned that the Rajneeshees were rapidly disposing of assets and they secured a midnight hearing with a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge, who issued an injunction preventing any further asset sales. After the judge appointed independent trustees for each side, the Tonkon Torp team began the process of identifying all creditors for repayment.
Looking back at the bankruptcy effort that led to the downfall of the cult’s presence in Oregon, Seidman recalls with a touch of humor, “We complained about the vegetarian diet at the ranch until we made such a pest of ourselves that the commune agreed to pay all the creditors. When we left the ranch, we stopped at the first place we could find that had meat, the Madras, Oregon A&W.”
The Oregonian has published a special report that covers the full legal impact of the wild wild ride that the Rajneeshees took through Oregon.