Sunday, September 13, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Christian Camp Transforms Rajneesh Compound -- Opening Planned For Next Summer


ANTELOPE, Ore. - At the height of the Rajneeshee movement, amidst the pursuit of free sex and plots to sicken towns and kill federal prosecutors, the Rolls Royce-driving guru often preached the virtue of beautification.

"Just don't use this planet like a waiting room in a railway station," Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh once wrote. "Leave this earth a little more beautiful for those unknown guests who will be following you."

To that message of maintenance, leaders of the nation's largest Christian youth ministry have this response: Hey, thanks.

Unbeknownst to the Bhagwan, current "guests" of the central Oregon compound have found its 300 buildings and state-of-the art infrastructure the perfect foundation on which to build their next Christian youth camp.

Sweeping plans for solid buildings

"When they built stuff, they built it right," says Jay McAlonen, property manager of the 100-square-mile ranch known as Big Muddy. "The potential is just incredible."

This summer, McAlonen is leading a corps of volunteers to transform the compound into the largest Christian youth camp in the country. It eventually will include three separate camps with swimming pools, an indoor sports complex, dormitories, stables and access to the property's vast natural resources.

Hundreds of volunteers, many from youth groups across the Northwest, have donated time and labor to the effort, ripping up floors, pulling weeds and removing bat droppings and spider webs that accumulated in the buildings during the years they sat empty.

"It's hard work but it's for a good cause," said Jenny Smelser, 17, of East Wenatchee, Douglas County, who was put to work pulling weeds around one of the buildings.

The land was donated to Young Life by Montana billionaire Dennis Washington, who bought the 64,229-acre property and all its improvements for $3.65 million in 1991.

It had been abandoned five years earlier, after the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the self-styled "rich man's guru," was convicted of immigration fraud and deported. He died in 1990 in India.

During the Rajneeshees' time here, they terrorized residents of Antelope, population 45. With more than 3,000 followers, the cult easily took over the City Council and later incorporated the compound, which became known as Rajneeshpuram.

Among their more infamous escapades, sect members conspired to kill then-U.S. Attorney Charles H. Turner and then-Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, who had been investigating numerous sham marriages that were being used to bring Rajneeshees into the United States.

In a secret room, cult members reportedly developed chemical and biological weapons, once sickening 700 residents of The Dalles after lacing restaurant salad bars with salmonella. It was reportedly a test run of an aborted plot to poison the water system and keep non-Rajneeshee voters home on election day.

"I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to think about it, I just want to pretend it didn't happen," said Dave Dickson, whose ranch borders the property.

Young Life leaders are taking great care to debunk any fears that another fanatical religious group is moving in. The group is nondenominational, they say, and the mission of camp is to teach the kids about Jesus by showing them the best week of their lives.

They've been careful to remove anything that's too reminiscent of Rajneesh from the property.

Bhagwan's house is no more

And the Bhagwan's house, where an intricate series of pipes in the walls once pumped laughing gas to the guru, burned to the ground in a 1996 brush fire that swept out of the hills like, as McAlonen says, "a sign from God."

With what remains, McAlonen sees only the future potential, not the original design.

The hotel, complete with a handicapped-accessible wing, will become a dormitory. The meditation center, an 88,000-square-foot glass and white-walled enclosure, will be transformed into a sports complex with basketball and volleyball courts and a roller rink.

The garages that held the Bhagwan's 93 Rolls Royces are now storage for staff members.

With the help of volunteers, a full-time staff of about 20 and donations, the group hopes to have the first phase open by next June, McAlonen said.

"We're all just thinking of that day in June when we all stand on the road and watch that first bus of kids come in," McAlonen said. "After three years of hard work, we're going to be really humbled."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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