Women accuse Oregon spiritual guru of sexual abuse, claim he's running a cult

Several women told KGW that over the past 50 years, they have been sexually abused by J. Michael Shoemaker, leader of The Movement Center.

KGW News, Oregon/February 8, 2024

By Thomas Shults

Portland, Oregon — Editor's note: This story contains discussions of sexual assault that some people may find difficult to read.

A longtime self-proclaimed spiritual guru has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Former members of The Movement Center, a yoga and meditation center once located in Portland’s Kerns neighborhood, told KGW that J. Michael Shoemaker, who goes by Swami Chetanananda or "Swamiji," strangled and psychologically harmed them over the span of decades.

At least four women said they were sexually assaulted by Shoemaker. The mother of another woman involved with the center told KGW that her daughter was sexually assaulted in 2019. The allegations against Shoemaker span fifty years.

"It gave me a lot of relief to know that it wasn't all in my head," said Ruth Graham, a former member of The Movement Center.

While living at the center, Graham said she was sexually assaulted. Many people took meditation classes at The Movement Center, but others — like Graham — lived on-site. The center was housed in the historic Anna Mann House, a sprawling mansion near Northeast 33rd and Sandy that is now being repurposed for affordable housing.

"I was, I'm pretty sure, roofied and trafficked," Graham said.

A visiting spiritual teacher raped her, Graham said. She said she was also groped by Shoemaker.

"What happened to me was very personal,” Graham said. “So I didn't know it was a whole system."

Ruth Graham still finds it difficult to talk about her experiences at the Movement Center in Portland.

Last year, two women filed a federal civil lawsuit against Shoemaker. It alleges that a woman who goes by the initials G.M. was groomed, trafficked and repeatedly sexually assaulted by Shoemaker. Another woman, who goes by the initials D.T., claims Shoemaker recruited and trafficked young women for decades.

The lawsuit is the latest accusation against Shoemaker, who describes himself as a spiritual teacher and an accomplished practitioner of meditation.

Shoemaker denied KGW’s interview request. In a statement, his lawyer said Shoemaker will explain how relationships were consensual at trial.

The Movement Center closed in Portland in 2019. For years it was funded by dozens of members who lived in the home with Shoemaker. Many worked for free in an assortment of roles like cooking and landscaping — though some people close to the center told KGW that abuse was common.

A sign for The Movement Center at the Anna Mann House in Northeast Portland.

"She was brutalized by them," Jayne Lyons said of her daughter’s time at the center.

Lyons said her daughter lived there from 2016-2019, and was sexually assaulted.

Before joining the center, Lyons said her daughter was a nursing assistant in Colorado, with plans to get her nursing degree. She had an interest in Buddhism and spirituality, and initially planned to visit The Movement Center for a weekend, Lyons said.

Instead, Lyons’ daughter suddenly decided to move to Portland and join the center. Jayne Lyons said her daughter was "love-bombed" by Shoemaker. Psychologists use the term love-bombing to describe a showering of attention, usually with the intent of manipulating a person and creating a fast bond.

"She had that vacant look in her eyes, that million-dollar smile on her face that everything was wonderful,” Jayne Lyons said. “And she couldn't take her nursing boards." 

Over time, Lyons said the relationship between her daughter and Shoemaker changed as he pulled her closer. Eventually, Lyons said he raped and choked her daughter.

"She didn't talk for a while after she got accosted," Thomas Harberts said.

Harberts lived at The Movement Center when the alleged assault happened. He claims Lyons’ daughter was strangled to the point that she lost consciousness.

When Lyons went to The Movement Center to find out what happened, she was told conflicting stories.

“In the morning after, I had kind of roamed around the halls looking for my daughter, I found her,” Lyons said. “She was partially clad, she was peeing on towels, she was totally collapsed. Couldn't walk."   

Three other women told KGW they were also sexually assaulted by Shoemaker.

One woman lived at the center from 2017-19 and preferred to stay anonymous. She sent KGW a text saying, “He (Shoemaker) strangled me whenever he felt like it — and he strangled me until I passed out, he strangled me countless times while I was showering in my bathroom."

"I would love to see him go to prison," Harberts said.

Shoemaker has never faced criminal charges related to any of these accusations. He claims The Movement Center is a place of spiritual growth and compassion, though his behavior allegedly stretches decades.

Twenty years ago, The Oregonian reported on stories from 11 women who said Shoemaker had sex with them, some of whom said it was non-consensual. All described the encounters as damaging.

Still, KGW spoke with another woman who alleges Shoemaker’s behavior began long before he moved to Portland.

"The reason I came forward after all this time is hoping I can add something to the material needed to stop him," Carolyn said.

Carolyn asked us not to include her last name, though she told KGW that she was living in Bloomington, Indiana in the early 1970s when she was raped by Shoemaker. Carolyn was 24 and worked in "The Tao," a restaurant co-founded by Shoemaker.

Carolyn said she lived in a commune with others where they practiced meditation and yoga. One day, Shoemaker asked her to come to the meditation room, where she thought he was going to teach her a breathing exercise. Instead, Shoemaker raped her, Carolyn said.

"I don't remember the physical part. It just scared me, stunned me, shocked ... because I thought this was a safe place," Carolyn said.

After she was raped, Carolyn said Shoemaker told her that if she told anyone what happened, she would lose the “spiritual gift” he gave her. Now, she plans to testify against him in the pending lawsuit.

"I want him to be held accountable for what he is and has done," Carolyn said.

Other women KGW spoke with said they would have joined the lawsuit against Shoemaker, but were unable to because the statute of limitations on their claims had expired. Instead, they plan to testify against Shoemaker in the pending lawsuit.  

Former members tell KGW that Shoemaker claims he has retired, but instead is still operating The Movement Center in Gold Beach on the southern Oregon Coast.

KGW reached out to Gold Beach law enforcement to see if they were aware of Shoemaker. In October, the police chief responded, saying that he had not had any contact with The Movement Center but was aware of Shoemaker's presence in Gold Beach.

We also reached out to the FBI, to see if they were aware of Shoemaker. They said they could not comment on whether or not they had been contacted about him. People familiar with the center provided KGW with a letter they had sent to the FBI.

There are no criminal charges against Shoemaker in Oregon’s court system, but former members said he often had people sign confidentiality agreements. KGW found one such agreement from 1997.

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