To: Mr. Michael Lacey
Ron Russell, Author
Los Angeles New Times
1950 Sawtelle Blvd. Suite 200
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Re: Los Angeles New Times Article dated July 5, 2001, "The Devotee's Son"
Dear Mr. Lacey and Mr. Russell:
This firm represents Self Realization Fellowship, (hereinafter "SRF"), monks and nuns within SRF, and one of its attorneys, Michael Flynn. On July 5, 2001, Los Angeles New Times, (hereinafter "New Times"), published a false and defamatory article concerning SRF founder, Paramahansa Yogananda, (deceased since 1952), SRF, monks and nuns within the organization, and Mr. Flynn, entitled, "The Devotee's Son." This article is not only false, replete with overt lies and twisted half-truths, it represents an unconscionably malicious portrayal of one of the most revered men in the modern era. Writing forty-nine years after the death of Yogananda, the article's author, Ron Russell, knowingly "attacks" the reputation, dignity, and lifelong integrity of Yogananda, who is not alive to defend himself, and whose life, in truth, singularly represents the essence of all that is good, virtuous and loving in a human being. In contrast to the reality of Yogananda's life, the article is the shameful fabrication of an unethical journalist, and the deceitful product of New Times, a publication of which approximately 20% is dedicated to explicit pictorial ads for the porn industry.
As hereinafter demonstrated, Mr. Russell and New Times rushed the article to publication knowing that they could have easily and independently corroborated the subject blood test which definitively excludes the alleged paternity of Yogananda. Independent corroboration by New Times could have been achieved within a time frame of thirty-six hours, and months before the article was published at the simple cost of having the blood donor send an independent blood specimen, supervised by New Times, in a $36.00 Fed-Ex package. Although Mr. Russell had been working on the article for months prior to publication, and had been dealing with the Erskine family and their lawyer, Mr. Shane Reed, for at least four weeks prior to publication, at substantial cost to the New Times, (the phone bills alone exceeded the cost of a Fed-Ex package), Mr. Russell did not contact Mr. Flynn until June 22, 2001, just twelve days prior to publication. At that time, Mr. Russell specifically knew how to contact the donor through his own sources, namely Mr. Reed and J. Donald Walters (a.k.a. Kriyananda). Between June 22, 2001, when Mr. Russell spoke to Mr. Flynn, and Mr. Flynn offered to meet with Mr. Russell and his lawyer and his publisher in order to confirm the DNA results and corroborate the blood specimen, and July 5, 2001 when the article was published, Mr. Russell and New Times chose not to conduct this simple corroboration. Both Mr. Russell and his editors then knew that they would have had no story if the blood specimen was confirmed. Mr. Russell's agenda of deceit and "attack" in order to bootstrap his reputation as a writer, at the price of the reputation of a great man, would have been forever defeated because of the modern science of DNA. The plain truth of a DNA test would have left Mr. Russell and New Times with a big expense bill and no salacious material to attract their porn industry advertisers.
The article has not only been distributed throughout the Los Angeles area, the home of SRF, it has been published online worldwide. The article has caused irreparable damage to SRF, its monastics, its members and to Michael Flynn. Of even greater importance, the article damages the reputation and work of Yogananda, a man who dedicated his life to the upliftment of all mankind in a humane effort to ease human suffering. Mr. Russell's angry article only adds to the burden of such suffering.
Pursuant to California Civil Code § 48a, this is a demand for a retraction/correction of the article. This demand includes a retraction of the primary theme of the article as set forth below. It also includes, but is not limited to, the false and defamatory statements which are recited in Attachment 1 to this letter and are incorporated herein.
New Times and Mr. Russell are undoubtedly aware, and probably relied upon the fact, that the laws involving libel preclude an action for libel by a decedent or his estate. Thus, you have fabricated a malicious and cowardly attack upon Paramahansa Yogananda, deceased since 1952. But the statements in the article attributable to Mr. Russell, and the statements Mr. Russell attributes to his sources, together with the innuendo manufactured by the article's false and defamatory themes of and concerning SRF, its monastics, and Michael Flynn constitute actionable defamation and libel under California and federal law. Neither Mr. Flynn nor the involved SRF monastics are public figures subject to the proof requirements for actual malice. Notwithstanding the foregoing, and assuming either SRF, the organization, or the subject of the article invoke actual malice standards in part, as you know, malice can be proven in a libel case by evidence of the publisher's failure to do a proper investigation, by the publisher's reliance on sources known to be unreliable, by reliance on sources known to be biased against the plaintiff, by reliance on persons who are not in a position to possess personal knowledge, and by reliance on persons who have demonstrated anger and hostility to the plaintiff, among other factors. St Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731-733 (1968); Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967); Reader's Digest Association, Inc. v. Sup. Ct., 37 Cal.3d 244; Fisher v. Larson, 138 Cal.App. 3d 627 (1982); Pep v. Newsweek, Inc. 553 F.Supp. 1000 (S.D.N.Y. 1983). Here, you have made serious accusations against Mr. Flynn and SRF, and no one from New Times even bothered to contact essential witnesses to verify the false statements in the article, particularly the most obvious and significant witness, Biswanath Ghosh, Yogananda's nephew, whose blood definitively defeats the primary theme of your entire article. This purposeful avoidance of the truth constitutes actual malice. See Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657, 682, 691-692 (1989); Vandenburg v. Newsweek, Inc., 441 F.2d 378, 380 (5th Cir), cert denied, 404 U.S. 864 (1971). Moreover, your inflammatory story line, and cover page entitled "The Devotee's Son," bolsters an inference of actual malice. Id.; see also Duffy v. Leading Edge Products, Inc. 44 F.3d 308, 315 n. 10 (5th Cir. 1995); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 680 F. 2d 527, 539 (7th Cir. 1982), cert denied, 459 U.S. 1226 (1983).
The primary and dominant theme of the article is that Paramahansa Yogananda engaged in an adulterous affair with a married woman resulting in the birth of an out of wedlock "love child," Benjamin Erskine; and that SRF, its monastics and Mr. Flynn have engaged in a six-year coverup, even conspiring to falsify DNA test results. This theme is a total fabrication, manufactured and woven together by Mr. Russell from unreliable and/or biased sources, and motivated by Mr. Russell's long standing, malicious, repeated, and scandalous efforts to intentionally damage SRF and its defenders, including Mr. Flynn. Fortunately, Mr. Russell's malicious fabrication is easily defeated by the simple corroboration of Biswanath Ghosh's blood. The article's obvious purpose is to cause a reasonable person reading the article to believe and accept its false and defamatory theme. SRF and Mr. Flynn will adduce overwhelming evidence that a reasonable person is led to believe that Yogananda is an adulterer, and that SRF and Mr. Flynn have deceitfully manipulated this reported truth. Moreover, the alleged out of wedlock birth of Erskine in 1933 in the state of California constituted the specific violation of several criminal statutes. Thus, the theme of the article implies that SRF and Mr. Flynn have engaged in criminal conduct in colluding to conceal Yogananda's alleged crimes. As noted in the article, Mr. Flynn is an attorney representing SRF. Thus, the article's primary theme, its innuendo, coupled with the omission of key facts available to the author, all suggest, imply and state that Mr. Flynn engaged in illegal, unethical and criminal acts in his profession as an attorney, including the alteration of evidence. This, of course is libel per se.
Mr. Russell knew or should have known with even a minimum amount of investigation that the theme of the article was totally false. Mr. Flynn not only told Erskine that Yogananda could not possibly be Erskine's father, he also sent a letter to Mr. Russell offering to meet with him, his publisher and lawyer. A copy of this letter is attached hereto as Attachment 2. In writing and in a phone conversation, Mr. Flynn offered to produce specific documentation irrefutably proving the falsity of the theme of the article. Mr. Flynn even gave Mr. Russell his hotel number in Paris in order to set up a meeting. Mr. Flynn expressly informed Mr. Russell that SRF had offered Mr. Reed the option of flying Biswanath Ghosh, the nephew of Yogananda and blood donor, from India to the United States in order to verify the test results, and that Mr. Reed had never responded or challenged the results. Mr. Flynn made the same offer to Mr. Russell. Mr. Russell never responded. While Mr. Flynn was in Europe on business, without contacting any of the relatives who donated blood, without agreeing to independently verify the test results by the simple procedure of procuring new blood samples from Biswanath Ghosh, and by publishing the falsehood that Mr. Flynn "deflected the matter by saying he had represented celebrities . . . ," Mr. Russell maliciously manufactured the falsehood that Mr. Flynn and SRF had conspired to alter the test results and thereby conceal the "truth" of Yogananda's paternity. Fundamental ethics of journalism required Mr. Russell to contact the definitive source for the article, Mr. Biswanath Ghosh. Although Mr. Russell knew this fundamental ethical requirement, he pushed the story to publication intentionally and maliciously disregarding the truth in order to defame SRF and make money for New Times by increasing its free circulation and thereby attract more advertisers, particularly those in the porn industry. The editors of New Times are able to measure their profits based on the tabloid sensationalism of its articles, particularly articles that pander to the taste of a prurient reader likely to respond to the ads of its porn customers. If Mr. Russell and the editors of New Times had conducted even a cursory investigation designed to ferret out truth rather than fatten profits, they would have discovered at least the following.
Mr. Russell knew or should have known that his primary sources, members of the Erskine family, at least two of whom have been convicted of various felonies, have engaged in specific acts of extortion seeking to obtain money from SRF by threat of exposure of the false claim of Yogananda's alleged paternity. Indeed, Mr. Russell quotes one of Erskine's adult children in his article, who has been charged with at least nine separate felonies, has been a habitual heroin addict on probation, and who has served time in prison, as one of his sources. This individual traveled to Los Angeles, went to SRF headquarters on Mt. Washington, and expressly attempted to extort money from Mr. Flynn and SRF under threat of "going to the press." Acting solely out of compassion for this person, the SRF leadership chose not to file criminal charges. Yet Mr. Russell, using this unfortunate person as his unwitting dupe and primary source, paints a picture of her in his article as an innocent child of an innocent victim, her father, Ben Erskine, both of whom Mr. Russell suggests were ignored and abused - the daughter by an SRF monastic, "Mukti Mata," ( who is perhaps one of the kindest, gentlest human beings on earth), and the father by SRF's attorney, Mr. Flynn.
However, Mr. Russell did not even have to undertake the most cursory investigation of the Erskine family in order to conclude that SRF was the target of an overt extortion attempt. Before contacting the Erskines, Russell had long utilized Ananda and Kriyananda, both of whom are well publicized antagonists of SRF, as his primary sources. In his article, Russell unwittingly admits (perhaps because of his blinding bias) to have seen or been informed of a letter sent by Shane Reed, Erskine's lawyer, a copy of which is attached as Attachment 3 hereto, in which Mr. Reed seeks a "financial settlement" from SRF under threat of initiating "a paternity suit and undertake responsibility and control over such matters as the interment dispute." In his article and in past articles, Mr. Russell viciously attacks SRF in connection with the "interment dispute" using, inter alia, Ananda and Kriyananda as his primary sources. Mr. Russell knew that these sources were highly suspect both because of their bias and because of Kriyananda's character and veracity deficiencies. Ananda and Kriyananda (who have been adjudged liable for tortious conduct involving sexual molestation of numerous women and for fraud) have long held demonstrably biased and antagonistic positions to SRF, including the "interment dispute." The actual collusion between Mr. Russell, a biased writer, the Erskine family, using their daughter, a convicted heroin addict seeking money for a frivolous paternity claim against SRF, a non-profit corporation physically and legally incapable of paternity, and Kriyananda, an adjudicated fraud, presents compelling proof of actual malice and reliance on discredited sources.
Moreover, Mr. Russell omits from the article that Mr. Flynn informed Mr. Reed, within days of receiving the attached letter, that the letter constituted criminal extortion because SRF, as a religious organization, obviously could not be anyone's "father" or legally responsible to a 68 year old adult, Erskine, for "paternity"(citing the recent Erin Brockovich extortion convictions); and that the threat of undertaking "control" over the "interment dispute" in order to obtain money constituted extortion. Mr. Russell omits from the article that Mr. Reed stated in response that he was "withdrawing" the letter and asked Mr. Flynn not to report the matter to the District Attorney. Mr. Russell fails to state in the article: that Mr. Reed acknowledged that the Erskines were "poor"; could not afford any costs for DNA testing; could not afford any civil litigation; had no actual legal claims against SRF because Erskine was an adult and Yogananda was deceased; that "others outside the family"were interested in the "interment dispute"; that the Erskine family had no real interest in the "interment dispute"; that the family wanted money, that he didn't know what others wanted, and that the family had no proof of the alleged paternity. When informed by Mr. Flynn that evidence established that Yogananda could not have been the father because he was in Kansas City during the period of conception, that individuals still alive who knew Yogananda would consider the claim ludicrous, and that SRF would never submit to extortion, Mr. Reed agreed that although no legal claim existed, in order to resolve the historical record and to achieve peace of mind for the Erskine family, and at SRF's express request, Ben Erskine would provide a blood sample for DNA testing. Mr. Flynn gratuitously offered to have SRF pay for independent DNA testing using blood samples taken from the children of Yogananda's deceased siblings. Mr. Reed was informed of and expressly agreed to all of the protocols and procedures used to accomplish the blood extraction, including specific agreement to use an SRF monastic of the highest integrity to go to India and convince Biswanath Ghosh and other children of siblings to provide blood in the presence of a certified pathologist with specifically identifiable, sealed vials of blood samples which were then Fed-Exed directly to a lab mutually agreed upon by both Mr. Reed and SRF.
Attached hereto as Attachment 4 are the following documents all of which were sent to Mr. Reed: the "family tree" of Yogananda, identifying the blood donors; certifications of identity, addresses, and voluntary blood withdrawal from the three blood donor-relatives; declarations and certifications of the Medical Doctor-pathologist attesting to the withdrawal procedures; the Fed-Ex waybill and tracking no. sending the sealed blood vials to the lab; the packaging certification and invoice of the sealed blood vials; and the cover letter of the SRF monastic. Mr. Reed provided all of the foregoing to Mr. Russell prior to publication, including the letter of the monastic; and Mr. Russell has distorted or overtly misrepresented the propriety of the protocols and procedures involving the blood withdrawal and transfer. Mr. Russell on his own has simply fabricated an "attack" on Mr. Flynn, on the involved monastic, and on the blood-donor protocols, in order to manufacture a story against Yogananda. His conduct represents the epitome of journalistic deceit designed to make a name for himself at the expense of destroying the reputation of a great and revered man not able to confront him with the truth. Punitive damages equal to the magnitude of such perfidy will be sought in order to dissuade Mr. Russell and similar muckrackers from engaging in such future conduct.
After the testing conclusively excluded Yogananda, (see the test results from "Genetic Technologies attached hereto as Attachment 5), Mr. Flynn even offered to bring Biswanath Ghosh to the U.S., but Mr. Reed declined. Mr. Reed had confirmed through his own sources including Ananda, who was in litigation with SRF, that the blood procurement process was legitimate. To this day, Mr. Reed has never challenged the results, nor has any other member of the Erskine family. Mr. Russell has manufactured a claim on behalf of the Erskines and manufactured a false and defamatory story. Had Mr. Russell consulted with an attorney prior to publication, he would have learned that no legal claim for paternity exists against SRF or Yogananda. Had Mr. Russell simply arranged for the corroboration of Biswanath Ghosh's blood sample he would have had no story. Thus, we deem that Mr. Russell's effort to advance such a claim on behalf of the Erskines, having knowledge of the extortionate conduct of the Erskines, makes him a party to the extortion. Included in the defamation and libel action will be claims for Mr. Russell's collusion with the Erskine family seeking to extort money from SRF under threat of publishing the false and defamatory paternity allegations.
Please be advised that suit will be brought on these matters on August 3, 2001 seeking compensatory and punitive damages. It is recommended that Mr. Russell and the Los Angeles New Times publish a full front page retraction and apology with the signature of Mr. Russell attesting to the falsehood of the story and subject to language to be approved by Mr. Flynn and SRF. Such an apology and retraction will serve to minimize the damages already incurred in this matter. Please be further advised that SRF and Mr. Flynn intend to bring Biswanath Ghosh, Yogananda's nephew, to Los Angeles for a videotaped deposition and blood extraction to take place on September 10, 2001.
We are herewith providing you with advance notice of the subject deposition because Mr. Ghosh must travel from India and it is imperative that SRF provide the results of this deposition and corroboration of Mr. Ghosh's blood sample to its members throughout the world in order to mitigate further damages caused by the article. Notice of said deposition shall be served with the complaint.
Please be further advised not to destroy, alter or corrupt any of the evidence in this matter, including the notes and any audio tapes made by Mr. Russell, particularly tapes made in violation of Cal. Penal Code § 632.
Finally, Mr. Russell and the New Times have acquired a reputation as having an "attack" style of journalism, publishing anything false, scandalous and defamatory in order to increase its advertising revenues. This particular style of journalism, lacking balance, fairness and truth, has been rejected by legitimate journalists and it has resulted in numerous, large jury verdicts against publications such as New Times. We note that Mr. Russell and the New Times have previously published two false and defamatory "attack" articles against SRF. We also note that Ananda and Kriyananda, two of Mr. Russell's sources, have advertised in the New Times on the page facing the page on which Mr. Russell's article appears. Please be advised that SRF intends to use the previous articles authored by Mr. Russell, his improper reliance on Kriyananda and Ananda as sources and the "attack" style of New Times for purposes of establishing punitive damages in this matter. Pursuant to Cal. Civil Code § 48a, SRF and Michael Flynn hereby demand a retraction, apology and admission of improper reliance on Ananda and Kriyananda, subject to language to be approved by SRF and Mr. Flynn.
This letter does not attempt to be a complete or exhaustive statement of Mr. Flynn's, SRF's, or its monastics', rights or claims against you or the author of the article, nor do any of the statements contained herein constitute a waiver or relinquishment of any of their rights or remedies, whether legal or equitable, all of which are expressly reserved.
Very Truly Yours,
FLYNN, SHERIDAN & STILLMAN
Michael J. Flynn
cc: Shane Reed, Esq.
FLYNN, SHERIDAN & STILLMAN
3702 VIA DE LA VALLE, SUITE 202-B
DEL MAR, CALIFORNIA 92014