In the early 1970s, two young British women joined the infamous Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh at his commune in India. They could hardly have guessed that it was to be the start of an extraordinary 20-year adventure - one that would lead to their imprisonment in America for conspiracy to murder. In their first interview since their release last month, Sally- Anne Croft (near right) and Susan Hagan talk about their experiences to Chris Moller and Peter Popham
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THIRTEEN DAYS ago, Susan Hagan and Sally-Anne Croft were woken in their prison cells in Dublin, California, by the prison Tannoy: "Croft and Hagan, report to R and D." "It stands for Release and Departure or something," says Susan Hagan. "It was the first we heard - my lawyer hadn't managed to contact me. As soon as we heard it, we knew what it meant. You can tell: they say it in a particular tone of voice."

And with that Britain's two most famous former Rajneeshees - disciples of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh - were free. Their eight-year ordeal - four years fighting an American extradition order, one year on bail, two years in prison for conspiracy to murder - was finally over.

For more than 10 years in the Seventies and Eighties, their teacher, known as Bhagwan, was probably the most colourful and outrageous religious teacher in the world. Rivals like the Maharishi, once famous as the Beatles' Indian guru, faded into respectability by comparison. From his base in Poona, near Bombay, he preached a cocktail of exotic spiritual ideas, spiked with psychotherapy and free love. Orthodox Hindus recoiled, but young Westerners poured into Poona to "take sannyas" (become his disciples) and don the orange or red robes that identified them as Rajneeshees. Sally- Anne and Susan, both relatively early arrivals, were in the thick of it.

Most people who visited Bhagwan's community in Poona say they had a wonderful time. Even today, Sally-Anne Croft, for example, goes glassy-eyed with nostalgia at the memory of it. Yet what happened at Poona led directly to the disaster from which the two Englishwomen are only now emerging.

Sally-Anne and Susan left the community, which had moved from India to rural Oregon in America's Pacific North-West, in 1984, shortly before it fell apart. Six years later, they learnt that the United States authorities were attempting to have them extradited to America to stand trial on charges arising from the last, traumatic months of the community's existence. The most serious charge was conspiracy to murder; but no one had been murdered, the evidence for a conspiracy was flimsy, and Sally-Anne and Susan were adamant that they were completely innocent. They fought the extradition order ferociously.

In doing so, back in the early Nineties, they attained a measure of celebrity here. But the attempt to avoid extradition failed. And the last time we in Britain saw Hagan and Croft was in July 1994, as the extradition order was finally executed. They were, and are, both tall, strong, striking women - "empowered" women, if you like. You would notice them on the street. It was women of just this sort who flocked to be with Bhagwan, perhaps because he was just about the first religious teacher in recorded history who made a conscious and stated policy of choosing women to run things.

They and other women like them (and some men too) were in on the ground floor of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's great project. In the early Seventies this was a small, offbeat Indian ashram, a clutch of followers around a dropped-out professor of philosophy from northern India with beard, bald head and big, soft, captivating brown eyes. In less than 10 years, however, the ashram had exploded to become a thriving American town, with a population of 4,000. Sally-Anne Croft was the community's accountant, Susan Hagan was in charge of building projects and roads.

It was a world away from the scenes in July 1994, when their case became front-page news. Their fight against extradition, which had won the support of Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown, Lord Scarman and a host of other notables, was finally lost. The media followed the pair out to Heathrow, an endless, mortifyingly slow journey on the Piccadilly Line. Susan was with her grown- up children, Nicky and Katherine, crying as she had never been known to cry before or since, the whole sad gang bobbing on a sea of TV crews and photographers and mournfully eavesdropping reporters. The two women delivered themselves into the tender care of two Scotland Yard men and a female American marshall, and they were gone.

SALLY-ANNE CROFT sits cross-legged on the sofa in the living-room of her partner Malcolm's flat in Bristol, surrounded by chrysanthemums and Welcome Home cards. Her greying hair, fiercely cropped four years ago, is now full and long. But the most startling thing about her appearance is that she is dressed all in red: red slacks, red socks, baggy red jumper (knitted by a fellow prisoner); even the elasticated bangle on her wrist is red. It's the uniform of the sannyasin, the anointed followers of Bhagwan, whose ranks she joined almost immediately after she arrived in the commune in Poona, north of Bombay, in 1974.

What is remarkable is that Sally-Anne still wears Rajneeshee clothes - despite the fact that, when the community in Oregon collapsed, not only did she flee in fear, not only was she denounced by Bhagwan by name and blacklisted, but it was what Bhagwan himself told the US authorities that led directly to the term of imprisonment which she has just completed.

Sally's involvement with Bhagwan began in London in the early Seventies. "I was an accountant, I had my own practice," she recalls. "I was known as London's 'underground' accountant - working for feminist organisations and the Free School and the Chile movement and two psychotherapy organisations, many of whose group leaders went to study under Bhagwan. So I was around people who were going to India. But I was a little girl from the country at the time. I'd never been to university. I didn't have an understanding of different philosophies - or any philosophy. But the woman who kept the books in my office was planning to go to Poona to visit the community there; she gave me a book by Bhagwan, I read the first page, and the next morning I called her up and said, 'I don't know why I'm coming but I'm coming.' "

Many of Bhagwan's followers have similar stories: an inexplicable, irrational tug, an impulsive visit, then captivation. Sally-Anne stayed only a week or two at the commune; she went back to London with conjunctivitis and gut rot and spent the next week in bed - but in India she had taken the plunge and become a sannyasin, a follower. In London she wound up her office, and after nine months returned to Poona for good. She quickly found a role. "On my second visit I was called into the office - they'd found out I was an accountant." As in underground London, so in Poona - cool accountants were treasurably rare. In no time Sally-Anne found herself in charge of the accounts for the commune.

She was blissfully happy. "The real beauty for me was that we sat and listened to Bhagwan, and meditated every morning. You would sit in a huge room full of several thousand people, and be silent. At the start I would sleep, later I meditated for an hour and slept for the next hour, just curled up. That's how I learnt to meditate.

"I loved what I did: I loved my work, I loved the place, I loved the food, I loved the people, I loved what we were doing. It was one of the most extraordinary times of my life."

Not everyone felt like this. Indeed, Susan Hagan has a very different view. Since flying back from California last week, she has been staying with her sister and brother-in-law in their huge Victorian house in Broomhill, the old steel magnates' suburb of Sheffield. Where Sally-Anne was dressed all in red, Susan is in black. She sits at the far side of a large room, and answers our questions about those far-off years with the dismal courtesy of one who has had to go through this a million times and is bored to death with it.

But then her story is quite different from Sally-Anne's - as Sally-Anne says, every person in Bhagwan's community has a different story to tell. Before she set eyes on Bhagwan or his community, Susan was already in the subcontinent, settled in Kathmandu with her husband, Mischa Lissanevitch, their two small children and her husband's parents, who owned a celebrated Kathmandu hotel, the Yak and Yeti. Going to Bhagwan's community in the city of Poona was her husband's idea, and he coaxed her into moving there with him. Having arrived there she steadfastly declined to have anything to do either with Bhagwan or with any of the "smorgasbord" of meditations, encounter groups and so on, around which the community's life revolved.

"I never spoke to Bhagwan and he never spoke to me," she says. "I wasn't interested in that. You could have removed the religious aspect of the community, and if people were working with the same spirit it wouldn't have made any difference to me. What I was interested in was community and people living together." At Poona there was a nursery school; and next door to it was a pottery studio. There, in earshot of her children, she learnt to throw pots. Not long after settling in the community, she separated from her husband. But her children were safe and happy. She had found an absorbing hobby. She stayed.

A friend of Susan's from Kathmandu was the manager of Pan Am's office in Bombay, and it was thanks to this coincidence that she came to be one of the first people outside the core of Bhagwan's assistants and guards to have an inkling that the community was about to move to a new continent. "I was called into the office one day," she says, "and asked to block book the first-class section of a Boeing 737 to New York." That was the plane that, in 1981, carried Bhagwan, beset by health problems and prevented from expanding further in India, to the American phase of the community's existence, and its ultimate disaster.

The community was moving from India, where ashrams and maverick gurus are thick on the ground, to a deeply conservative corner of rural Oregon in the Bible-bashing years of Ronald Reagan's presidency. The odds were stacked against it. Yet the place was infused with the same extraordinary spirit that had built Poona, and the early years were a staggering success. Taking over the small town of Antelope in the northern Oregonian desert - after buying out the residents and re-naming it Rajneeshpuram - Sally- Anne, Susan and several thousand other sannyasin had soon constructed a thriving new community.

The US authorities, many Rajneeshees believe, had it in for the community from the moment Bhagwan landed in America. And the community's very success brought trouble. "It was too controversial," says Sally-Anne, "too big, too everything, to come to a point of comfortable integration with the outside community. The intention initially was to have as little contact as possible with the outside community - to be a spiritual community - but it was never possible. The outer community was vast, and their desire to stop us was there from the beginning. The pressures from outside actually pushed us into being an introverted community. People would come down, parade through the centre of town in their pick-ups with their guns out. We were afraid that people would start to do more than spit at us in the street and throw things at us, and that's why we chose to get weapons."

But what made the relationship with the outside world far more electric was the personality of Bhagwan himself. The source of Bhagwan's authority, his students believe, is that he was an enlightened man: like the Buddha and great mystics in other traditions around the world, he had had a blinding experience of the true nature of reality. The year was 1953. He was 21 at the time, a student of philosophy, and sitting under a tree in the public garden of Jabalpur, his home town in northern India, when it happened. "When the consciousness is totally empty," he later said, "there is something like an explosion - an atomic explosion. Your whole inside becomes full of light, which has no source and no cause or past, and once it has happened it remains."

But while it was his enlightenment that gave Bhagwan authority, his character had from his earliest youth been argumentative, mischievous, provocative, iconoclastic. He could never resist winding people up, pushing their buttons. In repressed, prudish India he delighted in extolling the merits of free love. "The community became extremely controversial," Sally-Anne remembers, "because Bhagwan spoke very openly about treating your sexual energy as natural, and therefore the whole sex-guru thing started. In fact, 'free love' in the community was no different than if I had chosen to continue to live in London - most of us grew up with sometimes a one-night stand or having a relationship with somebody - we had gone past the idea that you don't have sex until you get married. But it made great tabloid material and he really enjoyed it."

In America the community was surrounded by Christian rednecks to whom the mere presence of this pagan, libertine "cult leader" was a permanent insult. And Sally-Anne is sure that, just as in India, Bhagwan took great delight in provoking them as much as he could. Famously, he acquired 93 Rolls-Royce cars for his own personal use. "My opinion is that all the Rolls-Royces were because they were something that pressed a million buttons. He wanted to set a fire under people; he saw it as a way to wake them up."

Before it could wake them up, however, it shut Rajneeshpuram down. By 1985, four years into the American community's life, the place was besieged: dozens of law suits were flying, relating to immigration fraud and the city's status as a religious community; a hotel owned by the community in Portland was bombed; the state press boiled over with negative coverage. Finally even Bhagwan, expert at abstracting himself from practical difficulties, could ignore it no longer.

This was the moment when, to his devoted student Sally-Anne Croft, he suddenly revealed a terrible human frailty. "I had the incredible responsibility of trying to keep the whole thing straight, of having enough money to take care of people but also to buy new Rolls-Royces - to keep it going. What finally tipped me over the edge was trying to express that to him, and him saying he basically didn't care about the community. Face to face. In so many words. It broke my heart.

"We became the scapegoats of the situation. The group of us who were the administrators, about 20 people, he accused us of a whole list of crimes. Anything bad that had happened in Oregon, suddenly we had been involved in it. He basically tried to use us to try to make peace with the authorities. We became absolute pariahs after we left, and remain so to this day."

Bhagwan's ploy backfired, because as soon as the allegations were made public, the police were swarming all over the community. (It was from this period that the story originated that some diabolical Rajneeshees were responsible for poisoning 750 residents of a nearby town by infecting salad bars with salmonella. This was more rubbish, however: there had been a salmonella epidemic in 1984, but it had been fully investigated, and explained as the fault of dirty food handlers.) Bhagwan himself was arrested, humiliated, carted around in manacles and finally deported, and within months the whole community had fallen apart. In 1990, in India, he died.

Even before the denunciations began, Sally-Anne Croft, Susan Hagan and the other administrators blamed by the Bhagwan for the community's problems had decided they would have to get out. The community they had done so much to build was suddenly a fearful place. Within a day of taking the decision they were gone.

Sally-Anne had started a new life in Hungary when, in 1990, word came that the US was seeking her extradition. She quickly returned to the UK, informing the British police. And then began the fierce battle against extradition which brought the two women back into the media spotlight.

Their case was a routine one in American terms, but grotesquely unfair to British thinking. To avoid the threat of 20- or 25-year sentences, some of the women's fellow sannyasin, including the man with whom Sally- Anne had been living, had been induced to name the two of them as involved in a plot to murder Charles Turner, Oregon's district attorney and one of Bhagwan's direst foes. The "plot", if it existed at all, was never more than a notional one; no steps were ever taken to bump the man off; the whole "conspiracy" was merely another part of the guru's crazed attempt at self-exculpation, and the only evidence for Croft and Hagan's involvement in it was the prompted testimony of witnesses locked into plea bargains. "Even the people who said that they did take part in this conspiracy said, well, actually we had no intent to do it," Sally-Anne recalls. She herself was also accused of releasing money to buy guns that would be used in the murder, another allegation for which there was no material evidence.

The utter flimsiness of the case against the women was what awoke British indignation. But under the Anglo-US extradition agreement, the strength or otherwise of a case has no bearing on the extradition process, and thus their eventual removal to Oregon for trial was inevitable.

There followed a welcome and unexpected year of bail; then a six-week trial in which the witnesses, their former comrades, were shamelessly prompted by the prosecution; and the long agony of the jury's deliberation. "I think we got very close to winning," says Sally. "It took the jury four days to decide, they were clearly in doubt about it, they could decide on one of us but not on the other, then they sent in to ask if there would be leniency - there were all kinds of things going on."

Initially, they felt, Judge Malcolm Marsh seemed convinced of their guilt, but as the trial wore on his attitude changed. So while the prosecution asked for 22-year sentences - the probation service preferred 25 years - the judge contented himself with five years, little more than their plea-bargaining adversaries had received. And last week, ordering their release one year early, he complimented them on the good work they had performed in prison, teaching other inmates. "Both defendants have amply demonstrated," he said, "that they pose no future threat, and that upon their release they will continue to be particularly valuable members of society." Their performance while incarcerated, he said, "was outstanding and exceptional".

It's a ringing testimonial; if he had gone any further he would have had to award them a medal. But a testimonial to what exactly? For Sally- Anne Croft, it is a testimonial to the truth of what Bhagwan taught. "For me, my life is a spiritual journey, and has been as long as I have understood that concept. And I credit that lesson to Bhagwan, very definitely. In the spiritual life you learn from the things that you least want to learn from: the trips we end up facing are the trips we need to face. I learnt a lot in the community; I learnt five times as much in the last eight years. I can't regret any of it. I feel more at peace with myself. I know who I am more clearly." !