Susan Hagan and Sally Croft were busy yesterday. One was searching for a home for her cat; the other was saying goodbye to her boyfriend and colleagues. Time is short. On Monday the Law Lords suddenly and unexpectedly crushed their last hope.

Croft, 44, is a much-liked executive on the East Europe desk of the City accountants Ernst & Young; Hagan, 46, an aromatherapist who lives with her two children in Hertfordshire. As early as Friday they could be taken under police escort to Oregon, there to face a possibly prejudiced jury and evidence from compromised witnesses who have made sweetheart deals with the prosecution. What these two women are accused of is a nine-year murder plot that never came to fruition.

Every legal expert agrees that the Crown Prosecution Service would never allow a case based on such 'tainted' evidence to come before the British courts. A German judge in Karlsruhe, indeed, took one look at the same evidence against another alleged member of the conspiracy and threw the case out.

But to the Home Office and the judges all the arguments about the dangers of a dubious trial in America and the example of the Germans are irrelevant. It was not the Home Office's job to test 'the strength of the evidence against the women', Kenneth Clarke, then Home Secretary, said when he rejected pleas to stop the extradition last year.

Ministers merely had to decide if there was a case to answer. In this case there was. The Law Lords agreed, so the pair must be extradited.

In their youth these two women were followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh - the guru of free love who attracted young and often wealthy Western followers to his ill-fated commune near the small town of Antelope in Oregon. The Bhagwan (the word means God) was a ludicrous and dangerous figure in the eyes of the outside world - preaching free love and laughter and the joy of giving enough money to buy him a fleet 91 Rolls-Royces.

Sally Croft came across the Bhagwan's Poona commune in 1976 when she was on holiday in India. 'I was trained as an accountant,' she said. 'It was the first time in my life I had seen an environment where the spiritual was supreme. In the early days, the emphasis was not on sex and Rolls-Royces.'

Susan Hagan, a teacher from Sheffield, had gone to work as a volunteer in Nepal, where she met and married a young Russian, Miscka Lissanevitch. When her husband decided to join the Bhagwan in Poona, she went with him to save her marriage, not out of conviction.

But on arrival, she, too, was enchanted. 'Everyone talked about religion and self-development,' she said. 'I discovered I was happy.'

When the Bhagwan decided to build his commune in Oregon, both women left India with him.

Croft became the chief accountant, advising the Bhagwan on his trusts and corporations. Hagan helped organise the building of roads, dams and fences.

The people of Oregon did not, understandably enough, like the 6,000 followers of the Bhagwan who arrived in their orange robes from India in 1981 to build a city - Rajneeshpuram - on what had been the 66,000-acre Big Muddy Ranch.

They feared, again justifiably, that the outsiders were planning to take over the local political system with the help of down-and-outs bussed in to the commune and registered to vote.

'Bag a Bhagwan]' bumper stickers appeared on cars and one opponent of the commune planted a bomb. In response, an inner group of the Bhagwan's followers infected food in local restaurants with the salmonella bacteria. Some 750 people were taken to hospital. The inner group also set up an elaborate phone-tapping network to keep an eye on dissidents as internal conflicts grew.

The US authorities allege that the two British women became conspirators in a plot to assassinate Charles Turner, a US attorney involved in a federal grand jury investigation into the commune. Croft is accused of authorising the purchase of guns and Hagan is alleged to have been at meetings when the assassination attempt was discussed.

It all sounds very sinister, until you discover that there was no murder attempt. Turner and the authorities, indeed, remained in blissful ignorance of the threat to his life until after the commune collapsed in 1985 and the Rajneeshees fled. It was only then, allegedly, that 'surveillance photographs', of Turner were found.

The main evidence that the two women were involved in a plot comes from statements made by David Knapp, an American, who was 'mayor' of Rajneeshpuram, and Ava Avalos, a fellow commune member.

Andrew McCooey, Croft's and Hagan's British solicitor, who has seen the evidence, said that in 1985, when Knapp and Avalos were first interviewed about the plot, his clients were not mentioned. It was only in 1990, after both witnesses had made plea-bargaining deals which implicated other commune members that Croft and Hagan, both of whom had by then built new lives in Britain, were named as conspirators.

The witnesses cannot change their testimony. If they did, the plea bargain would be off and they would go to jail for a very long time.

For more than a year, the FBI and the Justice Department in Washington DC have shown a surprising reluctance to comment. 'We're worried about prejudicing the hearings in England,' a Justice Department spokesman told the Independent in 1993. If you pointed out that there was no jury and the case was being heard by appeal court judges and Law Lords, who could not be prejudiced, it made no difference: there would be no comment. To Croft and Hagan's many supporters in Britain - who include Paddy Ashdown, Tony Blair and Lord Scarman, the former Law Lord - the silence was significant. Although the great and the good used legal phrases such as 'insubstantial and uncorroborated evidence', a 'real risk of a miscarriage of justice' and 'oppressive delays' when they asked the Home Office to stop the extradition, their real message was blunter: the case against Hagan and Croft stank.

Their suspicions have been fuelled by one other development. The US authorities have rejected all attempts to have the trial switched from the conservative and deeply Christian state of Oregon, where the Rajneeshees commune is still very much a live political issue, to a 'neutral' state. Anger against the Rajneeshees is still strong in the Pacific north-west.

In 1992, for example, opponents of Harry Lonsdale, a Democrat who ran in Oregon for the Senate, were able to destroy his campaign by constantly reminding the voters that he once described the Bhagwan as 'gentle'.

Yesterday Lord Scarman, who did so much to help the women, was reluctant to criticise his successors in the House of Lords, but could not resist saying: 'I have always said that we would have been justified in refusing to extradite on the grounds that a miscarriage of justice was possible.'

For both women, as they waited for the police to arrive and take them to Heathrow, there is a final, bitter irony. They had left the commune in 1985 and were denounced by the Bhagwan for their betrayal immediately afterwards. Sally Croft was heartbroken after the great man told her that 'he did not care' about what happened to the Rajneeshees. Susan Hagan was disgusted by his attempts to buy a dollars 2m wristwatch and by his aides' refusal to allow her to spend time with her dying father-in-law in Nepal.

Nine years on, the legacy of the dead God they ended up despising is drawing them back to Oregon, perhaps for ever. Spare a thought for them the next time you hear about an American court refusing to send an

(Photograph omitted)

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