Bhagwan Britons found guilty

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The Independent Online
One year exactly after their extradition to the United States to stand trial on charges of conspiring to murder Oregon's highest law enforcement official, two British women were yesterday found guilty.

After deliberating for almost four days, a jury of 10 women and two men returned guilty verdicts on Sally-Anne Croft, 45, and Susan Hagan, 48, for actively participating in the plot in 1985 while senior members of the cult of Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, that had settled in the state.

As Judge Malcolm Marsh read out the unanimous verdicts, there was an audible gasp from the gallery, filled with friends of the two Britons, including two children of Ms Hagan, Kate, 19, and her 25-year-old son, Nicholas. While the women remained impassive, Kate broke down in tears.

Judge Marsh set sentencing for 19 October. The delay, during which the women will be allowed to remain free within Oregon, will allow a pre-sentence report to be prepared to consider relevant issues such as past behaviour and character. The defence lawyers said there would be an appeal.

Ms Croft, an accountant from Totnes, Devon, and Ms Hagan, an aromatherapist from Bedmond, Hertfordshire, were both found to have joined the conspiracy hatched on the Rajneesh commune in the centre of the state to assassinate Federal Attorney Charles Turner, who was investigating massive immigration fraud in the cult. The commune, fell apart in late 1985. The Bhagwan died in India in 1990.

The outcome will enrage all those who fought for four years in Britain to oppose the extradition, which was eventually granted last July by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard. For Oregon, the verdict is one more spasm in the trauma that started for its citizens with the arrival of the Bhagwan and his several thousand red-robed disciples in 1981.

The US government, which has been pursuing the two women for five years, is likely to ask for a harsh sentence, which could technically be as high as life imprisonment, but it is likely to be more lenient. Because it is a federal case, the pair would normally be expected to serve all of what ever sentence is passed without the possibility of parole.

Neither woman would comment as they left the Portland courtroom. Defence lawyer Stephen Wax said: "The only thing we have to say is that we are disappointed with the verdict and it will be appealed".

For the prosecution, Timothy Reardon dismissed any suggestion that the pair may not have received a fair trial in Oregon. The jury had "heard the direct examination of the witnesses testifying about what they the did, what they saw and what they said. Through the crucible of vigorous cross-examinations, the jury was left with a clear understanding that these people were guilty".

Some of the jurors left the court visibly distraught, some in tears. Only on Thursday, they had had sent a note to the judge indicating that they were deadlocked on one of the defendants.

Polled individually by the judge, they all said they agreed with the verdicts.