Cult conspiracy case to end in jury gamble

British women charged with plot to kill US law officer face life as defence rests after single witness. David Usborne reports
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The Independent Online
A decade after the free-love Indian cult they helped run on a ranch in Oregon fell to pieces, two British women face possible conviction and heavy jail sentences next week for their alleged roles in a plot to assassinate the state's highest legal officer, the US federal attorney.

The trial in Portland, the state capital, of Sally-Anne Croft and Susan Hagan, extradited to America last year after a long and highly-publicised struggle,is expected to wind up with closing arguments on Monday after defence lawyers stunned the court late on Thursday by resting its case after calling one witness. If found guilty, the women could face life imprisonment.

The defence team, which had been expected to take at least two weeks bringing witnesses, refused to comment on the decision. Leslie Weatherhead, Ms Croft's lawyer, said only: "Come listen to closing arguments." They hope to discredit the 29 prosecution witnesses, most of whom belonged to the cult and have cut plea-bargaining deals.

Ms Croft, 45, an accountant from Totnes, Devon, and Ms Hagan, 48, an aromatherapist from Bedmond, Hertfordshire, were both senior financial aides to the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

The controversial Indian guru, who had a taste for Rolls-Royces and advocated "cosmic orgasms", in 1981 brought swarms of his saffron-clad followers to the 60,000-acre Muddy Ranch in Antelope, a tiny town in the high desert, and turned it into a thriving, heavily armed mini-nation that he renamed Rajneeshpuram. Identified through the trial by their former cult names of Ma Prem Savita and Ma Anand Su, Ms Croft and Ms Hagan are accused of taking part in a conspiracy hatched to murder the US federal attorney in Oregon of the time, Charles Turner, to prevent him from uncovering mass immigration fraud at the commune where phoney marriages were arranged to allow recruits to remain in the US. The plot was never carried out.

Witnesses for the prosecution testified that both Ms Croft and Ms Hagan took part in meetings where plans to shoot Mr Turner were discussed. Ms Croft, who controlled the commune's finances, allegedly provided the money for the purchase of guns from Texas. One witness said she saw Ms Croft hand an envelope with the necessary money to one of the putative assassins. Ms Croft was described by several witnesses as being third in command at the cult after the Bhagwan and his acid-tongued personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela.

Ms Hagan, who headed the powerful Rajneesh Investment Corporation that oversaw the construction of Rajneeshpuram, which at its end boasted its own shopping mall, hotel, hospital and airstrip, was said to have given a "pep talk" after one of the meetings on the necessity of defending the commune against the threat represented by Mr Turner. Charges of immigration fraud and attempted murder of the Rajneesh's doctor and revelations of massive wire-tapping led to the disintegration of the commune later in 1985. After paying a $400,000 fine, the Bhagwan fled to India where he died in 1990.

Among those to have testified is Mr Turner himself, who recounted catching David Knapp, the former mayor of Rajneeshpuram, surreptitiously taking photographs of him outside his home. Mr Knapp also admitted photographing the former attorney with a palm-sized camera. As evidence, the prosecution also submitted five guns that were bought as part of the plan.

The sole witness for the defence was another former cult member, John Shelfer, who was once married to Sheela, now at large and believed to be in Switzerland. His testimony appeared to backfire on the defence, however, after he said that Ms Hagan may have attended one of the conspirators' meetings, contradicting what he told a grand jury five years ago.

The decision to rest its case may reflect confidence in the defence team that it can convince the jury of the unreliability of the five witnesses that are key to the prosecution's case. All were members of the commune and most escaped heavy sentences through plea bargains. Moreover, many have admitted lying under oath in the past.