`Love cult' women stand accused of death plot

The Bhagwan affair: Trial begins of the two Britons extradited to US accused of helping to plan federal attorney's murder
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The Independent Online

New York

Two British women extradited to the United States a year ago who were members of a "free love" cult in the 1980s were accused in court yesterday of participating in a plot to murder a US federal attorney in 1985.

The allegation was outlined at the opening of the trial of Sally-Ann Croft and Susan Hagan in Portland, Oregon. Both women, who face life imprisonment if found guilty, have denied the charges.

As friends and media crammed into the court yesterday, the US prosecutor, Tim Reardon, argued that the two women, who were followers of the Indian cult guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, had taken part in "killing conferences" at the sect's headquarters at which the murder of Charles Turner was plotted. Both Ms Croft, 45, and Ms Hagan, 48, were senior financial advisors to Rajneesh, who established a self-contained city for his followers in the high desert of central Oregon, after moving there from India in 1980.

The prosecution said that the two women were pivotal in organising the purchase of arms for the murder of Mr Turner, who at the time was investigating alleged fraud within the sect. The conspiracy to kill Mr Turner, who is expected to testify at the trial, was never carried out.

According to the prosecution, members of the sect were dispatched to different states to buy guns while others plotted Mr Turner's movements in Portland, where he worked and lived. Mr Reardon said he planned to exhibit five weapons that were dredged from the bottom of a lake near the sect's ranch.

The Oregon settlement fell apart later in 1985 after Rajneesh pleaded guilty to immigration fraud and fled the country.

As part of his settlement with the US authorities, he surrendered his property and his collection of some 90 Rolls-Royces that his followers had maintained for him there.

The two British women, who fought extradition for this trial for four years, seemed relaxed in court and smiled as they went in. Ms Croft is from Totnes, Devon, and Ms Hagan from Bedmond, Hertfordshire.

Ms Croft's defence lawyer, Leslie Weatherhead, said yesterday that the US government's case was built on the testimonies of other former sect members who had cut deals with the prosecution and were known liars. He also said Ms Croft had become "smitten" with the guru when she first met him during a visit to India and had been devastated when he abandoned her and the other followers so abruptly in 1985.

The trial, with a jury of 10 women and 2 men, is expected to last several weeks. The defence lawyers had sought to have the trial held in a different state, on the grounds that their clients could not get a fair hearing in Oregon, where memories of the Rajneesh sect remain very coloured.

Elaborating on the role of the two defendants in the murder plot, Mr Reardon admitted they had not left the "executive suite" of the sect headquarters. But he said: "There was an agreement on the ranch in Oregon and the agreement was taken further by people who were very clearly underlings of these ladies"