Strange days when the guru came to town

The trial of two British members of the cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh has stirred dark memories in Oregon, writes David Usborne
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The Independent Online
If ever you are one of the thousands of tourists who pass each year through the town of The Dalles in northwestern Oregon, on the southern banks of the mighty Columbia River, pause a while outside City Hall. You will find there a war memorial in the form of a small bronze antelope, about 3ft high, beneath which are inscribed the famous words of Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

What can this possibly be about, here where the river hesitates before thrusting west and the only threat would seem to be the hordes of VW Beetle-borne windsurfing freaks? The same plaque offers the explanation. The figure of the antelope is dedicated not to the dead of Second World War or the conflict in Vietnam, but to "all who steadfastly and unwaveringly opposed the attempt of the Rajneesh followers to take political control of Wasco county, 1981-1985".

The memorial symbolises the trauma suffered by this state during those four years when it was involuntary host to the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the white-bearded guru from Pune, India, and his flock of several thousand red-garbed disciples. There are some other reminders, of course, including the abandoned, but eerily intact mini-nation they set up in the high Oregonian desert 75 miles south of The Dalles, outside a one-street hamlet named Antelope - hence the statue.

For a fuller sense of what happened, you might have sat for the past three weeks in the court of Judge Malcolm Marsh, downriver from The Dalles in the big city, Portland. There, Sally-Anne Croft and Susan Hagan, have been on trial for one crime among the many that were allegedly perpetrated by the Bhagwan and his followers. The charge laid against them was that they conspired to kill Charles Turner, then federal attorney in Oregon. Turner was appointed by President Reagan to lead an investigation into mass immigration fraud on the Antelope ranch, also known as Rajneeshpuram or Rancho Rajneesh. To the prosecutors in the case, Mr Turner was - still is, since he was never harmed - one of the "good men", while the two British women were among the leading purveyors of the "evil".

That the "neeshees" did more on their commune than sit in circles and meditate is beyond question. Rancho Rajneesh was the headquarters of a multimillion-dollar business empire, with tentacles extending around the globe. Even the Bhagwan's fabled fleet of 93 Rolls-Royces was more than a foible and expression of his corruption. The vehicles were bought and sold as a business venture. And as a defence against the threat of disruption by its enemies, the commune also moved quickly to try to take political control of the landscape immediately around it. That meant in Antelope itself and also in The Dalles, which is the seat of Wasco County on which the neeshees found themselves.

Overpowering the people of Antelope (pop: 39) was the easy part. Once the cult had successfully incorporated Rancho Rajneesh itself as a city, they were able to form a police force which at once began to assert itself in the town. Its officers trained at the Oregon state academy and were given all the usual hardware and more. Rajneesh Police cruisers began to patrol the highways, their drivers equipped with Uzi machine guns. Politically, the cult followers took control first of the tiny school and then of the Antelope city council itself. From there they proceeded to buy up as much of the community as possible. An early acquisition was the Antelope Cafe, which the cult renamed Zorba the Buddha. The town, too, lost its name: it became simply Rajneesh.

More challenging for the neeshees was thwarting the city leaders in The Dalles, who from the early days had gradually become more hostile to them. When elections approached for seats on the city council in late 1982, the commune followed a two-pronged approach to ensure a complete takeover of that council. For one, they bussed in 3,000 homeless people from all around the US and attempted to have them registered to vote - for the Bhagwan's candidates. While they waited for election day, the motley delegation was kept in dormitory blocks that locked from the outside and was sedated with drugs put into mashed potatoes.

The second strategy was more dramatic still, and explains why The Dalles felt compelled to erect its unusual memorial. Dressed in plain clothes, a team of neeshees travelled to the city in September 1984 and sprinkled laboratory-cultured salmonella germs on salad bars in four different restaurants. It was an experiment to see how easily the population could be poisoned. The final plan was similarly to poison the city's water supply on the eve of election day, thus disabling the entire enemy. That never happened and the neeshees failed to take the council seats, but as a dry run the salad-bar outing worked remarkably well. No one died, but 750 people went down with acute salmonella poisoning.

It was in mid-1985 that the commune finally began to spin apart, riven by in-fighting in the Bhagwan's senior echelons and gripped by intense paranoia about its ever more determined opponents outside. A squad was sent to infiltrate the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, which had been running investigative pieces into the commune, to sabotage its computers. On the ranch, an attempt was made to murder the Bhagwan's doctor - considered by others to have become too influential - by stabbing him in the backside with a poison-filled hypodermic needle. He escaped death, but only just.

The end of the cult became inevitable in September 1985 with the flight to Europe of Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan's personal secretary and, we now know, the dominating mistress of the commune and ring-leader of all its worst and weirdest deeds.

Speak now of the evil on the commune and Sheela is the name invoked. She served nearly four years for various offences, notably electronic eavesdropping. But in 1989, Sheela was released and fled again. It was only thereafter, in May 1990, that the charges were brought against seven former cult members for the alleged conspiracy to shoot Mr Turner. Several of those accused cut deals with the government to testify in return for short sentences and, in one case, even for immunity. Sheela, who is believed to be in Switzerland, has managed to remain beyond the long arm of Uncle Sam. But for the Feds, frustrated though they were, there were remained at liberty two others who had also been charged: Ms Hagan and Ms Croft. It took the Feds four years, but eventually, a year ago, they convinced the British Government to agree to their extradition.

It should be no surprise to anyone, here or in Britain, that the American authorities have pursued this case with a fervour verging on obsession. Mr Turner, after all, is one of their own, formerly the most senior legal official in the state who worked in the very same court in which this case has been tried. That there was a conspiracy has not been in doubt. And as the prosecution repeatedly pointed out, he was targeted because he was "doing his job": closing in on the commune for arranging scores of sham marriages to allow its foreign recruits to circumvent US immigration laws.

Nor, these days, is there much sentimentality among US officialdom about odd, radical cults. This might have been 10 years ago, but the sagas of David Koresh and, in Japan, of the underground gas attackers are fresh in the memory here.

Although neither Ms Croft nor Ms Hagan are figures that anyone actually seems to remember from the ranch, we do know they were very high up the Bhagwan's chain of command. Ms Croft, an accountant, was in charge of all of the commune's finances and Ms Hagan, now an aromatherapist, was president of the Rajneesh Investment Corporation, one of the tasks of which was the construction of the commune. Thus, for the prosecution, this British pair have been big fish, if not as big as the shark herself, Sheela. The Bhagwan himself, of course, has been dead for five years.

But the prosecutors, big-time lawyers all the way from Washington DC, are not the same as the people of Oregon. For all the fears in Britain that citizens here would be baying for the two women's blood, most have forgotten about the Rajneesh episode. Nor have they especially wanted to be reminded of it, whether by us - the throng of British journalists outside the court building - by the trial itself, or even by the little bronze antelope in The Dalles. The town went back to sleep long ago, and bid the neeshees good riddance.

Close combat: the Feds vs the 'neeshees'

For four years, the state of Oregon in America's Pacific Northwest found itself host to an unfamiliar and eventually thoroughly unwelcome religious cult from India, worshippers of the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. An episode that most would prefer to forget, it has taken 14 years to be played out:

1981 The bearded Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh flees tax investigators in Pune, India, and takes up home in the United States. In July, his trusted personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, purchases a 100-square mile ranch in a remote spot in central Oregon. Gradually, a city is built with a hotel, shopping mall and airstrip. At its peak, 6,000 cult followers will live there.

1982 The commune, until then known as Rancho Rajneesh, is formally incorporated as a city - Rajneeshpuram. An armed police force is formed, political control of the local community of Antelope is secured.

1983 Alarmed state and county authorities attempt to revoke the commune's status as a city.

1984 Rajneeshees seek to capture county government in The Dalles, busing in 3,000 homeless to vote for them. A dry-run experiment to poison the population of The Dalles with salmonella germs leaves 750 ill.

1985 Fearing investigation into immigration fraud on the commune, Sheela convenes meetings of hierarchy to discuss assassinating the federal attorney Charles Turner. Among those later charged with attending are two Britons, Sally-Anne Croft and Susan Hagan. Commune starts to disintegrate in September. Sheela resigns and flees to Europe; Bhagwan accuses Sheela of crimes and invites FBI on to ranch. Commune later closes. Cult members begin to approach authorities with stories of alleged plot to kill Turner.

1986 Bhagwan returns to India after moves to other countries, including Britain, are blocked. He dies in Pune in 1990. Sheela jailed for electronic eavesdropping and other charges.

1990 In May, a federal grand jury indicts seven people for participation in the conspiracy to kill Turner. Among them are Croft and Hagan. US submits extradition request to Britain. Montana millionaire buys Rancho Rajneesh, restores old name of Big Muddy.

1994 In July, Croft and Hagan fail in efforts to resist extradition, and are flown to Oregon. They are allowed to remain free, but within state boundaries, pending trial.

1995 Trial of US Government v Croft and Hagan begins 5 July.

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