On a hippy mission to murder?: Two former devotees of the 'sex cult' guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, face extradition to the United States for their alleged part in a conspiracy to kill a US federal attorney in 1985. Nick Cohen reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN the High Court in London last week two polite and very apprehensive women, one an accountant in a large central London firm, the other a Home Counties aromatherapist, sat quietly as potentially devastating claims about a past they had half forgotten were put to the judges.

As befits middle-aged professionals, they were dressed in business suits and flat shoes. They listened carefully while lawyers argued whether the US Justice Department should be allowed to extradite them for crimes they had allegedly committed on the other side of the Atlantic nine years ago.

The charge, if they are extradited, will be conspiracy to murder a US federal attorney. The penalty, if they are convicted, will be life sentences in a United States jail.

Last Tuesday they lost their last realistic chance of getting the deportations stopped when the judges threw out their defence argument that the case against them was an abuse of the legal process. Their only hope is an appeal to Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary. If that fails - as it almost certainly will - they will be sent to await trial in an Oregon prison early in the New Year.

Sally Croft, 42, from Greenwich, south London and Susan Hagan, 45, a mother of two from Hertfordshire who works with Aids patients, have found that their youthful enthusiasm for mysticism and 'alternative' life- styles now threatens to ruin their present lives.

Once, their names were Ma Prem Savita and Ma Anand Su and they wore dark orange robes. They were followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, described as 'the messiah America has been waiting for' by his friends and the 'sex guru' by his enemies.

The Bhagwan (the name means 'god') convinced his followers that enlightenment and 'contemplative release from self' would come if they practised love, laughter and the worship of his fleet of 91 Rolls-Royces.

But his vision of building a 'spiritually mind-broadening' city for his thousands of Western acolytes in the arid wilderness near the small town of Antelope, Oregon, led to paranoia and violence rather than inner peace.

The Bhagwan set up a commune on a 66,000-acre ranch in August 1981. During a tumultuous four years, the Big Muddy Ranch, renamed Rajneeshpuram, became an international circus, attracting thousands of followers.

Sally Croft arrived in Oregon by way of India. She had discovered the Bhagwan in 1976 when a holiday accidentally took her to his original Indian commune in Poona. Her accountancy business in London seemed stale and pointless in comparison to the promises of a new spiritual life.

She gave up her practice and became a follower. She rose to become a senior financial adviser dealing with the legal and business interests of the Bhagwan's worldwide network of trusts and corporations.

But by 1985 the empire was falling apart. Native Oregonians were furious at what they saw as a take-over of the local political system by the Rajneeshees. '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 - which did not include Hagan and Croft - set about infecting food in local restaurants with the salmonella bacteria. Some 750 people were taken to hospital. The band also set up an elaborate phone tapping network and attempted to murder local opponents.

They may also in 1985 have plotted to murder the US Attorney for Oregon, Charles H Turner, who was striking at the heart of the commune by filing deportation orders against their members. The Bhagwan returned to Poona after being charged with illegal immigration and 21 countries had turned him away.

If there was a conspiracy to kill Charles Turner, it never came to fruition. Police stumbled on the alleged plot in 1986, a year after the commune had broken up, when 'surveillance photographs' of Turner's home were found in abandoned files at the ranch.

'It was very sinister,' Mr Turner recalled last week. 'I live hundreds of miles away in a rural area that is very hard to find. My wife and I realised that something quite sophisticated had been going on. I slept with my gun by the bed for a long time after that and security guards checked my car for bombs every morning.'

But, apart from the photographs, the US authorities had no further evidence of a plot. They let the matter drop and pursued those responsible for phone tapping and food poisoning. Then in 1990 four ex-followers of the Bhagwan gave themselves up to investigators.

One claimed Ms Croft had authorised payments to a follower who was sent to buy guns in New Mexico for the assassination plot. Another alleged that Ms Hagan had attended a meeting where plans to kill Mr Taylor were discussed.

Neither of the women had been accused before of criminal activity; neither was connected with the photographs of Mr Taylor's house. They left the United States in 1985 - initially for West Germany - before the community collapsed in strife.

'One day in 1985,' Ms Croft said, 'I realised the Bhagwan did not share the vision I had been working for. It was not a dramatic moment. He just said to me he did not care about the people in the community and my illusion was broken . . . it was like someone sticking a pin in a balloon. I asked myself if he did not believe, what on earth was I doing? I decided to go.'

In court last week, lawyers argued that there was every reason to believe the women and doubt their accusers. They pointed out that the US Justice Department was relying on witnesses, who had entered 'plea bargains', to justify the extradition orders.

The witnesses had been guaranteed lenient sentences if they provided evidence to support the prosecution case against other ex- members of the commune. Edward Fitzgerald, Croft's and Hagan's barrister, said the witnesses faced either 'five years if you co-operated, life if you did not'.

Katrina Pflaumer, a leading West Coast lawyer, who has defended several Rajneeshees in the past, said one of her own clients had pleaded guilty, despite claiming her innocence in private, to avoid the risk of a heavy jail term.

German courts have rejected a similar request for an extradition order for another member of the alleged conspiracy. The court had doubts over the American plea bargaining system and believed witnesses had made contradictory and inconsistent statements under pressure.

Andrew McCooey, Croft's and Hagan's British solicitor, said he was appalled that the English High Court had not done the same. 'The reason this is happening is that the British authorities are frightened of upsetting the US Government in case the Americans in turn refuse to extradite IRA suspects to England,' he said. The case against his clients 'reeked of prejudice, forced confessions and bad faith on the part of the US Government'.

Mr McCooey said the original statements the four witnesses made to FBI investigators contained no allegations that Hagan and Croft were involved in a conspiracy. The bureau has refused access to other files, which, he said, could clear the women.

'We need to ask why did the FBI take no action against my clients until one day before the time limit on bringing a prosection ran out? Why have the US authorities refused to agree to have a trial heard outside Oregon away from the prejudiced local community?'

The High Court, however, ruled that the incriminating statements from Hagan's and Croft's former friends in the commune did amount to a case for extradition. It was up to a US jury, which would be vetted to ensure a fair hearing, to decide whom to believe.

The court was confident that an impartial jury could be found. But Oregon academics, in an affidavit to the court, said they were not so sure. They said that Harry Lonsdale, a Democrat who ran in Oregon this year for the Senate, destroyed his chances in the election by having once described the Bhagwan as 'gentle'.

The charges against Hagan and Croft were first made in 1990, just days before local elections which had turned the long closed commune into an election issue again.

An opinion poll of potential Oregon jurors, conducted for Hagan and Croft, found that 70 per cent of those questioned said they would not trust an ex-follower of the Bhagwan to tell the truth.

The imminent extradition has left Susan Hagan devastated. She was taut and gaunt throughout the proceedings last week and did not want to talk afterwards. Sally Croft, however, decided to give an interview, even though she knew the publicity could destroy her career.

'The judge left me with no choice, I've got to start fighting my case,' she said. 'Susie and I know that if we go to America we will face a deeply prejudiced system which has already prejudged our case.

' But we're not going to plead guilty or do deals. The one thing we know is that we're innocent.'

(Photographs omitted)