Plea bargain led to Bhagwan plot charges

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The Independent Online
THE TWO former British followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who were last week deported to the United States by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, face 20 years in jail because of a plea bargain by a German lesbian who wanted to travel the world with her lover.

Yesterday, Sally-Anne Croft, 44, and Susan Hagan, 47, were spending their first day under electronically monitored probation in Portland, Oregon. They were taken to court in handcuffs on Friday and charged with being part of a 1985 conspiracy to murder Charles Turner, a federal attorney who was investigating a local commune for followers of the guru.

British supporters of the women - who include Lord Scarman, the former law lord, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown - warned Mr Howard that a decision to deport the women could lead to a miscarriage of justice.

One of their many concerns was that there was no suggestion that Ms Croft, a City accountant, and Ms Hagan, an aromatherapist, were involved in any plot until 1990 - five years after they had renounced the Bhagwan and left the US.

Last week, members of the Oregon prosecution team revealed in private that the basis for the case against them was a 'sweetheart deal' between the US authorities and Alma Peralta, an ex-commune member.

After the commune disintegrated amid in-fighting and battles with local people, Ms Peralta went to Germany, they said. She moved in with a rich woman but found that if she left the country she faced extradition and arrest on charges of organising illegal wire-tapping of commune members.

In 1990, she decided to rid herself of her fugitive status. In return for identifying other members of the alleged conspiracy (no attempt was made on Mr Turner's life) she received a two-year prison sentence.

The federal prosecutor, Timothy Reardon III, said at her 1990 trial that the decision to do a deal had been 'difficult but clear . . . and (had) broken the ring of silence'.

Andrew McCooey, Ms Croft's British solicitor, was not allowed access to papers covering Ms Peralta's negotiations with the FBI when he attempted to fight the extradition in the British courts.

The other evidence against the Britons is compromised. Ava Avalos, a former member of the commune, spoke of a conspiracy to kill Mr Turner in evidence given in 1985 in exchange for immunity from prosecution. She did not say that Ms Croft and Ms Hagan were involved. But in 1990, after the evidence from Germany, she changed her story and implicated the British women.

David Knapp, another commune member who was granted immunity, followed the same path. In his 1985 evidence, Ms Hagan and Ms Croft are not mentioned. In 1990, they are members of a conspiracy.

Mr McCooey said yesterday: 'If these people do not stand by their evidence in court, all deals are off and they can go to jail for life like Susan and Sally. It flies in the face of common sense to believe that these people are not under enormous pressure to stand by the story the authorities want.

'No British court would accept evidence like this. But I'm afraid when Britain is under pressure from the Americans it takes a great Home Secretary to stand up for British citizens. Michael Howard is many things but he is most certainly not that.'

The women will remain out on bail on condition they wear electronic tags. Their trial will begin on 27 September.

(Photograph omitted)