Youthful odyssey returns to haunt former disciples

The Bagwhan trial: Indian voyage of discovery led women from dream- like existence to ranch in US backwater spreading the word
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The Independent Online
It was the kind of youthful odyssey that was supposed to lead to enlightenment, to a fresh view on life - perhaps even to a little fun along the way. It certainly wasn't meant to end like this.

When Sally-Anne Croft veered off the hippie trail in 1976 and stepped into the arms of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh sect in Poona, a small community inland from Bombay, she thought she had found a peace she had known only in her dreams.

"The main tenets of the religion were 'Love, Life and Laughter'," Ms Croft, 45, said before she was extradited last July. "We achieved that in India but we were never accepted in America. Finally, the external pressures were so great that the community collapsed."

The Bhagwan's big idea - to spread his teachings across the US - seemed plausible from his idyllic eyrie in Poona, but it was to prove disastrous in the face of American conservatism and the sect's own insularity.

When he decided to set up a commune in Antelope, Oregon, in 1981, renaming the 66,000-acre Big Muddy Ranch "Rajneeshpuram", the locals were understandably perturbed. They were suspicious of the 6,000 Rajneeshees with their orange robes and strange ways.

Their main concern, that the outsiders would take over the local political system were, in part, justified. The Rajneeshees did want to instigate change, but from within the democratic framework. However, when that extended to busing in down-and-outs and registering them to vote, tensions began to mount.

"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 infected food in local restaurants with salmonella. More than 700 people were taken to hospital. Add to that evidence the group was buying arms and the reasons for the almost pathological hatred of the group becomes clear.

While Sally-Anne Croft was working as the sect's accountant, Susan Hagan, 48, was supervising the building of roads and dams within the community. She, too, had joined the sect in Poona but not out of conviction. A former husband wanted to join and, with their marriage under strain, she followed. Like Ms Croft, she turned her back on the religion when it began to collapse in 1985.

They both returned to England and forgot about their experiences. Ms Hagan worked as an aromatherapist and had two children. Ms Croft rose to a very senior rank within a City firm of accountants.

Then, in 1990, they learned of attempts to extradite them to America to face charges of conspiring to murder Charles Turner, the US district attorney who had been investigating the sect. They later learned that they had been implicated by other members who were granted immunity from prosecution, or reduced sentences.

Ms Hagan and Ms Croft always denied being part of any conspiracy. There was evidence that Mr Turner was put under surveillance and that guns were bought for a possible assassination attempt, but Mr Turner was never harmed.

For four years, the women fought extradition, earning support from Lords Scarman, Morris and Longford and securing the signatures of 80 MPs, including Tony Blair, on an early day motion calling for a debate in Parliament.

But after repeated applications for a judicial review of Mr Howard's decision not to reject the extradition request, the women ran out of legal avenues and agreed to go peacefully.

Almost exactly a year ago, bewildered and in tears, they were put on board an aircraft bound for Portland.