Two high-ranking officials in Oregon's once notorious Rajneeshee cult pleaded guilty Friday to 15-year-old federal wiretapping charges, canceling international warrants that effectively confined them to Great Britain.
Sally-Anne Croft and Susan Hagan, formerly known as Ma Prem Savita and Ma Anand Su respectively, came to the United States voluntarily to clear up the remaining charges against them, said Barry Sheldahl, assistant U.S. Attorney.
Judge Malcolm F. Marsh gave them suspended probationary sentences, agreeing that the women had led meaningful lives since their April 1998 release from federal prison where they served time for conspiring to kill the former U.S. attorney for Oregon, Charles Turner.
Croft and Hagan were among thousands of followers of the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian guru who created a cult devoted to a religious practice made up of bits and pieces of several religions and philosophies.
Between 1981 and 1985, the group lived on a 64,229-acre commune called Rancho Rajneesh, which sprawled across Wasco and Jefferson counties. Despite having served time on the murder plot, Croft and Hagan were wanted on a 1985 indictment for their roles in establishing and operating an elaborate telephone taping system that recorded thousands of calls to and from homes and offices in the commune. The system was put in place following fears that insiders were plotting to murder the Bhagwan.
"It started off with paranoia and it turned into something like the KGB," Sheldahl said. "It was an intelligence gathering unit." Convicted of conspiracy Both British citizens, Croft and Hagan were extradited to the United States in 1994 and convicted of the murder conspiracy. But the extradition agreement with Great Britain did not allow a trial on the wiretapping charges.
Following a brief court appearance Friday in which the women admitted their parts in the wiretapping felony, Hagan, 53, said she came back to the United States to find "closure." Croft, 51, declined to comment.
The settlement allows them to travel to other countries without the fear of being arrested on the outstanding U.S. warrants.
While Sheldahl told the judge that both women "are not the same people they were in 1985," he stressed that the wiretapping was a serious crime that harassed both commune dwellers and visitors. Federal agents had seized more than 3,000 cassette tapes of recorded telephone conversations during an investigation into immigration fraud by the Rajneeshees, Sheldahl said. The group was arranging sham marriages to help Rajneesh and his followers stay in the United States.
The Bhagwan's closest advisers, including Croft, Hagan and Sheela Birnstiel, who called herself Ma Anand Sheela, fled the country amid accusations of the wiretappings and other crimes, including the 1984 spread of salmonella germs in salad bars of restaurants in The Dalles that made about 750 people ill.
The investigation into the salmonella outbreak eventually uncovered the plot to kill Turner. He was never attacked, but a group of the Rajneesh's followers assembled a hit team in 1985. They bought guns, watched Turner's home, office and car, and discussed ways to assassinate him. They hoped his death would derail the investigation.
As chief lieutenant for the Bhagwan, Birnstiel is arguably the most well known of the cult leaders. Now 50, she has lived in Switzerland since late 1988 after serving 29 months on a variety of state and federal charges, including attempted murder, assault, arson and wiretapping.
Switzerland declined to extradite her on the conspiracy to kill Turner, which was discovered after she left the United States. The Swiss instead agreed to try her, and although she was found guilty, she was sentenced to time served. Today, she cares for patients in two nursing homes.
In all, 22 defendants were charged in the wiretapping case. One died; 16, including Hagan and Croft, were convicted and five remain at large, possibly in other countries.