German police picked up Anand Sheela in a town near Frankfort, Germany, last week after she appeared on a television show to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of her former mentor, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Sheela was quickly released, however, because the Interpol warrant for her arrest had been canceled.
Sheela, who was the Indian guru's outspoken and flamboyant spokeswoman during the bhagwan's tumultuous years in Oregon, is no longer wanted by the United States for plotting to kill a federal prosecutor, because the case was turned over to Swiss justice last year.
A Swiss court convicted her of the conspiracy charge in February 1999 and sentenced her to time already served, which means that Sheela no longer has to fear arrest on outstanding U.S. warrants when she leaves her adopted country.
It was unclear Friday why the Justice Department was so slow to spread the word about the February 1999 conviction. "It's a misstep on the Department of Justice's part and a misstep on our responsibility to get the information out to the public," said spokesman John Russell.
Charles Turner, the target of the plot, who retired in 1993 after 11 years' service as Oregon's U.S. attorney and now lives in Washington state, never received a copy of the Swiss judgment.
And in Portland, FBI spokesman Gordon Compton was still saying Wednesday that the warrant for Sheela's arrest remained in place. On Friday, he corrected himself, saying the warrant was no longer in effect but that it apparently had remained erroneously on a law enforcement database -- which led to Sheela's being detained last week in Germany.
Sheela, who just returned to Switzerland Friday from a vacation in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said, "I travel all over without any problems." Turner said Sheela might have problems returning to the United States because of her felony convictions.
Sheela served three years in prison for assault, attempted murder, arson, wiretapping and causing a food poisoning epidemic in The Dalles that made 750 people sick. She was released from prison in 1988 and deported. Two years later a federal grand jury indicted Sheela and six other members of the commune on conspiracy charges in a plot to kill Turner. Evidence in the case showed that Rajneeshee plotters, concerned about the federal prosecutor's ongoing criminal investigation into their Oregon commune and the sect's machinations, staked out Turner's house in 1985, bought guns illegally and planned where and how they would kill him. Sheela took the lead in the conspiracy.
Two members of the plot were extradited from England and tried on the charges; Sheela was the widow of a Swiss citizen by then and immune to extradition.
The arrangement to try Sheela in Switzerland on the U.S. indictment "was almost without precedent, I'm told," said Baron C. Sheldahl, an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland. "The Swiss would not extradite (Sheela), and they agreed to try her in Switzerland if we would supply them with the evidence." The Swiss proceeding, in a court in the Canton of Basel, relied on evidence gathered by the federal investigators and federal court transcripts that had been translated into German. Sheela was found guilty of the equivalent Swiss charge.
The Swiss court did not impose a sentence in addition to one Sheela received more than a decade ago in a federal court on the earlier charges, but Sheela was ordered to pay 15,325 Swiss francs, a share of court costs, which amounts to just less than $9,655 U.S., less than half the total cost. The February 1999 sentence was mitigated, according to the Swiss judgment, "because a relatively long period of time has passed since the crime was committed in 1985 and because (Sheela) has been conducting herself well since then."
Sheela, now Sheela Birnstiel, is a Swiss citizen and the owner and operator of two nursing homes.
In a telephone interview Friday morning, Sheela said she thinks a Rajneeshee from Cologne who appeared on the television program with her tipped off officials. Police released Sheela about two or three hours later, she said, after she presented a copy of the Swiss judgment to police and a flurry of faxes and telephone calls were exchanged.
Until the judgment was entered, Sheela essentially was confined to Switzerland, because she risked arrest and extradition if she crossed the border. Switzerland has no extradition treaty with the United States. Sheela's conviction leaves unresolved the charges against only two of the seven co-conspirators named in the 1990 conspiracy-to-kill indictment. According to the Swiss judgment, extradition is pending for South African Ann Phyllis McCarthy, also known as Yoga Vidya. In 1991, a German court refused to extradite Catherine Jane Stubbs Storck, also known as Shanti Bhadra, an Australian married to a German and living in Germany.