Armed U.S. marshals surrounded two private jets and arrested Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and eight of his followers for immigration violations today during a stopover on a flight from his Oregon commune to Bermuda.
Federal authorities said the self-proclaimed “rich man’s guru” was attempting to flee the country to avoid prosecution on the immigration charges when authorities surprised him at the Charlotte airport.
“We had sealed indictments and felt they were going out of the country. They had two planes chartered to go to Bermuda from here,” Chief U.S. Deputy Marshal Raymond Abrams said. He said Rajneesh will be charged with violations of U.S. immigration laws.
Handcuffed and Jailed
Rajneesh, 53, and his followers were handcuffed and held in cells at the marshal’s office pending arraignment later today before U.S. Magistrate Barbara Delaney.
Federal authorities had tracked the chartered Learjets with radar across the country and surprised the guru and his entourage when they landed in Charlotte at 2 a.m. Rajneesh and 12 others, including two followers awaiting the planes on the ground, were taken into custody, but four pilots were questioned and released.
U.S. Atty. Charles H. Turner in Portland said Rajneesh apparently fled to avoid arrest on a 35-count secret indictment handed down by a federal grand jury on Wednesday. Turner said an attorney representing Rajneesh called him Sunday and asked about bail, indicating that he was aware of of the grand jury action.
‘The Guy Fled’
"(Rajneesh) knew when the indictment was returned. He knew the names. As soon as that happened, the guy fled,” he said.
Documents filed in federal court in Portland said an investigation of Rajneesh’s activities involved “suspected patterns of marriage fraud among Rajneeshees, as well as allegations that individual marriages have been entered into for the purpose of securing immigration benefits or evading immigration laws.”
The indictment charged Rajneesh with making false statements to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and conspiring to defraud the government.
The arrests came less than two months after a split in the sect’s leadership. The guru accused his former assistant Ma Prem Sheela of stealing money and plotting murders.
The guru’s followers launched an immediate effort to spring Rajneesh from custody. A spokeswoman for Rajneesh in Oregon, Ma Prem Isabell, said three attorneys were dispatched to Charlotte to try to free the guru because of his health.
“I am worried about what this is going to do to his health,” she said. “He is always extremely allergic. He has a totally bad back and has juvenile diabetes.”
Sources said Rajneesh departed from a private airstrip at his commune, Rajneeshpuram, shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday after an official send-off by a group of his disciples.
Abrams said the two jets were tracked by radar when they landed in Salt Lake City and in Pueblo, Colo. U.S. marshal’s office investigator Frank Herrin said Rajneesh’s party filed a flight plan to stop in Charlotte “and we had agents and police out there.”
Private Landing Area
When the planes landed, he said, they were directed to a private landing zone at the airport.
“Nothing was done until the second plane landed. Then we moved in on them. To say the least, they were shocked,” Abrams said.
Herrin said there was no problem in identifying Rajneesh. “He was wearing a cap like a toboggan and a bluish-gray robe like a cape with stars down each side.”
The bhagwan (the name means “blessed one”) wears a diamond-studded watch and has a collection of at least 90 Rolls-Royce automobiles that are owned by a trust.
Rajneesh’s heavily fortified commune, set up four years ago, includes the city of Rajneeshpuram, which has about 1,500 permanent residents. The town has its own airport, hotel, shopping mall and meditation school.