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Guru, 8 Followers Jailed After Cross-Country Flight

Times Staff Writers

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and eight followers were jailed by federal marshals Monday after his two chartered Learjets landed here in what the government said was an effort by the Indian guru to flee his strife-torn Oregon commune for Bermuda to avoid prosecution in the United States.

The surprise arrest came hours before a federal grand jury in Oregon unsealed a 35-count indictment charging the bhagwan and his followers with conspiracy and false statements in connection with a scheme to bring illegal immigrants into the United States.

In a hearing late Monday in Charlotte, the bhagwan, 53, was also charged with illegal flight to avoid prosecution. Six others, apparently followers of the guru, were taken off the two jets and charged with aiding the bhagwan’s escape and concealing him from federal officers.

Two Charlotte residents who, the government alleged, had planned to meet the retinue with fresh pilots and planes for the final leg of the trip, also were arrested but later were released.

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The bhagwan, attired in flowing gray robes with dark diamonds and a gray-striped knit cap, complained during the 90-minute hearing that the courthouse’s hard benches aggravated a back problem, but he was otherwise silent. U.S. Magistrate Barbara DeLaney ordered the guru and his followers held until a preliminary hearing Thursday.

Meanwhile in Portland, Marla Rae, spokeswoman for Oregon State Atty. Gen. David Frohnmayer, confirmed late Monday that Ma Anand Sheela, the guru’s former personal secretary, and two other followers had been arrested in West Germany earlier in the day on charges in Oregon.

The state indictments charged the three with first-degree assault, attempted murder and conspiracy in alleged attempts to poison Swami Devaraj, Rajneesh’s personal physician. One of those indicted on the state charges is Ma Anand Puja, who had been in charge of the Rajneesh medical facilities at Rajneeshpuram, formerly Antelope, Ore.

Same Federal Charges

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In addition, Sheela and Ma Yoga Vidya face the same federal charges that confront Rajneesh and the other followers arraigned in Charlotte and Portland.

Monday’s arrests climaxed a stormy four-year controversy that began when the guru and several hundred followers moved from Poona, India, to Central Oregon and took over the Antelope city government. Eventually they were accused of violating U.S. immigration laws and of trying to take over the Wasco County government.

Last month, the guru’s top aide and about a dozen other followers fled the commune amid charges by Rajneesh that they had attempted murders, bugged telephones and absconded with millions of dollars.

A gun-toting team of about 15 U.S. marshals, Customs Service agents, airport police and Charlotte city police seized the bhagwan’s jets after they touched down at 10:30 p.m. Sunday at a private air terminal at Charlotte’s main airport.

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“We let them touch down and took that first plane into custody, and then the second one came down and hesitated for a few seconds and then shut its engines off,” said Frank Herrin, a criminal investigator with the U.S. marshal’s service in Charlotte. “That was the one that the bhagwan was on.”

Federal officials later said they had tracked the two jets almost from the moment they took off from the guru’s mountainous 64,000-acre commune in Rajneeshpuram, about 120 miles southeast of Portland.

Dramatic Trip

The arrests cut short what federal officials depicted as a dramatic cross-country trip by the controversial guru and his followers.

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In papers filed in U.S. District Court here and in Portland, federal investigators claimed that the bhagwan was fleeing his commune to escape secret federal indictment that his Los Angeles attorney had learned about.

An affidavit filed in Portland stated that Peter Schey, a prominent immigration attorney and the founder of the National Center for Immigrants Rights Inc., had told the U.S. Attorney in Portland on Oct. 25 that he knew an indictment of the bhagwan and four others had been secretly handed down in Oregon and would be made public Monday.

The affidavit said Schey offered to fly the bhagwan to Portland for voluntary surrender if the guru were released on bail, a pledge the federal attorney could not make.

According to the affidavit, an attorney and a Chicago Tribune reporter at the Oregon commune told federal officials late Sunday that the bhagwan had left his Oregon ranch.

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Learjets Tracked

Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic officials tracked the two Learjets--one carrying the guru, the other his elaborate throne--to refueling stops in Pueblo, Colo., and in Salt Lake City before their stop in Charlotte.

Herrin said the passengers were formally taken into custody about 12:15 a.m. Monday. A flight bag containing a gun was found on the Tarmac next to the plane, but Customs Service officials declined to state what they found during more thorough searches of the two jets Monday morning.

The four pilots who captained the chartered planes were not charged.

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In the hearing Monday in Charlotte, Assistant U.S. Atty. Debra J. Stuart said she would ask that the bhagwan and his six followers be held without bail pending a trial on the charges.

Besides the threat that they would flee the country if set free, she said, there would be, “tangentially, a danger to the community” if they were released.

Stuart cited oft-repeated charges that disciples at the Oregon commune had poisoned the water supply of a nearby Oregon town, The Dalles, and that some disciples had plotted murders of federal officials.

The five lawyers representing the bhagwan and his followers pleaded repeatedly for attention to the bhagwan’s medical problems, which they said left him unable to stay in a normal jail cell.

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Schey and an Oregon attorney, Swami Prem Niren, urged that the bhagwan be placed in a sterile hospital room pending the Thursday hearing because of a compressed disc in his back, a “life-long” case of diabetes and asthmatic allergies to dust, wool, molts, molds, perfume, smoke and polyester.

Attorneys described him as living in a virtual “bubble,” enthroned in a deep-cleaned and hermetically sealed house and screened from anyone who bathed in scented soap or wore offensive clothes.

Attorney Niren explained at one point that the bhagwan prefers Rolls-Royce automobiles--he owns more than 90--because the car “has the only seat that is comfortable” for the guru’s ailing back.

At two points in the hearing, the bhagwan rose to complain that he could not sit comfortably in the courtroom or sleep in his jail cell.

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“I have been sitting all night on a stiff bench. Not even a pillow has been given me,” he told DeLaney.

DeLaney denied special treatment to the guru pending a medical examination but rebuked his lawyers, all of whom sat on comfortable padded chairs.

“Gentlemen, you’re sitting there with pillows in your chairs. Why don’t you give the bhagwan one of your pillows?” she asked.

In Portland on Monday, four other disciples named in the indictment were arraigned in U.S. District Court and were ordered to appear for a detention hearing on Thursday.

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Ma Prem Arup, Ma Prem Mukta, Ma Prem Padma and Ma Prem Naveena were charged with conspiracy, making false statements to the U.S. government and engaging in sham marriages in order to obtain immigration benefits.

Arup is a citizen of Holland and Mukta is a citizen of Ireland. The other two are U.S. citizens.

U.S. District Judge Edward Leavy allowed the four to remain free on their own recognizance after their attorney, Janet Hoffman, argued that “they have done everything possible” to cooperate.

Craig Casey, assistant U.S. attorney in Portland, said another disciple, who had left the United States earlier, also faces federal charges. He said he understood that Ma Prem Karuna was going to surrender to Scotland Yard in London shortly.

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Michael Wines reported from Charlotte, N.C., and Russell Chandler from Portland.


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