Ex-Aide to Indian Guru Pleads Guilty to Charges
Eight months after Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s commune dissolved, his former secretary pleaded guilty to attempted murder, electronic eavesdropping, immigration fraud and engineering a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 750 people.
Ma Anand Sheela, 36, was given concurrent, 4 1/2-year federal prison terms and a suspended 5-year sentence Tuesday after admitting her guilt before U.S. District Judge Edward Leavy.
Sheela admitted creating an electronic eavesdropping system at Rajneeshpuram, the sect’s commune-city, and conspiring to spread salmonella bacteria on food in 10 restaurants in the area.
The five-year immigration fraud sentence, for helping to arrange more than 400 sham marriages among the guru’s disciples, was suspended on the condition that she leave the United States after completing her prison time.
“For the rest of your life, it would be improbable that you would ever be able to return” to the United States, Leavy told her.
The restaurant poisonings were aimed at sickening Wasco County voters as part of an attempt by the sect to gain political control over the county, federal investigators said.
Another commune leader, Ma Anand Puja, was sentenced to 4 1/2 years for conspiracy in the salmonella poisonings, to be followed by 3 years probation for wiretapping. Puja, a 38-year-old Filipino who led the commune’s Rajneesh Medical Corp., is not required to leave the country.
Sheela also pleaded guilty to state charges of plotting a poison-syringe attack on the guru’s physician, giving poisoned drinking water to two Wasco County officials and setting a fire that damaged the county planning office.
On the state charges, Wasco County Circuit Judge John Jelderks sentenced Sheela to 20 years in prison and Puja to 15 years for attempting to murder the doctor and assaulting the county officials. Sheela also was sentenced to 20 years for arson. Prosecutors said, however, that Sheela would be in prison only about 4 1/2 years.
A third former sect leader, Ma Shanti Bhadra, 40, of Perth, Australia, pleaded guilty to attempting to murder the doctor and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Bhadra, treasurer of the sect’s religious organization, was accused of injecting the poison in Swami Devaraj.
Sheela, a native of Baroda, India, ruled the commune from the time it opened in 1981 until she and a dozen of her top aides fled to Europe last September.
Rajneesh presided over a commune population of as many as 4,000 at Rajneeshpuram’s height. Until about a year ago the guru was publicly silent, however, giving Sheela near-dictatorial power over the commune’s business dealings.
Under the federal plea agreement, Sheela agreed to surrender her permanent resident visa and federal officials dropped 32 other immigration charges and three wiretap charges against her.
Under the state plea bargain, she agreed to pay $469,000 in fines and restitution for the fire damage and pleaded guilty to charges of attempted murder, first-degree arson and first- and second-degree assault.
Other assault, burglary and conspiracy charges against Sheela and Puja were dropped.
Rajneesh, 54, returned to India last November after pleading guilty to two immigration charges in an agreement with federal officials. He now reportedly is in the Bahamas.
The Rajneeshpuram commune has disbanded, with a few disciples remaining behind to sell the property.