Rajneesh Aides Pleads Guilty
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ 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 five-year sentence 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 Dalles.
The five-year immigration fraud sentence, for helping to arrange more than 400 sham marriages among the guru’s disciples, was suspended on 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.
Sheela, wearing a gray pantsuit, smiled at Leavy as he sentenced her on the federal charges.
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.
She 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.
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, the self-described ″rich man’s guru,″ presided over a commune population of perhaps 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.
Red-garbed disciples came from all over the world to be near Rajnenesh and study his teachings that meditation is a means to enlightenment.
Rajneeshees’ relationships with their neighbors deteriorated, however, after sect members gained political control of the nearby town of Antelope and renamed it City of Rajneesh.
The commune collapsed last November after Rajneesh was deported, and the town has become Antelope again since the Rajneeshees left Oregon.
The plea agreement that led to the sentencing of Sheela and two other former commune leaders was ″the result of extensive and very delicate negotiations,″ said U.S. Attorney Charles Turner.
Ma Anand Puja was sentenced to 4 1/2 years for conspiracy in the salmonella poisonings, to be followed by three 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.
In a second Portland hearing, 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.
″An Oregon 20-year sentence, in terms of time served, is equal to about 4 1/2 years (of a federal sentence) so she can serve a concurrent 20-year state sentence,″ said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Weaver.
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 a 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.
Another 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.
Rajneeshee informants have told investigators the July 1985 attack on Devaraj stemmed from a power struggle in which Sheela and her allies tried to eliminate their enemies.
Wasco County Judge William Hulse and Commissioner Raymond Matthew said they became ill after drinking water furnished by Sheela and Puja at the commmune in September 1984. Hulse said he was hospitalized and nearly died from a poison in his kidneys.
Federal investigators say the fire stemmed from disputes between Sheela and Daniel Durow, the county planning director, over Durow’s efforts to inspect and enforce planning regulations at the central Oregon commune.
The three women were arrested in West Germany in October on charges of attempted murder and assault stemming from the attack on Devaraj. Sheela also was charged with immigration fraud at the time.
The women earlier pleaded innocent to those charges, but their trials were delayed pending West Germany’s approval of additional charges as stipulated by extradition treaty. The West German Justice Ministry approved the additional charges July 14, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Baron Sheldahl.
The three women were extradited to the United States in February. Sheela was held without bail in Portland. Puja and Bhadra were jailed on $10 million bail each.
Rajneesh, 54, returned to India Nov. 14 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.