Armed federal agents surrounded two chartered jets at the Charlotte, N.C., airport early yesterday and arrested Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and a group of followers as they attempted to flee the country, authorities said.
Later in the day, in Portland, Ore., U.S. Attorney Charles H. Turner announced that a 35-count indictment had been unsealed charging Rajneesh, 53, and seven of his followers with conspiracy to violate immigration laws. Among the violations were making false statements to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and harboring illegal aliens.
Documents filed in federal court in Portland said an investigation of Rajneesh's activities involved "suspected patterns of marriage fraud among Rajneeshees his followers , as well as allegations that individual marriages have been entered into for the purpose of securing immigration benefits or evading immigration laws."
Followers at Rajneeshpuram, the guru's commune in central Oregon, said yesterday in telephone interviews that they were stunned by his sudden departure Sunday afternoon. Since the group moved to the United States from India in 1981, they said, Rajneesh had left the commune only once, for an INS hearing in Portland earlier this year.
The commune sources said lawyers for Rajneesh had learned over the weekend of the sealed indictment handed down last week and had been negotiating terms of his arrest with the U.S. attorney's office. They said they believe that the guru decided to flee after Turner refused to discuss bail in the case.
The group, which claims about 500,000 followers worldwide, is known for its tremendous wealth, including Rajneesh's collection of more than 90 Rolls Royces and a large number of jewel-encrusted watches donated by followers.
In Charlotte, Rajneesh and 12 others, including two followers waiting on the ground, were taken into custody about 2 a.m. after their plane landed for refueling. They reputedly were on their way to Bermuda. The four pilots and the two followers who met the planes were interrogated and released.
In addition to the immigration charges, Rajneesh was charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. The six passengers with him, including his female companion and personal physician, were charged in Charlotte with aiding and abetting a federal fugitive.
All seven were in custody in Charlotte last night, pending a bond hearing on Thursday. None of the six passengers was named in the immigration violations.
The commune has been in turmoil since mid-September, when the guru's top aide, Ma Anand Sheela, fled to Europe with other top aides.
Rajneesh accused Sheela and the others of a conspiracy including illegal wiretaps, attempted murder and arson. A local grand jury has been investigating the charges, and more than 100 commune residents, including Rajneesh, have been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury next month.
Sheela and another follower were named in the indictment. Federal sources said yesterday that the two have been taken into custody in West Germany.
Four others named in the indictments surrendered yesterday in Portland, and federal sources said the remaining person was returning from London to do so.
Commune spokeswoman Ma Prem Isabel said lawyers flew immediately to North Carolina to seek Rajneesh's release.
"I am worried about his health," she said, adding that he has allergy and back problems. "I can't imagine him in jail, in a dirty, musty atmosphere. He could die right there.