CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Federal authorities arrested Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and several of his followers for immigration violations today when his private jets stopped to refuel on a flight from his Oregon commune to Bermuda.
Authorities had tracked the jets with radar as they flew from Oregon and surprised the guru and his entourage when they landed to refuel in Charlotte at 2 a.m.
Chief U.S. Deputy Marshal Raymond Abrams said Rajneesh, 53, and nine followers would be held for arraignment later today before U.S. Magistrate Barbara Delaney. He said Rajneesh would be charged with violations of U.S. immigration laws.
'We arrested all the people on the planes for the U.S. attorney,' Abrams said. 'They had two planes chartered to go to Bermuda from here.'
U.S. Attorney Charles H. Turner in Portland said Rajneesh apparently fled the country to avoid arrest on a 35-count secret indictment handed down by a federal grand jury last Wednesday. Turner said an attorney representing Rajneesh called him Sunday and asked about bail, indicating he was aware of of the grand jury action.
'He (Rajneesh) knew when the indictment was returned. He knew the names. As soon as that happened, the guy fled.'
The indictment charged Rajneesh with making false statements to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and conspiring to defraud the government.
For the past four years, the immigration service has been investigaging possible marriage fraud among members of the Rajneesh sect. They have also been looking into te immigration status of Rajneesh who entered the country on a visitor's visa in 1981. He applied for an extended visa as a religious teacher, but the request has been denied.
Carl Houseman, INS regional director in Portland, said the U.S. Attorney had been trying to arrange a meeting in which Rajneesh would surrender to authorities in hopes of avoiding a volatile situation at his commune. The town of Rajneeshpuram has its own heavily armed police force and the guru has personal bodyguards who carry Uzi submachineguns.
The arrests come 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.
U.S. marshal's office investigator Frank Herrin said the 13 were arrested as the Learjets landed, including four pilots. Herrin said the pilots were questioned and released.
Special Agent Lawrence A. Ladage of the U.S. Customs Service in Portland said, 'We arrested everybody on them (the jets). We had warrants for some and we charged others with aiding and abetting unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. There were two people waiting for the planes at the airport and we put them in cuffs, too.'
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. Most of them tended to have on a lavender color pretty much matched up.'
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.
'Our main concern is to get him out of jail,' she said. 'I am worried about what this is going to do to his health. 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. PST Sunday after an official sendoff by a group of his disciples.
Abrams said the two jets were tracked by radar when they landed for refueling in Salt Lake City, Utah, and in Pueblo, Colo. Herrin said Rajneesh's party filed a flight plan to stop in Charlotte for fuel 'and we had agents and police out there.'
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.
Rajneesh has long advocated sexual freedom, Rolls-Royces and is an outspoken critic of established religion.
A self-proclaimed guru of the rich, Rajneesh set up a heavily fortified commune and meditation center in remote central Oregon four years ago after leaving India and controversy has stalked him from the beginning.
The Bhagwan, which 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.
While he advocates sexual freedom for himself and his followers, he has a fanatical fear of AIDS and warns his followers to wear condoms and rubber gloves while making love.
Rajneesh's commune includes the city of Rajneeshpuram, which now boasts about 1,500 permanent residents and a like number of visitors. The town has its own airport, hotel, shopping mall and meditation college.
His followers also bought property in the town of Antelope, 19 miles away, which they renamed Rajneesh after taking control of the city government.
On Sept. 14, there was a sudden split in the leadership of various foundations that conduct the guru's affairs with Sheela and several associates going to Europe amid charges that she had turned the ranch into a 'concentration camp' and was conducting a private war against local residents.