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Five Rajneeshees plead guilty to immigration fraud

By CHRISTINE KEYSER

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Federal prosecutors moved a step closer Friday to wrapping up what they called the largest recorded marriage fraud case in U.S. history when five disciples of guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh pleaded guilty to conspiracy to arrange sham marriages.

The five women, who claimed it was impossible for Rajneeshees to get a fair trial in Oregon, changed their earlier innocent pleas under a plea-bargain agreement in which all five were given suspended sentences and placed on probation for five years.

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U.S. District Judge Edward Leavy also ordered two of the women who are non-citizens to leave the country within 30 days.

The five were among those named in a 35-count federal indictment against Rajneesh and seven disciples that led to the Indian guru's deportation last month after he pleaded guilty to two counts of immigration fraud and paid a $400,000 fine. He returned to his native India.

One of the defendants, Ma Prem Padma, 36, also known as Suzanne Pelletier, also pleaded guilty Friday to a felony count of illegal wiretapping at the guru's central Oregon commune and a sentencing date was set for Feb. 3.

U.S. Attorney Charles Turner said Padma's guilty plea was 'just the tip of the iceberg' in a federal investigation of an elaborate wiretapping operation at Rajneeshpuram.

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Turner called the immigration case 'the largest recorded marriage fraud in the United States,' involving more than 400 sham marriages.

The scam reportedly was the brainchild of Ma Anand Sheela, the guru's former personal secretary, who conceived the scheme to evade U.S. immigration laws in July 1981 when the sect moved its headquarters to this country from India.

Sheela, 35, and Ma Yoga Vidya, 38, also were named in the indictment. Sheela, the former Sheela Ambalal Patel who left Rajneeshpuram in September, is in a West German prison awaiting extradition to the United States on attempted murder charges.

But, prosecutors said they probably would be unable to prosecute Vidya, also known as Ann Phyllis McCarthy, because she has established German citizenship and apparently is not subject to extradition.

Leavy did not impose fines against any of the women, accepting defense attorneys claims that the imposition of fines would place an undo hardship on them.

The five all were members of the disbanding central Oregon commune-city of Rajneeshpuram, which is being sued for involuntary bankruptcy. The city was ruled invalid earlier in the week by a federal judge who declared the settlement violated the constitutional law of separation of church and state.

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