A Perth-born follower of the Orange People cult has avoided jail after 20 years on the run as the self-appointed assassin in a plot to kill a US district attorney.
Catherine Jane Stork, 60, was sentenced this week to five years’ probation in Oregon after surrendering to US police late last year so that she could visit her dying son in Australia.
A former University of Western Australia lecturer, Stork – or Ma Shanti Bhadra, as she was known in the cult of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – was the last of seven followers convicted for the 1985 attempted murder of Oregon’s then district attorney, Charles Turner.
Judge Malcolm Marsh said Stork, who was facing life in prison, had convinced him she “has seen the error of her ways”. “I think there are times where justice trumps mercy,” he said. “There are other times when mercy trumps justice … we have such a case here.”
But the sentence, allowing Stork to return last night to Frankfurt, her home since fleeing the US in 1989, has angered her intended target.
Mr Turner told The Australian he had a “different view” of what should have happened to Stork and her co-conspirators.
The others, progressively caught and convicted over the past two decades, were given prison terms ranging from two to five years.
“This was a lying-in-wait conspiracy to murder me, a presidential appointee, and for a long time I slept with a loaded gun beside my bed,” Mr Turner said.
Stork, a naturalised German citizen, flew to Oregon in September to face the charges, after 10 months of negotiations with US prosecutors.
She served three months in a German jail after her arrest until a regional court there denied a US extradition request.
Stork offered to give herself up only after learning that one of her two children, Peter Lalor, 36, had a terminal brain tumour.
Her US-based lawyer Philip Lewis said she wanted to clear up the charges to enable her to visit her son.
“She was allowed to visit her son in November,” he said.
Prosecutors alleged the group planned to gun down Mr Turner after he was appointed to head an investigation of the cult’s activities on its 26000ha ranch near Antelope, in Oregon.
The probe focused on sham marriages intended to circumvent immigration requirements on foreigners within the 7000-strong flock, wiretapping and an intentional salmonella poisoning of a nearby town.
In May 1985, Sheela Silverman, the Bhagwan’s second-in-command, also known as Ma Anand Sheela, called a meeting of selected followers to form a hit squad to plot Mr Turner’s assassination and kill several dissidents on the commune.
Stork volunteered to be the killer, buying guns and silencers and stalking Mr Turner.
“I actually conspired to kill Mr Turner – it is up to me alone to face this terrible truth,” she told the court. “No person has the right to do what I did.”
In 1986, Stork was convicted and served almost three years in jail for the attempted murder of the Bhagwan’s doctor.
FBI agents uncovered the plot to kill Mr Turner after her release but she had already fled to Germany, where she remarried Hans-Georg Stork.
Stork said she became involved with the Bhagwan – who was deported from the US and died in India in 1990 – after a counsellor, treating her late Australian husband Roger Lalor, told the couple of his teachings.
“I believed (the Bhagwan) was perfection itself,” she told the court.
She later divorced Lalor.