Murder, abuse charges batter serenity at big Krishna camp By Stephen Franklin Chicago Trib
Murder, abuse charges batter serenity at big Krishna camp
By Stephen Franklin
MOUNDSVILLE, W. Va.--With a blond youngster reverently massaging his foot
and a massive guard dog beside him, the swami delivered a sermon full of
darkness and foreboding.
"Get ready for war. We are going to fight for Krishna," Kirtanananda
Swami Bhaktipada, seated on his gold-covered throne, declared to his hushed
The harsh words, which referred to spiritual struggle against
nonbelievers, not to actual combat, were the swami's reply to charges of
arson and insurance fraud against his embattled community, the latest in a
series of allegations that have included murder and child molestation.
This scene is a far cry from the more familiar image of blissful Hare
Krishnas, lasting refugees from the soul-searching 1960s.
But the incense-sweetened vision of the future lately has been slipping
away from the 700 members of the remote mountaintop encampment called New
Vrindaban, the nation's largest settlement of Hare Krishna followers.
Each new charge by law officials, or from others within the Krishna
movement, has stirred the same defiant response from those in this 4,000-
acre compound: We are victims of "a religious inquisition."
Earlier this month, a federal grand jury indicted the 50-year-old
Bhaktipada, known previously as Keith Ham, and Thomas Drescher, a 38-year-
old follower, on arson charges in connection with the burning of a building
in 1983, allegedly to collect $40,000 insurance.
Drescher, already serving a life term in a West Virginia prison for a
murder conviction in the 1983 death of another Hare Krishna, also faces
trial in Los Angeles in connection with the 1986 killing of Steve Bryant,
who had claimed prostitution and drug dealing were widespread in the New
The community's legal problems have caused others in the Hare Krishna
movement, which claims 10,000 followers in the U.S., to condemn Bhaktipada,
whom they accuse of trying to set himself up as the sole leader of the
In March, Bhaktipada was expelled by the governing board of the
International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
"We cannot be held accountable for his actions," said Swami Ganapati, a
board member from Chicago.
Because of the frightening reputation Bhaktipada has acquired, some
Krishna members outside his group are afraid to criticize him publicly.
"Many devotees feel that the devotees there are a bit fanatical, and
whenever you have fanatical people, you want to take precautions," one
Federal investigators began examining the activities of the New Vrindaban
group, including how it made its money, following the Bryant slaying,
according to William Kolibash, the U.S. Attorney in nearby Wheeling.
In January, about 50 state and federal agents raided the commune's offices
and searched for evidence that members had violated copyright laws by
selling thousands of bumper stickers and caps bearing the names of football
and baseball teams without permission.
No charges have been filed as a result of the raid, however.
At first view, New Vrindaban seems quite peaceful as Hare Krishna chants
echo from loudspeakers over mist-covered hillsides.
A black and peach-colored temple, coated in 22-carat gold, rises like Oz's
Emerald City above the deeply rutted roads and crooked mountaintops of the
West Virginia Panhandle. The Krishna proudly claim that the temple, called
the Palace of Gold, is the state's second biggest tourist attraction,
drawing 250,000 visitors yearly. Each visitor is asked to donate $5 for a
brief tour of the building.
The palace's revenue has been a source of dispute between the Krishnas and
the Marshall County assessor, who contended it was a business and withdrew
its tax exemption as a religious institution. Commune leaders have sued for
reinstatement of the exemption.
The community originally was established in 1966 in a storefront on
Manhattan's Lower East Side by the late Swami Prabhupada, an Indian-born,
charismatic figure who preached a 5,000-year-old Hindu-based philosophy.
Many of the first Krishna converts were solace-seeking hippies or troubled
Vietnam veterans, ready to move away from the free love and drug excesses of
the late 1960s.
In an effort to escape urban problems and temptations, Prabhupada led the
group to West Virginia in 1968. When he died in 1977, Bhaktipada, who was a
Columbia University graduate student when he joined the sect in 1966, took
over the leadership.
Many of Bhaktipada's followers are fanatical in their devotion. Once,
after a disgruntled commune member hit the swami on the head and caused a
concussion, commune members prayed in front of the brain scan performed on
Some members say they welcome the commune's many problems as a test of
"We are reaching out for the most fallen," and these people are likely to
get in trouble, reasoned Mukunda, a 27-year-old from Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
At daily 5 a.m. services or long, rambling press conferences, Bhaktipada
continually reminds his followers that the fight to come will winnow out the
Commune members blame many of the group's difficulties on "fringees,"
former members who live nearby, but no longer adhere to an austere lifestyle
that bans drinking and gambling and imposes vegetarianism and celibacy for
Some departures, however, occurred after a teenager and a teacher in the
commune were charged with molesting children. The juvenile was convicted,
but the teacher fled, according to the Marshall County prosecuting
Bhaktipada, the son of a fundamentalist minister from Peekskill, N.Y.,
likes to quote from the Bible on how a "time of tribulations" soon will face
He insists God spoke to him in a dream several months ago, telling him to
build 12 "Cities of God" to protect existing religions.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank