APpa 10/09 0234 Swamis Arraignment By RAY FORMANEK Jr. Associated Press Writer WHEELING, W

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APpa 10/09 0234 Swamis Arraignment By RAY FORMANEK Jr. Associated Press Writer WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) -- About 150 Hare Krishna members pounded drums, clanged finger cymbals and chanted while their spiritual leader, Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, and a follower pleaded innocent to arson charges. Bhaktipada, 50, and convicted murderer Thomas Drescher, 38, were named in a federal indictment returned last month on arson, mail fraud and conspiracy charges. They are accused of torching an apartment building in 1983 to collect thousands of dollars in fire insurance. Magistrate David Core entered the innocent plea for Drescher, who was not represented by an attorney during the 20-minute hearing. Bhaktipada is the founder and leader of the nation's largest Hare Krishna commune, a rural complex called New Vrindaban in Marshall County. As a condition of his release, Bhaktipada was ordered to surrender his passport and was told not to leave the continental United States. He is scheduled to visit followers in India next month. The swami was also told to file his itinerary for the next several months with the court. "What difference does it make?" the spirtual leader of the nation's largest Hare Krishna encampment asked after the hearing. "If God wants me to go, I'll go. But I'm perfectly happy to stay." While Bhaktipada and Drescher were arraigned, about 150 New Vrindaban residents chanted and danced outside the Wheeling federal building. They continued their prayers and song for nearly 30 minutes afterward, until their religious leader appeared. "We're just trying to get it across to people that the government is harassing us for our religion, and their religion could be next," said Gadadhar Das, a spokesman for the community. Neither Bhaktipada nor Drescher spoke during Thursday's proceeding except to enter a plea and to give terse answers to the magistrate's routine questions. At one point, Bhaktipada appeared to be dozing with his head resting on a linen shawl he had wrapped around his saffron-colored robes. U.S. Attorney William Kolibash said that he did not recommend a cash or property bond for Bhaktipada because he thought it unnecessary. "We got what we wanted," Kolibash said. "We just wanted to get his passport and keep him in the country." Drescher, who was made a swami in a special ceremony recently at West Virginia Penitentiary, was returned immediately to the prison where he is serving a life sentence for the 1983 murder of Charles St. Denis, a fringe member of New Vrindaban. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., and former resident of Ravenna, Ohio, Drescher, also known as Tirtha Swami, is appealing his extradition to California where he has been charged with the murder of Stephen Bryant, of Detroit. Bryant, who preached against Bhaktipada's teachings, was gunned down on a Los Angeles street in May 1985. According to the indictment, the conspiracy occurred between May 1983 and Dec. 5, 1983 and was aimed at obtaining $40,000 in fire insurance from the Inland Insurance Co. of Huntington. Kolibash said Drescher allegedly burned the building, located at the intersection of W.Va. 88 and U.S. 250, on July 14, 1983. Inland paid the Krishna community the money on Dec. 5, 1983. Five other counts in the indictment allege that Drescher and Bhaktipada conspired through the mail to collect the insurance money using fraudulent means. Both men have denied the charges, saying that they are merely a part of an organized plan to persecute the community and its inhabitants. "That's absurd," Bhaktipada said of the charges. "It shows how bankrupt they really are." "It's just more of the same -- religious persecution," said Drescher as he was led away from the courthouse clad in handcuffs and a bright orange jumpsuit.


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