APpa 12/10 2031 Krishna Trial By RAY FORMANEK Jr. Associated Press Wviter CLARKSBURG, W.Va
APpa 12/10 2031 Krishna Trial
By RAY FORMANEK Jr. Associated Press Wviter
CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (AP) -- A Hare Krishna swami said he nearly was killed
when he set fire to a building using gasoline, a witness testified Thursday in
the federal fraud and arson trial of two Krishna leaders.
Russell C. Gorby, 65, said Thomas Drescher, also known as Tirtha Swami, told
him in 1985 that he burned an apartment building near the Krishna community in
the Northern Panhandle.
"He said he had burned the house," said Gorby, who owned a farm near the
Krishna compound. "There was no lead-in, no `I have a secret to tell you,' or
anything like that. He just said he damn near got killed doing it."
Drescher, 39, and Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, 50, the spiritual leader of
New Vrindaban, were charged with arson, conspiracy and mail fraud in federal
indictments returned in September. They are accused of torching the two-story
building on July 14, 1983, to collect $40,000 in fire insurance.
Gorby told Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Smith he was not surprised when
Drescher, whom he considered to be a good friend, said the building was burned.
"By that time, I had come to recognize they had a rather low regard for
property there," said the 65-year-old retired steel worker, who has helped the
Krishna members buy land in the area.
Gorby added, however, that Drescher never said the fire was arson.
"I didn't realize really that it was an arson," he said. "They have a habit
down there of tearing down structures. He said `the house was useless, so we
Both the Krishna swamis, or holy men, have denied setting the blaze that
gutted the building, and Bhaktipada has said the charges are part of a $4
million effort by the federal government to harass the Hindu-based sect.
If convicted on the arson and conspiracy charges, Drescher and Bhaktipada
each face a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.
If found guilty on the mail fraud counts, the swamis face a maximum prison
sentence of 25 years and up to $1.25 million in fines, according to U.S.
Attorney William Kolibash.
James Lees, a Charleston attorney representing Bhaktipada, plans to begin
calling witnesses when the trial resumes at 10 a.m. Friday.
On Thursday, the former president of the 500-member community said
Bhaktipada had complete control of the lives of his devotees.
"He directed the lives of individuals, much the way a disciple follows a
guru," said former president Arthur Villa, who left the community in 1986.
"That spiritual and managerial position allowed him to affect everyone's life."
Villa, 38, of Tucson, Ariz., testified as part of a plea agreement reached
with federal prosecutors in their attempt to convict the swamis. He pleaded
guilty to one count of mail fraud in exchange for a recommendation of
Villa said Bhatipada's position within the community is similar to that of
the pope in the Roman Catholic Church.
"He was the inspiration for all the work that occurred in New Vrindaban,"
Dorothy Brammell, a claims supervisor for Inland Insurance Co. of
Huntington, testified her company never received a report on the fire from the
state fire marshal, despite several requests.
"We never were able to get a report on this fire," said Mrs. Brammell, who
was the final government witness in the case. "We wrote letters. We called
Charleston. But we were never able to get a report."
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