APpa 12/10 2031 Krishna Trial By RAY FORMANEK Jr. Associated Press Wviter CLARKSBURG, W.Va

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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 burned it."' 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 probation. 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," Villa said. 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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