Hare Krishna Leader Indicted on Federal Racketeering Charges
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) _ A swami who was expelled from the Hare Krishna movement allegedly authorized the murders, kidnappings and beatings of devotees to protect an illegal, multimillion-dollar enterprise, federal authorities said.
Kirthanananda Swami Bhaktipada, 54, previously known as Keith G. Ham, was named on five counts of racketeering, including conspiracy to commit murder- for-hire, and six counts of mail fraud in an indictment handed up Thursday by a special grand jury in Elkins.
One of the racketeering counts alleges Bhaktipada was part of a conspiracy to murder Stephen Bryant, a dissident member of the Krishna community shot on a Los Angeles street in May 1986.
Bryant was killed after he launched a one-man campaign against Bhaktipada’s New Vrindaban community, accusing Bhaktipada and commune leaders of drug trafficking, prostitution and child abuse, the indictment said
Thomas A. Drescher, a former resident of New Vrindaban, has been charged with Bryant’s murder and is awaiting trial in Los Angeles.
According to the indictment, Bhaktipada also conspired with Drescher in 1983 to kill Charles St. Denis, a fringe member of the community. Drescher was convicted of St. Denis’ murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Also named in the indictment were Terry Sheldon, 31, also known as Mr. Scam and Tapahpunja; Steven Fitzpatrick, 36, also known as Sundarakara; New Vrindaban Community Inc.; Govardhan Inc.; and the Cathedral of Healing Inc.
Bhaktipada, Sheldon, Fitzpatrick, the New Vrindaban Community Inc. and others illegally made and sold millions of caps, bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing the Snoopy character from the Peanuts comic strip and other copyrighted and trademarked logos as part of the community’s fund-raising activities, the indictment said.
Devotees, called ″pickers,″ traveled nationwide and to other countries selling the counterfeit items and collecting money, allegedly for a commune school, according to the indictment.
The government said the scheme made a profit of more than $10.5 million for the New Vrindaban Community between 1981 and 1986.
Bhaktipada was in Bombay, India, on Thursday and not immediately available for comment, said Gadadhar Das, a New Vrindaban spokesman.
″Bhaktipada will return to West Virginia within the next few days. That’s all I can say,″ Gadadhar said.
U.S. Attorney William Kolibash said the indictment was the result of a two- year probe into the community, once among the largest Krishna communities in the United States.
He refused to discuss details of the indictment until a news conference scheduled for this afternoon in Wheeling.
Bhaktipada, the son of a Peeksill, N.Y., Baptist minister, founded New Vrindaban 21 year ago. The community is in the hills about 80 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.
At one time in the early 1980s, his permanent devotees at the compound numbered about 700, Gadadhar said.
The indictment alleges that Sheldon delivered at least $4,000 to Drescher on May 27, 1986, in payment for Bryant’s murder.
Bhaktipada also sexually molested a 6-year-old boy beginning in 1976 and regularly slept with the boy in a sleeping bag, according to the indictment.
The indictment further alleged that Bhaktipada later conspired with unknown persons to kidnap the boy and hide him from authorities in a Pittsburgh Hare Krishna temple.
Ravindra Svarupa, leader of the governing body of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Philadelphia, said officials of the mainsteam Hare Krishna movement cooperated with authorities investigating Bhaktipada’s commune.
ISKCON expelled Bhaktipada in 1987 from the group for allegedly violating principle’s laid down by the movement’s founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
″They’ve deeply embarrassed us in many ways,″ said Ravindra, whose group oversees Hare Krishna operations in the United States and Canada. He described Bhaktipada’s community as ″a splinter group.″
Members of the Hindu-based sect do not eat meat, fish or eggs and do not drink alcohol, coffee or tea. Devotees live a simple existence and abstain from extramarital sex, smoking and gambling.