Killing Sparks Federal Probe of Krishna Sect

Group Members Cite Internal Conflicts, Allege Threats After Disenchanted Devotees Murder

The Los Angeles Times/July 20, 1986
By John Dart

The recent slaying of a disenchanted Hare Krishna devotee who persistently alleged wrongdoing and deceit in the movement has sent new ripples through the divided Krishna community.

Since the fatal shooting May 22nd in Los Angeles of Steve Bryant, 33, and the arrest of a Krishna follower in the murder, plans for a broad investigation by a federal grand jury have been announced. Even the sect itself has decided to conduct an internal probe of possible wrongdoing by Krishna members.

Both Bryant's death and his allegations of wrongdoing by Krishna leaders will be examined by a federal grand jury in Moundsville, West Virginia. That is the city nearest the 600-member commune and Indian-style palace that is a showcase settlement for the 21-year-old International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

The Hindu sect, which drew on young American's fascination for eastern meditation and chanting in the late 1960s, attracted between 5,000 and 10,000 followers in its first dozen years. But the movement also has been embroiled in legal battles over airport soliciting and parental charges of kidnapping vulnerable youth into the order.

Authority Questioned

Internal conflict surfaced after the 1977 death of the sect's 82-year-old founder from India, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, when 11 gurus carved out areas of dominance.

Since then members of a growing, internal reform movement--estimated to number about 300 Krishna believers--have questioned the authority of the leadership and accused some leaders of condoning or participating in immoral practices and physical intimidation of followers. Most of the self-styled reformers--which included Bryant--are initiates from the days of Prabhupada; Bryant was easily the most vocal among them.

Bryant himself was no saint. By last winter he was carrying a gun and advocating violence against offending gurus as a last-resort solution.

He had joined the street-chanting saffron-robed sect in Detroit when he was 21. As his disenchantment with the movement grew after Prabhupada's death, he began writing a book he called "The Guru Business," and he hoped to expose alleged wrongdoing by leaving hefty packets of the photocopied "evidence" with law enforcement officials and newspapers across the country.

Family Breakup

Bryant's crusade initially stemmed, by his own account from the breakup of his family at the Krishna's 4,000-acre New Vrindaban settlement--largest in the Krishna movement--which lies perched in the hills of West Virginia about 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attempted to prove that the guru-founder of the New Vrindaban, Kirtananda Swami Bhaktipada (formerly Keith Ham) lured Bryant's wife into becoming a devotee several years ago, then helped her get a divorce and prevented Bryant's access to his two sons. Spokesmen for the community countered that Mrs. Bryant left her husband because she wanted to.

Bryant progressively broadened his attack by collecting interviews from others who charged that some among the movements almost three-dozen gurus manipulated devotees, broke up marriages and allowed child abuse and drug trafficking--claims the dissidents said went unacknowledged or were denied by the movement's various leaders. Bryant also challenged the legitimacy of the 11 gurus who immediately succeeded the founder.

In the year before his death, Bryant tried to drum up support for his claims by traveling between West Virginia and California. Convinced that he was a marked man, he was constantly on the move living out of his van and disguising his appearance.

Krishna spokesmen have vigorously denied Bryant's accusations. An internal review by a special society committee last year concluded that his claims of wrongdoing were largely unfounded. And a New Vrindaban spokesman this month claimed that Bryant and like-minded supporters were not true devotees, that in fact Bryant "had not followed our religious practices for at least the last seven years."

  • [Note: In 1996 Guru Kirtananda of New Vrindaban began serving a 12-year prison sentence for raketeering]

By Bryant's fellow dissidents continue to maintain that critics of the sect are in danger. Several followers said in interviews that they have been threatened themselves or have heard certain sect leaders casually mention violence as a way to deal with internal critics.

According to a California member who insisted on anonymity, when Bryant's name came up during a gathering of Krishna leaders in September at New Vrindaban, he heard a ranking commune member allegedly say: "That guy should be afraid. There are 250 residents here looking to blow his head off."

And officials of the reform-oriented Berkeley temple announced early this month that they had received anonymous threats warning them to drop their attempt through federal court to gain control of the temple's assets.

For the most part, dissidents interviewed gave information only on the condition that they not be identified by name, profession or city of residence for fear of reprisals, they said, to themselves or their families.

Spokesmen in the West Virginia Krishna community and a Los Angeles-based guru all denied knowing of any threats to followers or non-members and, by contrast, insisted that nonviolence--even to the point of not killing animals or harming insects--is an inviolable tenet of their faith.

Nevertheless, Marshall County Assessor Alfred (Pinky) Clark, who is attempting to levy heavier taxes on the commercial aspects of New Vridaban, said he obtained a gun permit and a revolver after hearing of Bryant's slaying. Clark, who lives within three miles of the commune, said he had received threats in the months before Bryant's death, and that a day laborer at the commune's farm told him after Bryant's death that "the talk was going around to 'get Clark.'"

"We're being very watchful and cautious, although things have quieted down since the announcement of a federal grand jury investigation," Clark said.

Problem of Violence

Over the years, guns and violence have presented a problem for some Krishna communities, although possession of the weapons has been defended by some Krishna leaders as a defensive need.

Law enforcement authorities in 1980 found a variety of weapons at the Krishna farm of Berkeley guru Hansadutta (Hans Kary), and later confiscated an illegal submachine gun found in the trunk of a car used by the guru. Kary lost his position in 1984 after a conviction on gunfire and felony vandalism charges for shooting up a storefront and car dealership. He has been living at New Vridaban since then.

Bhaktipada, when told by a Times reporter in 1981 that one of his New Vrindaban devotees had recently bought a large number of weapons at local shops, said: "I have no objection to a certain number of persons in the community having weapons for self-protection. But they should be in the hands of cool-level-headed Krishna-conscious persons…If there is a need for violence, we can become violent." Several weeks later, Bhaktipada said the young man agreed to sell the guns "at my suggestion."

Last October, the West Virginia guru was bludgeoned into a coma and hospitalized for 26 days by a former devotee Michael C. Shockman, who is serving a 15-month prison term after pleading guilty to malicious wounding charges.

Statements to Reporters

Only two months later, Bryant himself sent to reporters statements saying that death was scripturally justified for gurus guilty of the crimes he had been alleging. However, he disavowed any personal intent to carry out that threat or to conspire to kill anyone himself.

Byrant's own vocal belligerency and illegal possession of a gun landed him in the Moundsville jail in February. He staged a three-week hunger strike, writing to a Times reporter from jail on February 15th; "I've pretty much reached my rope's end in combating this demonic cult on my own, and so I've decided to fast to death if I don't get some Government help."

Bryant's lawyer in Moundsville, David R. Gold, later said, "I thought he was unrealistically hopeful that he would single handedly be able to mobilize public opinion against the [New Vrindaban] community." Bryant was convicted for carrying an unregistered gun, which Gold said Bryant got for defensive purposes, then was released pending an appeal and returned to California.

In the early morning hours of May 22nd, Bryant left a friend's home in the Palms section of Los Angeles' Westside, telling him he was going to park his van down the block so as not to bring trouble to his friend's doorstep. "I try not to be paranoid, but it's the least precaution I can take," his friend quoted Bryant as saying. Not long afterward, the friend said he heard two shots and ran outside to look, but then dismissed his fears that something had happened to Bryant.

Later that morning, Bryant known as Sulocana to other devotees, was found shot twice in the head and slumped over the steering wheel of his parked and locked van, according to authorities.

Some of his friends told Los Angeles police to look for a man named Tirtha, the Krishna name for Thomas Arthur Drescher, 37, a one-time follower at New Vrindaban with a reputation for violent behavior.

Five days later Drescher was arrested in Kent, Ohio. The warrant for his arrest, however, was issued by West Virginia authorities in connection with the unsolved disappearance in 1983 of another former Krishna devotee, Charles St. Denis, form the New Vrindaban area.

Drescher was indicted earlier this month in Moundsville along with Krishna devotee Daniel Reid, 31, who is lodged in a Los Angeles jail, on first-degree murder charges based on witnesses' accounts of St. Denis' fate. The principal witness, Randol Gorby, was seriously injured in an explosion at his home the day after Drescher was apprehended in Ohio, authorities said. A number of commune members, according to their attorney, James B. Lees, have quietly cooperated with authorities since 1984 in the investigation of the St. Denis disappearance.

Surveillance Notes'

Kent Police Detective Ronald Piatt and his partner said that when they arrested Drescher, they found on him "surveillance notes" describing Bryant's van, his physical appearance and his movements in Los Angeles. Drescher also carried $4,000 in cash.

With Drescher when he was arrested, Piatt said, was a Krishna priest from Cleveland who had clippings from three newspapers about the death of Bryant and written instructions of unknown origin saying that if Drescher were ever wanted by police, he should be sent to a temple in New York, then flown to India. At the time of his arrest, Drescher's car was packed with clothing and other goods, and his rented mobile home was found nearly empty, Piatt said.

"We think he was in the process of activating those plans [to leave the country]," Piatt said.

The Krishna priest, Terry Sheldon was held for three days on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon--a hooked-blade utility knife--but the charge was dismissed. He has since disappeared from the Cleveland temple and his whereabouts are unknown, Piatt said.

The detective added that a fire of undetermined origin burned Drescher's mobile home July 5th.

Drescher is now in custody in West Virginia. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office is seeking to extradite him to California to stand trial for Bryant's murder.

  • [Note: Drescher was later convicted of murder and sent to prison]

New Vrindaban officials have denied any connection with Bryant's death and characterized Drescher as a follower who fell from favor with the community three years ago. After living on his own property near New Vrindaban for several years, Drescher moved to northeast Ohio late last year.

Apology from Jail

Swami Bhaktipada said Drescher wrote him from jail to apologize if he had caused the commune any difficulty. The guru said he responded with short note advising Drescher "to chant the name of God and to depend on God's help and mercy."

New Vridaban spokesman Dick Dezio said he welcomed the announced plans of U.S. Attorney William Kolibash to have a federal grand jury in Moundsville examine the murder of Bryan and the dissident's charges of illicit activities at New Vrindaban.

Bhaktipada declared earlier that the investigation will show "we are religious people who have no other business but to worship God."

Dezio accused Bryant of some of the same charges Bryant had leveled against the West Virginia commune--drug use, "a fetish for guns," child abuse and threats of violence.

"We have heard a lot of stories and a lot of claims, but no one has ever come forth with any evidence [about our community]." Dezio said. Regarding interviewed dissidents who declined to reveal their identities in print for fear of reprisals, Dezio said. "I don't know anyone within the movement who has to be feared."

Charges by dissidents that a climate of fear prevails in the movement were also rejected by Los Angeles-based guru Ramesvara (Robert Grant), 35, who said that, other than Bryant's death, there has been "no incidence of violence against a disgruntled person" in his jurisdiction. Ramesvara, who is one of the original 11 successors to the society founder supervises Southern California, parts of the Midwest, the New York area, Hawaii and Japan.

"As far as I know, Steve Bryant didn't have any bad feelings toward myself and similarly, I had no bad feelings toward him." Ramesvara said, "He wasn't disturbing us. He came and went very secretly. A number of our core members attended his funeral in Los Angeles; they wanted to show their sympathy and outrage."

At the Berkeley temple, where another of Steve Bryant's vehicles still sits in the parking lot, Jagat Guru (Jack Hebner), the reform-minded temple president said: "I can't bring myself to believe, though some do, that Bryant's death would be ordered."

"I feel his assassins are fringe members who took it upon themselves to do it. But whatever the truth is, we do not want it to be hidden," Jagat Guru said.

Krishna followers interested in reform have grown steadily to about half of the leadership ranks, most of them longtime followers initiated by the sect's founder, Jagat Guru said.

"There is no room and no tolerance of riffraff in the garb of a preacher who is interested in simply taking church money for liquor, drugs, women or whatever else he might enjoy," he said.

Murky Authority

The society has an international Governing Body Commission [GBC], but William Ogle, a Knoxville, Tennessee lawyer who acts as its general counsel, conceded in an interview that the administrative authority of the commission in relation to the gurus is still murky. "It is no secret we are going through a serious developmental state in the aftermath of the founder's departure," Ogle said.

On July 11th, the commission's executive committee announced that it had started its own investigation into Bryant's death. "We want to find out if anyone in our group was involved and if so, to what extent. We take disciplinary action irrespective of what position the person held in the society," said Michael Grant, public affairs director for the Los Angeles temple, who said he spoke on behalf of the executive committee.

When Ogle served as commission chairman in 1985, he directed a special committee to look into Bryant's allegations.

The committee concluded that is was an "injudicious mistake" for New Vrindaban to initiate Bryant's wife as a devotee of the guru without his knowledge. Bryan said he was in Indian on a business at the time. At the same time the committee noted that Bryant's "unsubstantiated allegations against the West Virginia guru were "blasphemous" to the highest degree

  • [Note: More recently an ISKCON leader said, "What happened in West Virginia was our biggest devastation…but finally there is a sense of closure because [Guru] Kirtananda is gone." Detroit Free Press August 1, 1998 "Krishna Unity Grows in Detroit"].

Disagreements Not Allowed

One longtime Krishna follower, who said he had been "roughed up" by disciples because of his open disagreements with the new gurus, said serious criticism of the leadership is interpreted by loyal followers as "blasphemy against their spiritual master, [meaning] you can take action against [the offenders]."

Yet another dissident in California agreed; "No one is supposed to question these guys. You worship them as perfect or you are in trouble."

With the matter of authority in the movement still unresolved, the number of gurus has grown from about 20 last year to nearly three dozen.

"There has been a lot of negotiation and infighting in the society recently, but I think the political situation can be rectified," said Nalini Kanta (Tom Hopke), Los Angeles devotee. He said he is the Peace and Freedom Party candidate for Congress in the 23rd District this year and an astrologer for the Krishna movement.

"I've been vocally opposed [to abuses], but I'm not fearful for my own life, Nalini Kanta said, indicating that he is not at all as "vociferous, so radical" as Bryant was.

Dictatorial Rule

He said a big group of one-time disciples of the founder "think [the movement] is run in a very authoritarian way now and that it should be done in a more cooperative way. I am against the philosophy that one particular guru should have dictatorial rule in his area. Prabhupada could do that because of his purity."

Former Berkeley temple official Paramahansa Swami said the root of the dispute is really spiritual authority. The reform influence at Berkeley and the conservative ideology at New Vrindaban "are exactly at the opposite ends of the spiritual movement." Nalini Kanta said.

"In the last three years in that temple, 10 different people have 10 different philosophies," said Paramahansa, who maintained that the unquestioned authority of a spiritually qualified master is necessary to avoid religious "anarchy."

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