Former members of group claim some went into debt to fund Samanta Roy

The Shawano Leader/October 12, 2004
By Tim Ryan

Several former members of Dr. R.C. Samanta Roy's religious group claim that they and other members made hundreds of dollars in weekly contributions to Samanta Roy during their gatherings on his property in the Town of Wescott, and that they funded construction projects on the property.

Wesley Kemp, who was with the group for 16 years, said Samanta Roy originally told members he would never pass a collection plate. But after a while, Kemp said, Samanta Roy began putting out a white bucket to collect donations.

Elliot Lane, who left the group in 1996 after 20 years, said there was a tradition of tithing in the beginning. Those who could not afford to were not compelled to give, he said, but tithing became expected out of a kind of peer pressure. He said all of the members wanted to be seen giving.

Lane said some of the money was intended to go to a school that Samanta Roy was said to have in India. The school is noted in tax documents filed by the Dr. R.C. Roy Institute of Science and Technology.

Those tax records show more than $500,000 in revenue from contributions over the past 10 years. However, the source of those contributions is not detailed. The records also show $1.2 million in revenue claimed as construction services.

Usually, about $300 to $400 was collected during the weekend, according to Lane. Then, Lane said, Samanta Roy began to call for additional donations, sometimes to help pay the bills of fellow members, or for special projects such as lumber or steel beams for construction work on his property.

"Rama would make specific needs known, specific bills known," said Gail Langsjoen, a member of the group from 1974 to 1987. Since leaving the group, Langsjoen has spoken out on several occasions against Samanta Roy in newspaper and television interviews.

Lane said that the more money that was given, the higher the praise from Samanta Roy.

"He started praising people when they gave 100s and 1,000s," Lane said, adding that it became a matter of who could top who by contributing the highest dollar amount. "People took out loans (to be able to give money)," Lane said.

Lane was working two jobs and going to school. Financially, Lane said, "we never got ahead." He said the couple took out loans on their credit cards to be able to pay their bills.

"We were eating rice and split peas for a month at a time," Lane said.

Another former follower, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he took out loans on his credit card until it was "maxed out" to pay for a lot of the construction on Samanta Roy's property.

Former members said that Samanta Roy began telling his followers to go into business and start companies. According to Lane, Samanta Roy encouraged his members to build wealth so that the group could spread the Gospel in Kenya.

"The money got eaten up by debt, and the companies would fall apart," said Lane.

None of the former followers have provided any documented evidence that loans they took out were for the purpose of giving money to Samanta Roy, and they said the contributions were all in cash. Lane said the money was also not reflected in deductions on his income tax return.

"I didn't know for sure if it would be tax deductible or not, for one thing," Lane said. "And also, it was a thing where we thought we owed it to God. We were just giving back to God, and I wasn't going to use that for a tax deduction."

"All contributions were meticulously recorded at Rama's own home," said Langsjoen. "But my husband and I never kept record of it. In those days we felt it would be a sort of gross sin against God to keep track."

Gaeland Priebe, a former member who was charged after leaving the group with repeated sexual intercourse with a minor and who is now serving a 12-year prison sentence, said in a video interview that members of the group financed Samanta Roy's construction projects.

The video can be found on the web site of the Rick Ross Institute - a non-profit organization that tracks groups considered to be cults.

Priebe, who joined the group in 1975, said the labor of Samanta Roy's followers altered the landscape of a property that was at one time just a house and a shed.

"We were never paid a penny for any of our work," Priebe said. He also said that in addition to tithing, members paid for tools and construction materials.

"Most of our money went into construction," he said.

Permits for various construction projects on Samanta Roy's property show that much of the work was done by companies owned by members of the group. One of those was owned by a former member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said the work was done without ever being billed.

A civil suit was filed in January 1995 by Retail Lumber and Supply Co. of Shawano against Thomas Nett of Minnesota and named Samanta Roy as co-defendant. Nett Construction is listed as the builder on some of the building permits issued by Shawano County.

Retail Lumber sued for $7,086 in unpaid construction goods and materials, apparently intended for construction work done for Samanta Roy. The complaint states that Nett had an open account with Retail Lumber.

In listing Samanta Roy as a co-defendant, the suit states, "It would be unjust if the Defendant, R.C. Samanta Roy, would benefit from the purchases made by the other party Defendant from the Plaintiff without paying the open account in full."

The case was dismissed at the request of the plaintiff in March 1995. The manager of Retail Lumber when the suit was filed is no longer with the company and could not be reached. The current manager could not locate any records related to the lawsuit.

The attorney who handled the case, J. Edison Woods, said it was just one of many cases he has handled over the years and couldn't recall the details.

Former members also claim that mortgages were taken out on Samanta Roy's behalf. While they have not provided any documentation backing up that claim, there is one mortgage foreclosure case on record in which at least four people affiliated with Samanta Roy's group shared a financial interest in a property in Trempealeau County.

The case involved a property at N24418 Holcomb Coulee Road in Galesville originally owned by John Robert Steenlage and his wife, Roberta. In 1993, the couple signed a quit claim deed that divided ownership in the property between Steenlage and four other people, at least three known to be associated with Samanta Roy's group. There is no reference in the court documents to Samanta Roy or the group, however.

The quit claim deed is noted as being tax exempt under Section 77.2 (3). Such an exemption can be made when the deed is a correction or confirmation of a previous document, or when the transfer of property to the new registered owners involved either no compensation or a token amount of money.

The property was divided between Steenlage, Priebe, Kalmar Gronvall, Bruce E. Scott, and William Stecker. The deed gave each of the five a 20 percent interest in the property. Gronvall and Scott are both on the Board of Directors of the Samanta Roy Institute for Science and Technology.

A mortgage on the property was taken out by Steenlage in September of 1997.

Wisconsin State Bank brought foreclosure proceedings against Steenlage in an $85,041 civil judgment in 2000 over delinquent mortgage payments. Gronvall, Scott, Stecker and Priebe were later added as co-defendants.

Authorities put the property up for auction and it was ultimately sold for $265,000. The amount awarded to Wisconsin State Bank, including the mortgage, interest, and other costs, totaled $101,856. That left a surplus of $162,338 to be divided between the five defendants. After legal fees, each was due their 20 percent share, or $31,809.

By the time a court order to divide the funds was made, on Nov. 6, 2002, Priebe had already been sentenced in Shawano County for repeated sexual assault with the same child.

Attorney Thomas Bilski represented Priebe in the foreclosure matter after Priebe's ex-wife Jacquelyn Benson filed as an intervenor seeking Priebe's share of the surplus. She was represented by Tamar Gronvall.

Though there is no reference to it in the court documents, Bilski said he recalled that the money was referred to as belonging to Samanta Roy's religious group.

"I think that this was not actually Gaeland's money," Bilski said. "It was represented to me that this was not Gaeland's money. I don't think this was as much his investment as the church's," he said. "They always claimed that this was church money."

Steenlage's attorney, Robert Longwell, Jr., said the defendants never indicated they were part of any religious group. He said he had never heard of Dr. R.C. Samanta Roy.

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