Assault probed at home linked to religious group

The Associaated Press/June 10, 2010

An 18-year-old woman suffered numerous injuries at a suburban Baltimore home owned by the founder of an organization that's been described as a religious cult, but the woman and her associates have not been forthcoming about what happened, police said Thursday.

Officers were called Tuesday night to the home in Pikesville and found the injured woman, said Lt. Rob McCullough, a Baltimore County police spokesman. Police are investigating the incident as a possible assault, he said. At least two other people were with her, and police spoke to one person of interest. However, no arrests have been made.

The woman remained hospitalized Thursday in serious but stable condition, McCullough said. Police don't know how she was injured.

"The victim and the other persons involved in this case haven't been very cooperative because they're anti-government," McCullough said. "We've gotten conflicting information from them throughout this investigation. We don't know at this point whether she was assaulted or whether there was some type of accident."

Because officers weren't certain Tuesday night whether a suspect was inside the home, a SWAT team surrounded it for about 12 hours while police got a search warrant. The SWAT team entered the home late Wednesday morning, and no one was inside, McCullough said.

The home is owned by Avraham Cohen, property records show. He changed his name in 2007 from R.C. Samanta Roy, according to Maryland court records, and also has been known as Rama Behera. A native of India, Cohen is the founder of a religious organization based in Shawano, Wis., known as the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, or SIST.

A website linked to the group describes SIST as a nonprofit with the goal of establishing an educational center. But former members have described the group as a cult.

Cohen is not believed to have been involved in the incident at the Pikesville home, McCullough said.

A message left Thursday with an answering service for SIST was not immediately returned.

SIST owns several businesses in Shawano and has clashed with local leaders. In 2008, the FBI warned of a threat against dozens of people, including the mayor and other government officials. Local police said a person linked to SIST was believed responsible for the threat.

The FBI ended its investigation about a year later, and no charges were filed.

Rick Ross, who has studied cults for nearly 30 years and counsels former cult members, said he was told by the FBI that his name was on SIST's "hit list." He has communicated with more than a dozen former SIST members who described Cohen as an authoritarian leader who separated people from their families. Children born into the group endured "harsh corporal punishment and parental neglect," Ross said.

"The demands of Samanta Roy were extreme. They were extreme in the sense that people sacrificed the welfare of their family and gave their labor to the group to create the group's assets," Ross said. Such practices, he said, are "not uncommon in groups called cults."

Last year, SIST filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Del. In an affidavit to support the filing, SIST CEO Naomi Isaacson wrote that the group's businesses had suffered as a result of "intentional business interference, organized negative publicity, and the general economic downturn in the United States."

Isaacson could not be located for comment.

Court documents filed in Wisconsin in 2007 indicated that Cohen had pledged $500,000 to the Yeshivat Rambam school, an Orthodox Jewish school in Baltimore, the Shawano Leader reported. Cohen represented himself as a Jewish neurosurgeon of Indian descent, according to the documents.

Rabbi Hershel Lutch, the school's executive director, declined to comment Thursday on the school's dealings with Cohen or whether it had accepted the gift.

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