Swami Bhaktipada, Ex-Hare Krishna Leader, Dies at 74

New York Times/October 24, 2011

Swami Bhaktipada, a former leader of the American Hare Krishna movement who built a sprawling golden paradise for his followers in the hills of Appalachia but who later pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges that included conspiracy to commit the murders-for-hire of two devotees, died on Monday in a hospital near Mumbai, India. He was 74. The cause was kidney failure, his brother, Gerald Ham, said.

Mr. Bhaktipada, who was released from prison in 2004 after serving eight years of a 12-year sentence, moved to India in 2008.

The son of a Baptist preacher, Mr. Bhaktipada was one of the first Hare Krishna disciples in the United States. He founded, in 1968, what became the largest Hare Krishna community in the country and presided over it until 1994, despite having been excommunicated by the movement's governing body.

The community he built, New Vrindaban, is nestled in the hills near Moundsville, W.Va., about 70 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Its conspicuous centerpiece is the Palace of Gold, an Eastern-inspired riot of gold-leafed domes, stained-glass windows, crystal chandeliers, mirrored ceilings, inlaid marble floors, sweeping murals, silk brocade hangings, carved teak pillars and ornate statuary.

New Vrindaban eventually comprised more than 4,000 acres — a "spiritual Disneyland," its leaders often called it — with a live elephant, terraced gardens, a swan boat and bubbling fountains. A major tourist attraction, it drew hundreds of thousands of visitors in its heyday, in the early 1980s, and substantial annual revenue from ticket sales.

The baroque frenzy of the place stands in vivid contrast to the founding tenets of the Hare Krishna movement. Rooted in ancient Hindu scripture, the movement was begun in New York in the mid-1960s by an Indian immigrant, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It advocates a spiritual life centered on truth, simplicity and abstinence from drugs, alcohol and extramarital sex.

But by the mid-1980s, New Vrindaban had become the target of local, state and federal investigations that concerned, among other things, the sexual abuse of children by staff members at its school and the murders of two devotees.

The resulting federal charges against Mr. Bhaktipada, a senior spiritual leader of the movement, and the ensuing international publicity did much to contravene the public image of the gentle, saffron-robed acolytes who had long been familiar presences in American airports.

He was the subject of a book, "Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness and the Hare Krishnas" (1988), by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, a former reporter for The New York Times, and a documentary film, "Holy Cow Swami" (1996), by Jacob Young.

Mr. Bhaktipada, also known as Kirtananda Swami, was born Keith Gordon Ham on Sept. 6, 1937, in Peekskill, N.Y., the youngest of five children of the Rev. Francis Gordon Ham and the former Marjorie Clark.

The elder Mr. Ham was a Baptist minister steeped in old-line tradition, Gerald Ham said.

"My father would fit in very well with some of the evangelical people we have today raising such a ruckus," Mr. Ham said. "The Bible was inerrant. We were all indoctrinated and baptized and so forth. Keith, too."

Keith Ham earned a bachelor's degree in history from Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn., in 1959, graduating first in his class of 118. As a senior, he received a prestigious Woodrow Wilson fellowship for graduate study.

He entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to pursue a doctorate in American religious history. But in the early 1960s, his brother said, the university asked him to leave after a love affair he had with a male student came to light. He settled in New York, where he did graduate work in history at Columbia.

Like many young people then, his brother said, Keith Ham became an experimenter and a seeker, dabbling in LSD and above all looking for a spiritual haven. In 1966, after leaving Columbia without a degree, he met Swami Prabhupada, who was running a storefront mission on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He joined the Hare Krishnas and was initiated as a swami in 1967.

Mr. Bhaktipada rose quickly in the nascent movement. After seeing a notice in an alternative newspaper from a West Virginia man offering land to anyone willing to start an ashram there, he secured the property for New Vrindaban, named after a holy site in India. Work began there in 1968.

New Vrindaban's initial costs exceeded half a million dollars. The money was raised largely by Mr. Bhaktipada's followers, who sold caps and bumper stickers adorned with counterfeit team logos and cartoon characters, including Snoopy, at shopping malls and sporting events.

Sales of these products would ultimately generate more than $10 million for the community, according to court documents.

New Vrindaban opened in 1979, and by the 1980s the community had more than 500 members.

Mr. Bhaktipada appeared to have created an earthly paradise at first.

"I think most of the residents found him extremely charismatic, like a loving father," said Henry Doktorski, who was a member from 1978 to 1994 and who is writing a book about New Vrindaban. "That's how I saw him, at least until I left. At that point I became convinced that he was not actually what he was claiming to be."

In the mid-'80s, former members began to accuse Mr. Bhaktipada of running New Vrindaban as a cult of personality. The Hare Krishnas' governing body excommunicated him in 1987 and New Vrindaban itself the next year. But, proclaiming the community independent of the larger movement, he refused to step down.

In May 1990, a federal grand jury indicted Mr. Bhaktipada on six counts of mail fraud, including using the mail to send followers the counterfeit souvenirs they were to sell, and five counts of racketeering. The most serious racketeering charges centered on the murders of the two devotees: Charles St. Denis, killed in 1983, and Steve Bryant, killed in 1986.

According to court records, Mr. St. Denis was believed to have raped the wife of a New Vrindaban member and to have been killed in retribution. Mr. Bryant, the most vocal critic among the community's ex-members, had publicly accused Mr. Bhaktipada of condoning the molestation of New Vrindaban's schoolchildren and of having had sex with under-age boys.

A New Vrindaban member, Thomas Drescher, was convicted of murdering Mr. St. Denis. (Another member, Daniel Reid, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for testimony against Mr. Drescher.) In a separate trial, Mr. Drescher was convicted of murdering Mr. Bryant.

The indictment against Mr. Bhaktipada charged that he had engaged his followers to commit the murders. At trial, prosecutors argued that he had considered both of the murdered men threats to his multimillion-dollar empire.

In 1991, Mr. Bhaktipada was convicted on all six counts of mail fraud and three of the five counts of racketeering. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In 1993, an appeals court vacated his convictions and ordered a new trial on the grounds that testimony about child molestation, Mr. Bhaktipada's homosexuality and his mistreatment of the community's women had been prejudicial.

In 1996, three days into his second trial, Mr. Bhaktipada accepted a plea bargain under which he pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering — which included mail fraud and conspiracy to commit both murders — while simultaneously denying his involvement in the murders.

He was sentenced to 20 years, later reduced to 12. After his release, Mr. Bhaktipada lived in Manhattan at the headquarters of his splinter group, the Interfaith League of Devotees, before moving to India.

Besides his brother, Gerald, a retired state archivist of Wisconsin, Mr. Bhaktipada is survived by two sisters, Joan Aughinbaugh and Shirley Rogers.

New Vrindaban was accepted back into the Hare Krishna movement in 1998. Today the community endures, though with fewer than 250 members. The elephant is long gone.

Visitors are always welcome, according to the Web site for the Palace of Gold, at $8 for adults and $6 for children. A snack bar serves Indian food, pizza and French fries.

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