'I sought peace and couldn't find it'

The Times British News/August 27, 2001
By Michael Dynes and Dominic Kennedy

Durban -- Michael Pender, a student, hoped that Sai Baba would be able to cure him of HIV. Like thousands of devotees from around the world, Mr Pender went on a pilgrimage to Sai Baba's ashram in Puttaparthi, southern India, expecting to find magic and divinity. Instead Mr Pender, known as "Mitch," was found dead after taking tablets in the lonely bedroom of a hostel for the homeless in Highbury, North London. He was 23.

Kathleen Ord, who first told him of Sai Baba's teachings, has since destroyed her books and videos on the holy man. She said: "I blame myself in many ways because, if I hadn't introduced them, Mitch would probably be alive now. That's what he went to India for, thinking he'd find a cure.

"He tried to commit suicide in the ashram. He had overdosed on drugs more than once. He had some strange, very powerful experiences there. There was something sexual that was frightening." Her son, Keith, has given a detailed account of what Mr Pender said in his last weeks about meeting Sai Baba. The guru flattered the British student by describing him as "the reincarnation of St Michael." Mr Ord's evidence, posted on the Internet, states: "He told me that the very first private interview that he had with SB was a sexual encounter.

"At first he couldn't believe any of this was happening. It felt unreal and frightening. But then after the first interview he thought SB must have been showing him something about himself . . . that there must have been some spiritual or 'divine' explanation behind the swami's actions.

"But after the fourth interview, he became very despondent and confused about the whole thing; each interview was a repetition of the first . . . Baba 'materialised' an emerald ring on the fifth interview and gave him money on the sixth.

"After telling me of his experiences, Michael became quite depressed." On January 12, 1990, Mr Pender's body was found by the supervisor of his hostel. Traces of paracetamol and alcohol were found in his blood, but a pathologist found it impossible to determine if they were lethal doses. An open verdict was recorded at an inquest in St Pancras.

Aran Edwards, a classical guitarist and postgraduate theology student at the University of Wales in Newport, joined Sai Baba's Bath and Bristol support group. David Bailey, a concert pianist from Conwy, North Wales, who had become one of the guru's closest British aides, met Aran with the group.

"He was sort of persuaded that Sai Baba looked after him, did everything for him and that he should write to Sai Baba with his problems," Mr Bailey said.

"He was quite an ill person, mentally unstable and needed orthodox help. In the end, he wrote a couple of dozen or more letters to Sai Baba. The group had told him this was what to do.

"He used to ring me from phone boxes pleading with me. There were 35 phone calls, I suppose . . . he was absolutely desperate that I should talk to Sai Baba for him because he was in such a state and had written all these letters which he had sent out and hadn't had a reply. Could I please help because I was Sai Baba's right-hand man? "At the end I said, 'Wake up. He doesn't even read these letters'. He was so distraught about the situation, he decided to commit suicide."

Aran Edwards, a single man, was found hanged from a staircase at his home in Cardiff, on April 19, 1999. He was 37. A suicide verdict was recorded by the coroner.

Stuart Jones, of the Bath and Bristol group, said: "He was a very fragile kind of person, very sensitive, very gentle in nature. If you are thinking there is a link, I know for a fact there wasn't a link in the sense of all the allegations going about Sai Baba. He was in distress long before."

Aran never visited Sai Baba in India. But Andrew Richardson, a British national born in South Africa, did. He made a pilgrimage to Sai Baba's ashram, booking in for a week, but mysteriously leaving after only two days.

On September 19, 1996, Mr Richardson travelled to Bangalore and hired a taxi at the railway station to one of the city's tallest buildings, the State Bank of Mysore. Mr Richardson flung banknotes and travellers' cheques in the air, ran into the bank and up the stairs to the eighth floor, where he smashed a window and leapt 84ft to the ground, killing himself. He was 33.

Two letters were found on his body. One to Sai Baba outlined his quest for spiritual enlightenment. The second was a suicide note saying he was in a deep depression: "I came to India in search of peace but could not find it." His mother, Deirdre, at her home near Pietermaritzburg, said: "Andrew wanted to see Sai Baba, but was also heading to Calcutta to see Mother Teresa . . . All he wanted to do was work with the poor."

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