In 1976, a Jewish housewife left New York City after visions of Jesus Christ and two Hindu spirit guides ignited her into an interfaith odyssey.
Along with a handful of followers, she settled on 7 acres along the St. Sebastian River, just west of the City of Sebastian. She called her mission Kashi Ashram.
Preaching racial, ethnic and religious tolerance, crusading against the AIDS virus and embracing its victims, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati now presides over an 80-acre sanctuary that claims a worldwide outreach. Her efforts have earned citations for public service.
But Bhagavati's ashram also has endured spasms of controversy. In 1993, for instance, after a deadly fire destroyed the Branch Davidian compound, People magazine spotlighted Kashi under the banner: "It's not just Waco -- Cults ruled by paranoia flourish all over America."
Having celebrated its 25th anniversary in December, the ashram dedicated to promoting world peace is no stranger to human conflict. Although longtime members and associates describe Kashi as a model of harmony, a Florida Today investigation reveals the ashram has also produced some bitterly divided families.
More recently, several former key members are accusing Bhagavati of brainwashing, intimidation through violence, illegal drug use and siphoning off nonprofit funds for shopping and gambling sprees.
"I know I'm going to look like a total dupe, a fool, a moron," said Richard Rosenkranz, the ashram's disillusioned ex-public relations director. "But will it stop me from telling the truth? No. This needs to come to an end. This sham needs to stop."
Salvatore Conti, an erstwhile treasurer for one of Kashi's fundraisers, states in a police report that he witnessed Rosenkranz's teen-aged son getting beaten on orders from Bhagavati. Furthermore, Conti claims more than half a million dollars was raised for the construction of an AIDS convalescence house that never went up because Bhagavati squandered the money on herself.
Kashi's current public relations director said Conti's "baseless" allegations are part of a "smear campaign" orchestrated by Rosenkranz, a "disgruntled former employee" engaged in alimony negotiations against his soon-to-be ex-wife, who lives at the ashram.
"This is a divorce case, pure and simple," Sita Ganga said. "It has nothing whatsoever to do with Kashi, but Richard has chosen to drag Kashi into the middle of it."
For her part, Bhagavati said her conscience is clear and insists Rosenkranz is the one with money issues.
"It borders on the ridiculous, the lengths people will go to in order to protect an inheritance," said Bhagavati, whose nose diamond and arm tattoos fashion a compelling visual presence. "Both men are very sad and lonely people. And I love them both."
An estimated 150 people live at the quiet, wooded Kashi Ashram, which hosts shrines to many of the world's major religions. Residents -- a blend of teachers, psychologists, lawyers, bankers and other assorted white- and blue-collar vocations -- are given Hindu names. United in communal living, they pitch in with maintenance, prepare vegetarian meals, practice yoga, meditation and celibate lifestyles. Ninety students, grades K-through-12, attend Kashi's on-site River School.
Kashi's religious mission enjoys tax-exempt status, and its 38 acres at 11155 Roseland Road are appraised at $873,260, which netted Indian River County $372.83 in property taxes for 2001. And although Kashi operates a number of international relief projects -- from medicine distribution in Cuba and Africa, to orphanages in Mexico and Uganda -- the ashram keeps an unobtrusive local profile.
As Richard Rosenkranz, 59, seeks to end his 1982 marriage to 43-year-old Kashi monk Gina Rosenkranz, witnesses for both parties in the alimony tussle are speaking up. One of the angriest is 51-year-old Sal Conti.
Conti, a jeweler from Woodridge, N.Y., moved to the ashram in 1989. Enamored of Bhagavati's AIDS crusade, Conti became the treasurer of the Art Fund. A subsidiary of the nonprofit Kashi Church Foundation, the Art Fund handles sales of Bhagavati's paintings and ceramics; its eventual goal is building a 40-room convalescence house for AIDS patients.
"I'm a gay man, and I've lost many friends to the AIDS virus," Conti said. "I very much admired what she said she wanted to do."
Instead, Conti said he watched Bhagavati go on spending splurges -- "Never less than $1,000 a week" -- for clothes, jewelry, CDs in triplicate, vacations disguised as missionary work and cosmetic surgery.
"Spending money was a compulsive thing with her," continues Conti, who charges Bhagavati's appetite for casino gambling ranged from Indian reservations to riverboats. He produces copies of membership cards to Hilton's Queen of New Orleans Riverboat Casino, registered in her name, and claims sarcastically how "this spiritual woman once lost $30,000 on the slot machines in a single night."
In New Orleans, a Hilton spokesman said the company divested itself of the Riverboat Casino several years ago, and was unable to comment on outdated membership policies.
Conti said between 1995 and '96, the Art Fund grossed $650,000, which was earmarked for the AIDS facility. Instead, only $20,000 was spent to expand the existing River House setup (managed by the ashram's other nonprofit entity, the River Fund Inc.), from a four-bed complex to an eight-bed center, he alleges.
"She took everybody for a ride, and most of the people in the ashram don't have a clue," Conti said. "In fact, she was making so much money they didn't know how to hide it, so they had to form a new corporation for it, called Swamiji Inc."
Swamiji was registered with Florida's Division of Corporations in 1996. Kashi spokeswoman Sita Ganga said Swamiji is the corporate entity that reimburses Bhagavati "for services rendered," but she adds the for-profit entity "has nothing to do with Kashi." Neither she nor Bhagavati will disclose how much money Bhagavati earns under Swamiji. Kashi Church Foundation executive director Krishnapriya Hutner said Bhagavati receives roughly $100,000 a year as the Kashi Church Foundation's spiritual inspiration. But as a religious entity, the Church is not required to file income taxes, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
"The improvements we made (to the River House) were intended to get us to the next level of licensing," Haesler said. "(Building a 40-bed facility) is a long-term process that we have in no way abandoned. This is a smear campaign leveled at a holy being whose deeds have touched millions of lives in positive ways."
Bhagavati denies allegations of dropping $30,000 on slot machines, saying she doesn't frequent casinos.
The long trajectory toward divorce court arcs back to the 1970s, when Bhagavati was still Joyce Green and Richard Rosenkranz was a Columbia School of Journalism graduate seeking enlightenment. And from the beginning, it seemed as if the woman who founded Kashi Ashram was born, or reborn, into controversy.
By Bhagavati's own account, life took a "far out" turn in 1972. That's when, during yoga exercises to lose weight and quit a chain-smoking habit in her native Brooklyn, the 32-year-old mother of three said she was approached by Jesus, who delivered this message: "Teach all ways, for all ways are mine."
Other visitations followed, specifically from a deceased Indian swami named Nityananda. On Good Friday, 1974, she says stigmata wounds began bleeding from her forehead and hands. Then came materializations by Nityananda's disciple, the late Neem Karoli Baba. Baba would give Joyce Green a new name: Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, Sanskrit for holy woman, victory, purity and follower of the fortunate.
Alpert would disavow Bhagavati's mysticism in a 1976 Yoga Journal essay called "Egg On My Beard," in which he claimed her energies "came not solely from spiritual sources, but were enhanced by energizing pills." He dismissed her personal testimony as an "incredible tapestry of half truths and lies." Bhagavati countered that Alpert was angry because she rejected his romantic advances.
But one of Bhagavti's most enduring relationships began in 1975, when Fulbright scholar Richard Rosenkranz was drawn to her call to for interfaith unity. He followed Bhagavati to the banks of the St. Sebastian River, where a vision directed her to establish a healing center. She called it Kashi, which means sacred city.
Bhagavati went on to direct the dispensation of food and shelter to the needy through Kashi branches in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Santa Fe, as well as overseas. Today, she is a trustee for an interfaith network called the Parliament of the World's Religions. She has served on the board of directors for Melbourne's Project Response AIDS care program, and her efforts have earned her the Palm Beach County Commission's Service Appreciation Award, as well as the Mayor of Miami City Arts Award.
Armed with a court order, members of the Miami-Dade Police Department grabbed 16-year-old Paul Rousseau from a Kashi retreat in Miami on Dec. 11, 1981. It marked the abrupt culmination of a custody gridlock between Bhagavati and Paul's parents, Jean and Michele Rousseau, who grew disaffected with the ashram and left in 1978.
On July 19, 1989, Rosanne Henry and her husband Harry Brodie were reunited with their 7-year-old daughter, Tess, after an Indian River County Sheriff's Department SWAT team removed the youngster from a Kashi outing at a movie theater in Vero Beach.
Like the Rousseaus, the Brodies once gave Bhagavati permission to raise their child. But when they changed their minds and left the ashram, they needed judicial intervention to recover their daughter.
The Brodies' battle was complicated by the fact that Rosanne had doctored her daughter's birth certificate after Tess was born in 1981. The name she signed as the biological mother was Joyce Cho. (In the confusing flux of legal name changes, Bhagavati - the former Joyce Green - was then married to entrepreneur SooSe Cho.)
But Henry, who said she dyed her hair dark to impersonate Bhagavati before entering the hospital, wasn't the only Kashi member to fake a birth certificate. Two others from 1982 falsely stated that Joyce and/or SooSe Cho were the biological parents of babies born to ashram devotees. False signatures were signed by Gina Rosenkranz and Karen Rinehalter, who lives in Sebastian.
From her home in Littleton, Colo., Henry said she and her husband, who stayed at the ashram from 1978-82, once believed Bhagavati was divine. They gave her their daughter after being told the child would be groomed as her successor. She said Bhagavati told her to change her hair color as a hospital disguise, and to forge the birth certificate to circumvent the adoption bureaucracy.
"It's difficult to explain to people who haven't been through it just how you become so gullible and vulnerable," said Henry, a practicing psychologist and a recovery specialist for the American Family Foundation, a national cult-awareness group.
"She justified her cocaine use by saying she was taking it for karma purposes," Brodie said. "It was her way of taking on the sins of the world."
Kashi's Sita Ganga calls drug-use allegations "vicious rumors" that are "absolutely not true." As for the birth certificates, she said the mothers all falsified them without Bhagavati's knowledge: "These were people who, by and large, felt they could not care for their children or didn't want them. Ma took these children in and gave them a home, her home."
Gina Rosenkranz also dyed her hair dark like Bhagavati's before checking into the hospital. She said forging a birth certificate was a mistake, but that Bhagavati never pressured her into doing it.
Although she declined to talk to Florida Today, Rinehalter has stated publicly she was never coerced by Bhagavati.
At the Indian River County Sheriff's Department in Vero Beach, Capt. Mary Hogan remains suspicious.
"Do I think Joyce is running a cult? Absolutely I do," said Hogan, commander of the criminal investigations division. "But at this time, there's nothing I can go after. In the last decade, she's taken great steps to legitimize her operation from a public relations standpoint.
"The average person cannot comprehend how mind control can and does take place. But when you'll go so far as to dye your hair and forge birth certificates, I'd say that speaks for itself."
The divorce proceedings took a more intense turn last April when Sal Conti logged a police report detailing what he claimed was his eyewitness account of Bhagavati orchestrating the beating of Wang Chun Rosenkranz, then 13, in 1996. Filed two years after the statute of limitations expired for prosecution, Conti's action has sparked outrage at the ashram.
Kashi's Krishnapriya Hutner describes "Armani Sal" as a vindictive clotheshorse with suspect motives because he "left (the ashram) very suddenly, as soon as management asked him to be accountable" for his "extravagant" business expenses.
But Conti, who claims he quit the ashram in bankruptcy after exhausting his savings on Bhagavati's materialism, said the final straw was watching what happened to Chun.
Conti said two Kashi members, acting on Bhagavati's instructions, donned ski masks and dark clothing, bound Chun, muffled his cries with duct tape, and proceeded to beat him with rocks wrapped in socks. "It was absolutely merciless," said Conti, who claims he and several others watched the beating from a distance.
He adds that a second beating occurred several weeks later. When he protested, Conti said he was evicted from the "inner circle." He left the ashram several months later.
When confronted with the police report obtained by Florida Today, an emotional Chun Rosenkranz, 19, rebutted with a counter-accusation that surprised the two Kashi officials supervising the interview.
"It was Sal Conti," insisted Chun, who was raised on the Ashram under Bhagavati's stewardship. "Sal was the one who hit me." The reason: Chun said he lied to Conti about completing a chore he'd been told to do.
Although Vero Beach attorney Russell Petersen -- now representing Gina Rosenkranz -- said Chun never told him about getting hit by Conti, he calls Conti's report "a preposterous piece of garbage."
Conti insists he filed the report because he wants the truth to come out. He said he wasn't surprised by Chun's denial. "Chun's hovering around her (Bhagavati) like a sick puppy. It's a classic abuse syndrome," he said.
The Kashi leadership categorically denies that violence has occurred on the ashram, but such stories nevertheless persist.
Jeanne Rousseau, a forestry technician in Quebec, was living at Kashi Ashram in the early 1980s when she said an adult male member was accused of sexually abusing a child. Rather than alerting authorities, Rousseau said, Bhagavati and several others held the man's arm over a lit candle, giving him severe burns.
"They wanted the scar to remind of him what he'd done," said Rousseau, "but they didn't want what had happened to get out."
Dr. Harry Brodie, the Colorado physician, said he witnessed a Bhagavati "hit man" slugging a subordinate upon instruction, and dislocating his jaw in an unprovoked attack. "The guy had to be hospitalized," he said.
Kashi associates such as Judy Martin, however, label such allegations ludicrous. Now a radio/television journalist in New York City, Martin said when she was vacillating between pursuing her career or staying at the ashram, Bhagavati encouraged her to choose New York.
"For every person who feels compelled to say something negative about Ma," said Martin, "there are thousands more like me who are in gratitude."
Likewise, ashram resident and child psychologist Robin Bruner said she's never seen or even heard of anyone getting beaten at the ashram.
"I've worked for the DCF (the Department of Children and Families), and I know what the symbols and signs of abuse are," she said. "There's nothing like that here. This is a wonderful, sort of old-fashioned environment for kids, particularly teen-agers."
But in 1996, a prospective ashram member named Colin Dougherty said teen-ager Kwang Mae convinced him to leave. "She said, 'You have no idea what (Bhagavati)'s really like,'" he recalled. "She said, 'She pulls my hair, she punches me, she knocks me down, she screams at me,' and I'm thinking, what's going on here? Why doesn't anyone say or do anything?"
Now working as a chef in California, Dougherty said he didn't contact authorities until roughly a year after leaving the ashram. "It kept eating away at me," he said. "I wish I'd done it sooner." He said he anticipated Kwang Mae would deny the report now on file with Florida Protective Services. "What do you expect? People are watching her."
Raised on the ashram since birth, 19-year-old Kwang Mae said Dougherty's account is untrue.
"This makes me really angry. Imagine hearing something like this about your mother," Kwang Mae said in an interview with Florida Today supervised by two Kashi officials. "I consider Ma my mother. I have my whole life right now because of her."
"It was an insular environment, and I didn't want to leave," reflects Rousseau, who said he saw adults get physically punished, but never kids. "I realize now, looking back, just how clever Joyce (Bhagavati's name by birth) really was, how well she manipulated us.
"When my parents took me back to Canada, I wanted to go back toKashi. In fact, I ran away twice. They told me all I had to do was accuse my parents of rape, destroy the house, and generally go wild, and they'd send me back to the Ashram.
"Would I have lied for Kashi?" said Rousseau, a computer engineer now living in California's Silicon Valley. "Sure. I did lie for them. They were my family."
Kashi's Sita Ganga said the Ashram critics are being coordinated by Richard Rosenkranz. She said her public-relations predecessor, in addition to trying to protect an inheritance, has a score to settle after being fired in 2000. Rosenkranz, she said, violated policy by launching personal attacks on another interfaith leader. "We asked him to stop, but he wouldn't do it."
Rosenkranz, who received a national award last year from the Points of Light Foundation for his volunteer work supporting religious freedom for Tibet, admits to writing letters in 2000 critical of the United Nations' Millennium Peace Summit of Spiritual Leaders' organizer for failing to invite the Dalai Lama.
He said he resigned after learning about his son's beating. He adds that his late mother, Zelda, left behind a $1.5 million estate when she died in 1997, but that she invested $1 million of that into a trust fund for Chun that can't be accessed until the teen-ager turns 40. "She was concerned that he would give it all to Ma," he said.
"Whatever money Gina gets is going to wind up in Ma's pockets," said Rosenkranz, who adds he's spent $200,000 in legal fees to pursue the divorce. "God forbid she should actually have to get a real job."
An annulment trial is set for March. If the annulment is denied, a divorce trial will likely follow.
Gina Rosenkranz said even an ascetic lifestyle requires financial support. But her faith, which has included a celibate marriage for most of the last 19 years, has never wavered.
"The teaching is that, in order to keep things at a pure level, you're celibate unless you want to have a child. You're married to your God, and so is your husband," said Gina Rosenkranz, whose ashram name is Krishnabai. "Obviously, it's not for everybody.