Aug 29, 1987

Hare Krishna Killer Named Guru, Shocks Sect

United Press International
August 29, 1987

MOUNDSVILLE, W. Va. — One of the newest swamis in the Hare Krishna religion is a convicted killer and drug dealer charged with the suspected murder-for-hire of an excommunicated member of the India-based sect.

The swami, Thomas Drescher, No. 150196 at the West Virginia State Penitentiary, denies slaying anyone and says, "My business, my mission, is to preach."

Drescher, 38, is a key figure in a 15-month investigation of nearby New Vrindaban, the biggest Krishna community in North America, with several hundred saffron-robed, shaven-headed devotees.

Law enforcement authorities suspect that Drescher gunned down Steven Bryant, 33, in Los Angeles on May 22, 1986, to silence the dissident, who had alleged criminal activity at the mountain commune, from child abuse to drug dealing.

The case has placed a spotlight on New Vrindaban and has enlarged an existing wedge between it and the Governing Body Commission of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which has an estimated 5,000 full-time devotees, half in North America.

Last March, the commission excommunicated New Vrindaban's spiritual leader, Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, formerly Keith Ham.

In doing so, it cited investigations of the community that stem from Bryant's death and allegations, and accused Bhaktipada, 50, of insubordination and of trying to form his own movement.

On July 22, when New Vrindaban ordained Drescher as a swami, a post normally given after longtime service, the Governing Body Commission denounced the move as unwarranted and invalid.

Drescher was convicted in 1979 of manufacturing and distributing drugs and was found guilty last January of the 1983 slaying of a Krishna devotee. He is awaiting trial for the murder of Bryant.

Drescher carries prayer beads in his right hand and has tattoos of Lord Krishna on both forearms.

Bhaktipada says Drescher went from a "fringie," one who strayed from Krishna tenets, to a "good devotee" since being imprisoned a year ago, and deserved becoming a swami.

William Deadwyler, chairman of the North American Governing Body Commission and president of the Krishna temple in Philadelphia, disagreed. "We are all a little outraged. . . . It's upsetting. It's shocking."

Deadwyler says he fears that the ordination, plus the investigations of New Vrindaban, could result in a public relations nightmare for the Krishna society and could damage a reform drive.

Since 1977, seven of the original 11 gurus named by the modern movement's founder have been removed, for reasons ranging from drug use to sexual promiscuity. The sect has also been strained by power struggles.

Dozens of new gurus have been named in recent years, and Deadwyler said: "There is now a spirit of cooperation.

"I just wish that people would understand that this man (Bhaktipada) is not part of ISKCON. We have done all we can to put distance between ourselves and him."

Bhaktipada replied, "I am ISKCON." He said he and his followers--and not the Governing Body Commission--are adhering to the sect's principles.

Bhaktipada said his expulsion by the commission was meaningless, denounced the criminal investigations as religious persecution and denied any wrongdoing.
No criminal charges have been brought against Bhaktipada, but a federal grand jury is to resume an investigation in September.

Bhaktipada said he is unconcerned.

"My own feeling is that it's up to God. I'm here to do His service."

In the meantime, his attorneys are fending off multimillion-dollar civil suits recently filed by Peanuts' cartoon creator Charles Schulz and major league baseball interests.

They allege that New Vrindaban unlawfully used their trademarks in a nationwide panhandling operation that distributed sports souvenirs in return for contributions.

Sources close to the murder investigation say authorities believe Drescher was paid $4,000 to kill Bryant, and that the money came from New Vrindaban.
At the time of his arrest, sources say, Drescher had a notebook--Drescher denies it--that had a description of Bryant's van and addresses where Bryant might be found.

At an Aug. 13 court hearing, four Krishna members, in testimony a prosecutor said seemed "fabricated," said they saw Drescher in Columbus, Ohio, within a day or just hours of when Bryant was killed in Los Angeles.

A Los Angeles car rental agent said in a statement that he rented a car to Drescher two days before Bryant was murdered, and that on the morning of the slaying got a call from Drescher saying he had left the vehicle at Los Angeles International Airport.

The judge ordered Drescher extradited to Los Angeles, but gave him until Sept. 4 to appeal.

Before being led from the courtroom, Drescher again professed innocence.
"They're trying to use me to attack New Vrindaban. They're going to try to prove a conspiracy between myself and New Vrindaban to kill someone. They aren't going to find it."

Back at the penitentiary, Drescher said, "I consider myself a political prisoner."
He said expects to go to California and when he gets there, regardless where he is imprisoned, "I'll preach."

"The business of a sanyassa (swami) is to travel and preach."
If convicted of killing Bryant, Drescher could get the death sentence.

Jul 12, 1987

Group Says Movement a Cult

By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 1987; Page C03
On the eve of a "yogic flying" demonstration by followers of His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi set for the Rayburn Building of the U.S. House of Representatives next week, a group of concerned parents and others known as the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) has gathered here to debunk the flying as fake and sound an alarm about cults.
The group charged in a press conference yesterday that the maharishi's Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement, of which yogic flying is an advanced stage, is not simply a method of relaxation through meditation, but a cult that ultimately seeks to strip individuals of their ability to think and choose freely.
"They want you to dress and think and speak in a certain way and not to ask questions," said Steven Hassan, a former follower of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon who has studied cults for a decade. "They go into hypnotic trances and shut off who they are as a person."
A spokesman for the maharishi, Mark Haviland of MIU's College of Natural Law here, said yesterday that "TM is a very simple, useful thing {with} practical benefits of relaxation, of increased inner potential." He added that TM is "not a philosophy, a life style or a religion."
Two former TM adherents who studied yogic flying at the Maharishi International University (MIU) in Fairfield, Iowa, Joe Kelly and John Taity, gave a demonstration of it at the press conference by sitting cross-legged on the floor and hopping in an awkward forward motion that lifted them completely off the floor a few inches.
"It's strictly physical exercise," said Kelly. "There's nothing spiritual about it."
"It's purely physical," said Taity.
Another former MIU student, Patrick L. Ryan, said that he studied yogic flying there in a "totalitarian environment" where every minute of his day was programmed.
Yet, he said, "I never saw anybody fly."
Dean Draznin, who teaches TM here and identified himself as a spokesman for the movement, discounted CAN's claims, saying that TM is "a very simple, effortless mental technique that's practiced 20 minutes, two times a day. It doesn't involve beliefs or a life style. It gives more energy, more dynamism."
Draznin also disagreed that TM involves any mind control. "We don't force people to take courses," he said. "They can take advanced courses if they choose."
A press release from the maharishi's Age of Enlightenment News Service advertises his "program to create world peace" and is headlined: "TM-Sidhi 'Yogic Flying' Technique to Be Demonstrated in the Nation's Capital."
Haviland said yesterday that "hopping" is the first stage of yogic flying. He added that "hovering" and "actual flight" -- the second and third stages -- have not yet been achieved.
"Given the results we've experienced so far, we feel that it won't be long before we'll be getting onto the second and third stage," Haviland said. He said the important thing is the "coherence" that the "flying" creates individually and collectively, "which leads to world peace."
Ex-members of the TM movement said at their press conference that TM is in fact a religion for its adherents with the maharishi seen as a god. Patrick Ryan has sued the maharishi for compensation for the eight years he said he devoted to raising money and promoting the cause. In leaving TM, Ryan said he had help from CAN and a related group, FOCUS, which offers support for those seeking to leave "cultic or totalistic involvement."
These groups are holding an anticult conference open to the public at the Shoreham hotel starting at 9:30 a.m. today and continuing through tomorrow.
A new group called TM-EX, for those leaving the TM movement, is being formed, according to Ryan.
A spokesman for Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) said yesterday that the congressman set up a room in the Rayburn Building for the maharishi's adherents to demonstrate yogic flying after receiving a request from the MIU, which is located in Leach's congressional district.
The presentation will be made for the benefit of members of Congress and their staff, according to spokesmen for Leach and the maharishi.
Leach'sspokesman said the congressman, after being told of yesterday's criticisms of the TM movement, responded that MIU is "accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and also recognized by the Federal Interagency Commission on Education."
He quoted Leach as saying, "I have no objection to any American citizen expressing their First Amendment rights on Capitol Hill or elsewhere."
Hassan said at the press conference -- held at the Shoreham yesterday at the same time that the Maharishi Continental Assembly, a conference for followers of the maharishi, was getting underway in another part of the hotel -- that TM adherents suffer a "destruction of personality. It's an addiction, akin to alcohol and drugs."
He handed out a pamphlet saying that "physical and psychological harm" may result by using TM techniques "even if only for a short time."
Patricia Ryan, the daughter of Leo J. Ryan (D.-Calif.), the representative who was shot to death on Nov. 18, 1978, in Guyana as the Rev. Jim Jones led hundreds of his followers in a mass suicide, said that "bright, idealistic people are the most vulnerable" to movements such as TM. "They become unsuspecting victims."
TM became popular in the 1960s when a number of celebrities, including the Beatles, traveled to India to study with the maharishi. Draznin estimated that 1.5 million Americans have learned TM techniques.
Outside the hotel yesterday, a group of parents from CAN carried pickets against the maharishi's conference.
The signs said: "Don't Be Fooled by Maharishi's Flying Circus," "Parents Against Cults" and "Cults Steal Minds."
One of the parents, Rudy Arkin of Washington, said he lost his son to the Hare Krishnas several years ago. The son eventually "walked out, but without deprogramming. I fear he's out there floating, because we haven't heard from him in over a year."
© Copyright 1987 The Washington Post Company