The Krishnites

When I was first getting started in my practice Rose never asked me to do any legal work for the group. It was not until Lou joined me that Rose began to request our professional services. Either Rose waited until I had help in the office to ask, or it was actually Lou himself who inspired his confidence. At any rate, it was also about this time that Rose's feud with the Krishnas--or "Krishnites," as he called them--started heating up. Rose never expressed outright regret over his decision to lease his "back" farm to Keith Ham and Howard Wheeler, even though they lied to him about their intentions and eventually turned it into a sprawling Hare Krishna empire that pressed against his farm from all sides. The New Vrindaban Community, as it was called, used their lease on Rose’s farm as a base to buy up most of the other farms in the area, and build the "Palace of Gold," a huge structure featuring two hundred tons of white Italian and blue Canadian marble, and a dome covered with twenty-four-karat gold leaf.

"In some ways the Krishnites are better to have around than the hillbillies," Rose said once. "At least they don't get drunk and steal the radiators out of your trucks."

But over the years the tensions had been building. There were minor disputes over fences or livestock, and as the wealth and power of New Vrindaban increased, the leaders became more confident and arrogant.

Once, when Rose inquired about some missing goats, Ham--who by then had legally changed his name to Swami Kirtanananda Bhaktipada--said, "Even if we took them, there's nothing you can do about it. We've got you surrounded."

Gradually, Rose began asking me to intervene in these disagreements, and I made some calls. But the Krishna's attorneys shrugged off my threats to sue and almost dared me to take their clients to court. As the word got out that I was the opposing attorney in these disputes the Krishna devotees would scowl at me when they saw me, and began calling me a demon to my face. These border skirmishes turned out to be just the preliminaries.

As the incidents increased Rose turned more of his attention to the Krishnas. Almost every evening in the kitchen he talked about the problems he was having with them, or brought out some new piece of information he'd picked up about what was really going on inside the New Vrindaban organization. Rumors and stories of prostitution, drug smuggling, child molestation, and other crimes were commonplace. More than once I asked if he wanted Lou and me to do something about legally getting his farm back, but I never got a definitive answer. He'd say something like, "I know you guys are busy," or, "Well, if you get the time someday, maybe we can look into it."

Then one day as I was working at my desk in the office I heard a familiar voice out in the reception area.

"Are Lou and Dave here?" It was Rose. I was dumbstruck. He'd never been to the office before, and in fact made it a point to stay away, saying he didn't want his reputation as a loose cannon to rub off on our practice. I jumped up from my chair and was in the outer office before the receptionist had finished asking him if he had an appointment. Lou must have done the same thing. We arrived simultaneously.

Though it was a moderate fall day, Rose was wearing a long wool coat.

"I was out and about the town and thought I'd drop in on you guys," he said. "I took a bath today and didn't want to waste it."

Lou and I laughed nervously. Our receptionist looked puzzled at the whole scene.

"Come on in, sit down," Lou said.

We went into Lou's office, which was more spacious than mine, and sat down--Lou behind his desk, Mister Rose and I in the visitors' chairs. Rose glanced around Lou's office, taking in the few pieces of artwork Lou had put up to add interest to an otherwise dull and unremarkable room.

"Nice place you got here," Rose said, nodding approvingly.

"We're comfortable," Lou said, "but it's more or less a dump."

"Not compared to the places the lawyers in Marshall County used to have," Rose said. They really were dumps. Second story walk-ups that smelled like booze and cigarettes. Half the time you'd have to sober them up to talk to them. Then right away they'd put on their professional mask and look down on you like you were some kind of bug, like maybe they'd agree to save your miserable life if you proved to be worthy of their time--and if you took out a mortgage on your farm to pay them a huge fee..."

He paused and looked around the office again. "I tell everyone you guys are different."

We sat in silence for a few moments. It was time for him to tell us why he'd come.

"I was at the store yesterday and ran into Bob Burkey," he said. The Burkeys had a farm near Rose's. He and Bob Burkey had been friends for years. As we sat there, Rose proceeded to recount the long history of his friendship with Bob, even though we'd heard it several times before.

"Anyway, you already know all that. The thing is, though, I got to talking with Bob about the Krishnites and that back farm of mine. And he said, 'You ought to hire those new lawyers in town and see if you can get your farm back.' I told him I thought it was a good idea and I'd check into it."

He paused a moment and looked us over. "So what do you think? Should we take a shot at it?"

I experienced a moment of confusion and self-doubt. Surely he knew I would jump at the chance to help him and the group. Or did he? And why did he choose this time and this way to ask? Had he forgotten the occasions I'd volunteered to help get his farm back? Was it a lack of skill, determination, or trustworthiness on my part that had kept him from accepting my past offers? Was his past reticence somehow tied to his long-standing refusal to accept food--or anything else I offered--from me?

But these thoughts passed quickly. "Absolutely, Mister Rose," I said eagerly. "We can get to work on it right away."

"Good. Where do we start?"

Lou took out a legal pad and spoke in his usual methodical manner. "Just tell us the story from the beginning, Mister Rose, and we'll ask questions to fill in what we need."

We had heard the story before, but there was something about being in the office--lawyers and client--that brought a sense of order and chronology to it.

"It was about 1967, I guess when I placed an ad in the San Francisco Oracle. It had been probably twenty years or so since I'd had my Experience, and I'd almost given up hope of ever finding anyone to pass it on to. Outside of a few old ladies in the Steubenville group, and an occasional nut Bob Martin and I might meet, there was nobody to even talk to about spiritual matters.

"Then in the Sixties, the zeitgeist changed. I had always brought young kids from town out to the farm so that they could get the city out of their hair--the country is a beautiful place to a kid. But what started happening in the late Sixties is that young people--college-age kids, some maybe a little younger, started gravitating out to the farm on their own. I didn't put the word out or anything, but of course I didn't discourage them either. Before you know it we were having regular gatherings on the weekends. Nothing formal, just sitting around, shooting the bull about philosophy. If circumstances were right, maybe I'd read a mind or two.

"I became really curious about why these kids were suddenly so open and aware about esoteric matters. Eventually, I realized that it was dope--LSD in particular--that was opening up their heads. They saw other dimensions that seemed just as real as this one. And what's more, acid seemed to give them an artificial intuition--they understood me.

"Well, I figured, maybe the time has come. With the Experience comes an obligation. So I ended up putting an ad in a couple of underground newspapers in New York and San Francisco, letting people know I was looking for sincere seekers who wanted to take part in a philosophic ashram." Rose smiled. "I didn't know what I was getting into."

"I heard you had a lot of bums and drifters show up," Lou said.

"Yeah, when I was lucky," Rose chuckled. "Most of the people who came around turned out to be dope addicts just looking for a place to crash. Once a couple of gypsies came and stayed in a trailer on my place. Told me they'd been students in a Gurdjieff group, and I thought maybe I'd finally found some people with potential. I discovered later they were running a prostitution business outside of town. I kicked them out, but before they left they burned down my trailer."

He laughed at the memory and spoke without animosity or, apparently, regrets.

"Is this when Ham and Wheeler came," I asked.

"Yes, it was about this time. They told me they'd previously been in the Krishna movement, but had given it up. They said the Krishnites were too closed-minded, and that they were looking for some kind of non-dogmatic ashram, a place where people of different beliefs could come and meditate and exchange ideas. And of course, this appealed to me because this is what I was trying to do, too.

"So anyway, I had the back farm, and since I had the family in town and was raising cattle on the other farm, I couldn't keep an eye on the place. The hillbillies were breaking the windows out of the house, and it was growing up like a jungle, so when Howard Wheeler suggested I rent the farm to them, I thought, sure, why not. Maybe something good would come out of it."

He opened his old black satchel and handed me a three-page legal document. "This is the original lease between Howard and me," he said.

Rose continued talking as I read. "I went to Lawrence Evans," he said, referring to an older, impeccable lawyer whose office was just a few doors down from ours. "I knew him from the naval reserves. I told him, 'Lawrence, be fair to both sides.' That's why I went to him. I knew he'd be fair."

As I read through the lease I was impressed by its efforts at impartiality, and disheartened by the vagueness and lack of landlord rights that resulted. Rose had given Wheeler a ninety-nine year lease on the property for a very fair price, with an option to purchase for one dollar. And while Rose unquestionably knew what he was after when he specified that it be used as a "non-dogmatic, open-minded spiritual ashram," I wondered if a judge or jury would have the patience or desire to draw the distinction between what Rose envisioned and what Ham and Wheeler had created. It was true, of course, that his two tenants had, in Rose's words "put on bedsheets and began chanting gibberish" the day after the lease was signed, but it would be difficult to prove that such action legally constituted fraud.

We could not count on any sympathy from the courts, either. While it was true that the locals harbored no love for the Krishnas, their opinion of Richard Rose was not much better, especially since they blamed him for letting the Krishnas get a foothold on the ridge in the first place. And though my experience as a Marshall County lawyer had been relatively brief, I'd seen enough to know that the Krishna's vast wealth had produced a formidable influence in the court system.

The one ray of hope was a rather straight-forward provision that required the tenants to pay the taxes on time or forfeit the lease. Rose, who was meticulous with all his paperwork, had original receipts which irrefutably demonstrated that the Krishnas were often years late in the payment of the taxes.

"They intentionally pay the taxes late," Rose explained, "hoping the property will come up for Sheriff's sale so they can buy it."

"The lease is pretty clear on that point," I said, handing the papers to Lou. "We should win on that point alone if we get a fair shake."

Lou began reading the lease. "Around here, that's a pretty big ‘if,’" he said slowly.

Two weeks later we filed a lawsuit seeking return of the property on four grounds: that Ham and Wheeler defrauded Rose when they said they were no longer Krishnas; that they did not pay the taxes on time as required by the lease; that they engaged in criminal activities on the property; and that Wheeler's assignment of the lease to New Vrindaban Community Inc., the Krishna's landholding corporation, violated the non-assignment provision of the lease. We had a good case, and by the time our court date arrived I was feeling almost confident, in spite of the powers arrayed against us.

But it was over in ten minutes. The Krishna's lawyers immediately moved for a pre-trial dismissal of the portion of our lawsuit dealing with the taxes. The judge not only quickly granted that motion but went ahead and threw out our entire suit as well. It would not be the last time we had reason to suspect that Krishna money and power had pre-empted justice in Marshall County.

Not long afterwards I received an unsolicited letter from an attorney for the Krishnas, offering to trade Rose's family farm for another tract of land a comfortable distance away from "Hare Krishna Ridge." The farm Rose would receive was almost twice as big, and, according to the letter, twice as valuable. I knew the offer would make for lively kitchen conversation and presented the letter to Rose that evening like I'd brought home a trophy fish.

After the usual search for his reading glasses, he sat down at the table and slowly read over the letter.

"They gotta be kidding," he muttered, slipping the offer back into the envelope and tossing it disdainfully in my direction. "They already offered me a million bucks for the place and I turned 'em down. Tell them to go to hell. Better yet, just ignore 'em."

There was also an interesting sidelight to this case that took on greater meaning many years later. In an early phase of the suit, we had a meeting with the Krishna's lawyers and they asked Rose a series of questions. At a certain point it appeared that the questioning was over. Then one of the lawyers asked Rose about his ex-wife, Phyllis. I thought it was a legitimate question since Phyllis' name also appears on the lease. But Rose took it as a direct threat to his family and came up out of his chair ready to do battle. Lou and I quickly worked to calm the situation, and although I played the part of Rose's loyal lawyer at the time, I secretly felt he had missed the mark and overstepped. I chalked it up to the "West Virginia mountain man" part of him and let it go at that.

But Rose might actually have sensed something deeper in the lawyers words that day. Years later, when the Krishna empire began to crack, I was told by one of the assistant U.S. attorneys that they had uncovered a Krishna plot to kill Rose in the aftermath of the suit we had filed to get his farm back. Though they had easily won the first round, the Krishnas apparently were fearful that Rose might persist and someday actually succeed in regaining the property that now had become the center of New Vrindaban.

As the enmity increased between Rose and the Krishnas, Rose became someone to whom local people would tell their stories about problems they were also having with the "Hairy Critters." And Lou and I, as the legal arm of Rose's feud, became the law office of choice if you had a beef with the Krishna's. Some of our cases were on behalf of Mister Rose, some were for other clients. One was somewhere in between.

"There's a woman out here to see you," my secretary said one day.

"Do I know her?"

"No, I don't think so. But she's with a friend of yours."

I walked into the waiting room. Mister Rose was there, sitting next to a gangly woman in her thirties, with short curly brown hair. Rose still tried to keep his distance from the office, and I wondered why he would bring this woman by unannounced.

When we got back to my office, he introduced her.

"This is Cheryl Wheeler. Howard Wheeler's wife."

"Soon-to-be ex-wife," she emphasized.

At Rose's urging, Cheryl began telling me her story. She had been initiated by Krishna founder Prabhupada in California during the Sixties. When Prabhupada decided that Howard Wheeler needed a wife, Cheryl had dutifully followed her guru's orders and moved to West Virginia where she and Wheeler were married. Years later they separated and Cheryl moved back to California where she filed for divorce. The divorce judge in California granted Cheryl temporary custody of her children, including an eight-year old son, Devin, who still resided at the New Vrindaban Community in West Virginia. She handed me a copy of the California court order, and continued to talk as I read.

"I came to Mister Rose," she said, "because I remembered him from when I first came here and the farm was just a broken down house. I don't know, it just seemed like he'd be a friend to somebody who needed help."

"From a purely legal standpoint, this is pretty straightforward," I said, looking up from the court order. "Based on this, a local judge should issue a Writ of Habeas Corpus, commanding the child to appear in Marshall County Circuit Court. Unless there's some compelling reason not to, the judge there would defer to the California order and your son can go home with you."

"This is not just any child at the commune," Rose said. "Ham will fight it with everything he's got."

"What do you mean?"

"My son is Keith Ham's protégé and constant companion," Cheryl said. "They eat together, travel together, and...sleep together." Her mouth tightened and she turned her head away for a moment.

I fought back feelings of anger and revulsion, but I wasn't shocked. I was aware of Keith Ham's long-standing homosexual relationship with Cheryl's husband, Howard Wheeler, and stories of child molestings at the commune were not uncommon. It came as no surprise that Ham's twisted mind would choose Wheeler's young son as the object of his perversion.

The next day Lou and I walked over to the judge's office and presented our Habeas Corpus Petition, which included a request for an immediate medical examination of the child to determine physical or sexual abuse. The judge impatiently scanned through our petition until he'd read enough to suddenly realize what it was about. Then he recoiled like we'd handed him a rattlesnake.

"Come back in fifteen minutes," he growled after regaining his composure. "I've got to think this one over."

We returned exactly fifteen minutes later, expecting the worst. The judge was gone, but surprisingly, his secretary calmly handed us the order we had presented, duly signed by the judge. Lou took the order to the Sheriff while I went back to the office to get Cheryl, who was to accompany the deputies when they picked up her son.

An hour passed, then two, with no word from either the officers or our client. Late in the afternoon Cheryl returned, alone.

"They knew we were coming!" she cried, slumping into a chair. "Someone tipped them off, and it had to be recent, because they didn't even have time to get their stories straight."

I called one of the deputies and he filled me in on the details.

"They had a bunch of stories, all of them bullshit," he said. "One teacher told us the boy was there a few minutes ago. Someone else said he hadn't lived there for years. Somebody else said he was out of town for the weekend. I'll tell you this," the deputy concluded, "that boy was there this morning, but you can be damn sure he's out of the state by now."

Over the next few days the Krishna community offered three different official explanations to the newspapers concerning the child's whereabouts at the time of the attempted pick-up. Everyone in Moundsville knew the Krishnas had hidden the boy, but nothing could be done. Without physical possession of the child, our Habeas Corpus petition was useless.

Matters did not improve when we began the process to have Marshall County recognize our client's right to custody of her son. Cheryl Wheeler, already distraught over the disappearance of her child, was dumbfounded at the treatment we received in court during the first scheduled hearing. The judge routinely granted every motion made by the Krishna's lawyers, and disdainfully overruled every request Lou and I made, repeatedly referring to us as "boys" in the process. It did not go well.

After the hearing, Cheryl vented her frustrations to a newspaper reporter. She expressed her belief that her child had been sexually molested, and said that the judge in the case was obviously partial to her son's kidnappers. Her interview appeared in the paper the following morning.

When Lou and I arrived at the office the next day, our secretary had already heard from the judge. He wanted to see us. Now.

Awaiting us in the court chambers were the Krishna's team of attorneys, a court reporter, and one seething judge.

"So your client thinks I'm a crook?" he said in carefully controlled tones, his lips tightening around each word.

Lou and I said nothing.

"You boys think you're going to try this case in the newspapers? Okay, we'll just put the newspapers into the trial."

He then read the entire newspaper article into the record, which he said would be sent to the State Bar Disciplinary Committee immediately after the hearing. Then he tossed the newspaper in our direction.

"Where's your client? I have a few words to say to her, too."

"She's in hiding because she fears for her life," Lou said, looking directly at the Krishna's lawyers.

"Well I can't answer to your client's fears, but I'm the judge here, and I'm running this court. I want to know the whereabouts of your client. Now."

"That's privileged information and we're not at liberty to disclose it," I said.

The judge picked up the phone and spoke to his secretary. She appeared a few moments later with a copy of the Attorney Cannon of Ethics. The judge opened it and read into the record the part that said an attorney must obey the mandates of the court.

"Now," he said, leaning forward in his chair until he was just a few feet from our faces, "I'm ordering you as attorneys practicing before the bar of this court to tell me where your client is."

"We can't do that," Lou said.

The judge slammed the book shut. "Make a transcript of these proceedings," he snapped to the court reporter. With that the hearing was adjourned.

I got in my car and drove straight to Benwood to tell Rose what had transpired. When I entered the kitchen I got the impression he'd been waiting for me.

"Well, what happened?" he said.

I didn't bother to ask how he knew that something had happened, I just launched straight into a blow-by-blow description of our inquisition, and its possible ramifications. The longer I talked the madder Rose seemed to get. Encouraged, I kept on talking. If there was to be a "round two" with the judge it appeared I would not only have God on my side, but a wrathful and vengeful God to boot. When I stopped talking, Rose spoke evenly, but with great force.

"You lost."

I was stunned. "Lost? What...?"

"You let that big bloat intimidate you, and then you just walked away with your tail between your legs, worried about what else he might do to you." He shook his head. "I would have expected more out of you."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

"What the hell else could we have done?" I cried out, forgetting myself in my emotions.

"If you're in the right, you don't just run away. Even if it's hopeless, you force yourself to fight. When you're in the right there are no minor battles, no occasions for retreat. You fight with everything you have, every time. That way the power of your conviction will deter opponents with weaker motivations than yours. You fight, or you die in shame. Or worse--you live the rest of your life as a coward."

There were more words, lots of words, but I didn't really hear them. I felt as if my allies were attacking me. I didn't know how or where to make my stand.

"I don't understand, Mister Rose," I finally replied. "I just don't understand."

"Yes you do," he said. "You were right and he was wrong, but you're the one who ran away. You understand that don't you?"

"He's a judge, for godsake..."

"I don't give a damn and you shouldn't either! If you can't stand up to an earthly phantom in a black robe, what makes you think you're ready to become the Absolute?"

The next morning Lou and I asked for a private meeting with the judge--no court reporter--which he quickly granted, thinking, I'm sure, that we'd considered the possible consequences and were now willing to tell him what he wanted to know. Instead we told him what we should have told him the first time.

As he sat stunned behind his huge desk, his face becoming more flushed with each word, we told him that we not only agreed with and supported everything our client said in the newspaper, but that we strongly suspected him of being corrupt. We said we knew he was the one who tipped off the Krishna's in time to have Devin Wheeler kidnapped, and that we would do everything in our power to prove it. We told him several other things and when we were finished we stood up and left, solid on the outside, shaking to the core.

Cheryl Wheeler never regained custody of her son. We found out later that after Devin was whisked away from the commune that day, he was taken to a Krishna compound in Mexico where he remained until Cheryl Wheeler gave up her efforts to be awarded custody. Then he was brought back to New Vrindaban where he again became Keith Ham's--Swami Kirtanananda's--constant companion.

As a footnote to this case, twelve years later when Ham was indicted on federal racketeering charges the indictment also accused Ham of kidnapping Devin Wheeler to prevent the authorities from taking Wheeler into custody and thereby discovering Ham's sexual relations with the boy. During his testimony, Ham admitted receiving a phone call warning him that the authorities were coming to pick up the child, but the United States Attorney who was cross-examining Ham never asked him who had made the call or provided the information.

As time went on and word got out about the Cheryl Wheeler case, our office became a beacon for disaffected Krishnas from all over the country. Over the years we were phoned or visited by dozens of devotees with a cornucopia of complaints, from petty disputes over land or money, to desperate people like Cheryl Wheeler with tales of sordid sex, beatings, even murder. These visits ceased to be novelties and eventually grew into burdens. The disaffected devotees who appeared in our waiting room--and scared our other clients--were always short of money and equally short of the resolve necessary to withstand the demands of legal process. Eventually we grew tired of being used as weapons of revenge, but we never closed our doors to them, hoping that someday someone would come in who could crack the stranglehold that the Krishnas held on the legal and political community. One day that someone finally showed up. His name was Steve Bryant. Home    |    Table of Contents    |    Next Chapter