I had been out of the area for a couple weeks in late October and when I returned I went in to see Lou. He was uncharacteristically animated.
"Did you see this article?" he said. The Wheeling News Register was spread out on his desk, and I wondered what that particular paper could have to say that would excite anyone, let alone phlegmatic Lou.
I walked over to his desk, and was startled to see the headline at the top of the second section: "Former Krishna Devotee Claims Swami Bogus." The Wheeling paper, whether through inclination or intimidation, was extremely pro-Krishna, and rarely printed anything negative about them. Sometimes we would read of a Krishna murder or defection in the Pittsburgh, Columbus, or even Philadelphia paper, but there would be no coverage in the local news.
"It's Bryant," Lou said.
Lou looked at me quizzically, then realized that I really didn't know.
"Steve Bryant. That's right, you weren't here when he first came to town."
Lou filled me in. Bryant, a disenchanted Krishna devotee had dropped by the office in early August while I was on vacation.
"He was off the deep end, of course," Lou said, "but in a coherent sort of way. While he was talking it occurred to me he could probably make it in the real world."
Lou went on to tell me that Bryant had kicked around a number of Krishna communities, then had settled in New Vrindaban a year or two before. Bryant imported and crafted Indian jewelry, and his Ford van served as a kind of mobile metal shop and crafts store. Most of his customers were in California, and earlier in the year he had traveled west on a business trip, leaving his wife, stepson, and two toddler children at New Vrindaban.
"Anyway, while Bryant was in California, Ham initiated his wife," Lou went on. "That really made him angry. Bryant spent an hour explaining to me why it was such a big deal to him. Apparently, in the Hindu culture a wife's primary master is her husband, and the guru is supposed to work through the husband if he wants to bring the wife into the fold. That's all he really wanted to talk about. He just kept quoting Prabhupada on the letter of the law and rambling on about Ham going too far this time."
"So where did you leave it with him?"
"Nowhere, really. He was pretty manic, and didn't have any real goal in mind, so I just tried to get him out of the office as soon as I could. But it looks like he's back." Lou held out a pink message slip. "You can talk to him if you want to."
I shrugged. "Doesn't sound like he's got much to go on."
I took the message anyway and read it. Bryant had called our office from the county jail and asked for me.
"What’s he doing in jail?"
"Protective custody," Lou said with a slight smile. "Read the article. I think you'll find it interesting."
I returned to my office with the newspaper. I expected the News Register to paint Bryant as a fanatic, but the writing was surprisingly even-handed. It confirmed the reason for his disenchantment with the Swami, and reported that Bryant had returned to Moundsville to expose the Swami as a false guru. Most of Bryant's accusations were doctrinal: the Swami was untrue to Vedic teachings and the directions of their beloved deceased guru, Prabhupada. But at the very end of the article, almost as a throw-away, there were additional allegations. Bryant claimed to have evidence of "drug dealing, child abuse, and murder." I put the article in my pocket and quickly headed for the Marshall County Jail.
I was led into the attorney visiting room and a few minutes later Bryant was brought in, wearing the standard blue jumpsuit all inmates were issued. The overall impression I got was one of incongruity. He looked like neither a Krishna devotee nor a convict. He was tall, blonde, and fairly good looking. What kept him from being truly handsome was a touch of goofiness in his face and smile, the same quality of expression that made him look out of place in jail.
I introduced myself and he seemed pleased and amused that I'd come. He placed the bulging manila envelope he'd brought onto the table, then offered me his long, slender hand. As a rule, I avoided shaking hands with inmates. I didn't like to extend a hand in friendship before I knew what kind of client I was dealing with. Besides, I was just squeamish enough to worry about where those hands might have been a few minutes before. But there was something about Bryant that made me let down my guard and shake his hand.
"You're becoming something of a celebrity in these parts," I said.
His smile broadened. "Yeah, I've been getting the word out. The TV crews were here this morning doing an interview. One of the guards promised he'd tape it for me tonight."
"What did you tell them?"
"Just the highlights. Whatever I could think of that would get Kirtanananda worked up if he saw it." He smile disappeared. "There's no way I could tell it all in a short interview. I know things you wouldn't believe."
"About the Swami?"
"Swami?" he spit the word out like a bitter seed. "What a laugh. He doesn't have a spiritual bone in his body. He's a phony, an impostor. He's gone directly against almost every one of Prabhupada's mandates. He's doing more harm to the Krishna movement than any outsider ever could."
Bryant then launched into a diatribe against Swami Kirtanananda that went on for fifteen minutes. As I listened I became aware that there was definitely something different about him. I had talked with a lot of disgruntled Krishna devotees over the years, all of whom had tossed out various insults and accusations about the Swami. But regardless of how angry or disillusioned they were, they still referred to Kirtanananda in tones of respect, even awe. In contrast, Bryant spoke without fear or reservation.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked him.
"Because he stole my wife."
"I didn't think Ham was interested in women."
"He isn't. He's a queer. He hates women and encourages all the men at New Vrindaban to beat their wives. He didn't want my wife for sex. He wanted her for money. And power. That's his game. That's all women are good for in his eyes--tools to get money and power. Sex he wants from men.
"He has other uses for women. If they're ugly he puts them to work in the fields, like mules. If they're pretty he sends them out on the "pick" to beg for money. If they're really pretty he'll use them as rewards for his cronies. That's what he did with my wife. He gave her to someone else--a gift from the guru." Bryant's tone, while bitter, remained composed.
"Kirtanananda quotes scripture about why its okay to abuse women, and why they're second-class citizens. But he violates scripture whenever it serves his ends. That's how he talked my wife into initiation."
Bryant proceeded to tell the story of being away on business in California and learning that Ham had initiated his wife into the Krishna faith. Evidently, "initiation" is a crucial and sacred step in the Krishna movement, and one that should never be made without the husband's knowledge and consent. When Bryant learned that Ham had initiated his wife, he called him in a rage.
"Ham told me the same thing he told my wife, that a woman's line to God is through the guru, which is not what Prabhupada said at all. Prabhupada made it clear that the woman's link is through her husband."
Bryant picked up the large envelope he'd brought as if it held the proof of what he was saying.
"If a guru initiates a wife without the husband's consent, the wife is now devoted to the guru instead of her husband. The chain of command flows directly from her spiritual teacher, and the husband is cut out of the loop. She becomes the guru's slave, and he can do what he wants to with her. That's how Ham got my wife to divorce me and marry Raganuntha.
"And he couldn't have chosen a worse mate for her." Bryant’s voice rose and he began pacing. "Raganuntha is a pervert. That's why he couldn't get a woman on his own. But his parents have money, and Ham didn't want him to leave. So he gave him my wife! And you know what that son-of-a-bitch said when I called him about it? He said I should surrender myself to him."
Bryant sat back down in his chair.
"Surrender," he repeated quietly. "Total, complete surrender." He fell silent, then contemplative, as if Ham's directive had a ring of Krishna truth that even Bryant could not deny. Surrender to the guru. Surrender to the guru--even though he steals your wife and gives her to a pervert. Bryant studied his hands in silence for a moment then stood up abruptly, the force of his sudden movement sending his chair flying backwards.
"Bullshit! There’s no way I'll surrender to that faggot!" he shouted. "Maybe he can con a soft-headed woman, but he's not going to make a punk out of me."
I let him go on for a minute or so, then tried to steer the conversation into more concrete areas. "What's next,?" I asked him. "What's your plan?"
His eyes flashed. "I know the truth about Kirtanananda, and I'm going to bring him down."
"Everyone believes Ham is a great Vedic scholar. He was with Prabhupada from the beginning, and claims to know all the sacred writings inside and out. I knew he was wrong when he initiated my wife, so I got my hands on everything Prabhupada ever wrote. I learned a lot about Vedic doctrine, but I also learned a lot about Kirtanananda.
"Everyone figured that Ham was Prabhupada's chosen successor. But right there in his writings were all kinds of warnings about Kirtanananda. Prabhupada said he was arrogant and ambitious, and that he didn't trust him. The people in the movement need to know this."
"But why did you call me? What do you need a lawyer for?"
"You've got to understand, Kirtanananda is considered to be like a God. Infallible. Above reproach. Nobody questions him. People are in awe of his power. But when I started showing this stuff to other devotees I found out everybody had their own story to tell. Everybody had some dirt on Kirtanananda. It's just that they were either too scared or worshipped him too much to talk about it before. Drugs, people getting killed, kids getting molested. And that case you had about Wheeler's son? Everybody knows the truth. Kirtanananda's been diddling that kid since he was out of diapers. When you and his mother tried to get him out of there, Ham had him taken to Mexico."
I tried to hold an objective, lawyerly pose but inside my heart was pounding. The Cheryl Wheeler case still ate at me, and the prospect of restoring some kind of justice or balance to the situation truly piqued my interest.
"I've dealt with disgruntled Krishna's before," I said. "They all have stories, but they won't follow through, or they want to remain anonymous."
Bryant picked up the bulging manila envelope he'd brought and emptied the contents onto the table. He separated the papers into two large piles.
"Here are some of Prabhupada's writings and commentaries," he said, placing his hand on one stack. "I've highlighted all the places where Kirtanananda has directly disobeyed the Vedic doctrines."
I was impressed with his research, and maybe it would help him break up the Krishna's from the inside, but to me that stack was legally useless.
"What's in the other pile?" I asked.
"Letters from my friends," he grinned, pushing the pile toward me. "I figured I could use some references for the battle."
I picked up the first letter and began reading. It testified to Bryant’s good character, then it went on to say that the writer was aware of numerous women who had been beaten at the commune. The next letter contained similar testaments to Steve's sound mind and strong moral character, then the author, a woman, told how Kirtanananda had intentionally destroyed a number of families so that he could use the women for the street begging operation.
The next letter was from a man whose daughter was molested at the ashram school. Another man said Kirtanananda had encouraged him to beat his wife. Another writer, who remained anonymous, said he was ordered to smuggle heroin from Thailand and turn over the proceeds to Kirtanananda. Someone else reported that they knew who the killer was in an unsolved murder at New Vrindaban. I was elated.
"These are dynamite," I said. "We've heard rumors about stuff like this for years, but no one has ever been willing to step forward, let alone put anything in writing. Can you get any more of these?"
"Sure, all you want."
"If you can do that, you've got yourself a lawyer."
A week later, Bryant handed me twenty-four letters. All contained allegations and sometimes eyewitness accounts of physical abuse, dope smuggling, child molestings, even murder--and all were signed. I began to think we might have a chance.
But Kirtanananda must have thought we had a chance, too. Six months later Steve Bryant was murdered in California. Federal and state indictments in the case accused Kirtanananda of giving the orders.
Shortly after I had met him in jail Bryant was released from protective custody. For awhile he kept on the move, calling me every week or so from different hotels or different towns. Often he would call twice within a day or so, first to let me know where he was, then again the next day to say he thought he'd been discovered and had to move on. Once, when I thought he was in Missouri he dropped by the office wearing a false beard that was so cheap and phony looking I broke out laughing while he was telling me how much he feared for his life. During those few months, in a strange way, we became friends.
Bryant had produced a flyer entitled "Jonestown in Moundsville?" and printed a couple thousand copies. Part of his plan was to distribute this flyer to Marshall County citizens, and thereby, he hoped, incite an uprising that would bring down the Swami. But by the time he came back to Marshall County to expose the Swami once and for all, Kirtanananda had made a few moves of his own. Some of which Steve had anticipated, some which he had not.
One key miscalculation was that Bryant thought the Sheriff was on his side, and so he kept him informed of his moves to keep ahead of the Krishnas. In reality, Kirtanananda and the Sheriff were on the same side of the table.
Shortly after Bryant's return, Art Villa, the president of New Vrindaban, sought and received a warrant from a Marshall County magistrate charging Bryant with assault for threatening the Krishna community. The warrant was granted even though verbal threats are not a crime in West Virginia. And because Bryant had been telling the Sheriff of his moves, the arresting deputies knew just where to look for him--in a small boarding house just south of the Moundsville city limits.
When the deputies pulled into the boarding house parking lot, Bryant waved to them and stepped down off the porch. He had just seen the same deputies earlier in the evening, and filled them in on his plans. He thought they were merely stopping by for another chat. Instead, they placed him under arrest for assault. During the patdown search they found the loaded .45 he carried for protection, so they also charged him with carrying a concealed weapon.
The Sheriff got a search warrant and seized all of Bryant's papers. Then he invited the Krishnas to come down and look through them, and encouraged them to make copies of anything they thought might be of interest to the Swami. Included in these papers were correspondences between Bryant and me in which I had urged Steve to collect as much dirt as he could on the Swami. Any doubts Ham might have had about my intentions and methodology were now removed.
I went to see Bryant in jail. He was crushed, truly defeated. The Sheriff had betrayed him, and everything had gone terribly wrong. He thought he was on a holy crusade, but now he'd been arrested and painted as a killer, not a savior. He said he didn't want to live if this sort of thing could happen. He said he was going on a hunger strike, and for a few days he did.
At Bryant's hearing we got the bogus assault charge thrown out, but lost on the gun charge. We appealed and Bryant was freed on bond. His case was to be reset in Circuit Court sometime later that summer.
In the meantime, Bryant went back to California, followed by Thomas Drescher, Krishna devotee and hit man. Drescher had been trailing Bryant under orders from Kirtanananda for several months. His opportunity finally came in California when Drescher followed Bryant's van home one night. Bryant pulled up in front of his house and shut off the engine, but stayed in the van to do his chanting ritual before going into the house. Drescher came up quietly from behind the van and shot Bryant twice in the face through the side window.
Bryant's murder was the beginning of a long downhill slide for Swami Kirtanananda, mainly because it happened in California, beyond the reach of his millions. The two investigators assigned to it, Paul "The Stump" Tippin, and Leroy Orozco, were experienced Los Angeles detectives who had worked on several high-profile murders. There would be no cover-up.
The trail first led to Drescher, and finally back to Ham. The detectives even stirred up some dust about a 1981 murder in Marshall County, West Virginia, the murder of Chuck St. Denis, which undoubtedly would have stayed unsolved had it not involved the same suspects as Bryant's highly visible, out-of-state murder. The FBI even jumped into the St. Denis investigation, so a lot of rocks got turned over, and pressure was put on members of the New Vrindaban Community to come forward and talk.
Gradually the details of the murder of Chuck St. Denis came out. Dan Reid, a devotee, had gone to Kirtanananda with a story that St. Denis had raped his wife. Ham listened, then suggested Reid talk to Tom Drescher about it. Reid knew what that meant and was delighted. Reid went to Drescher and told him what Ham said. Drescher, too, knew what it meant when Kirtanananda sent someone to him with a problem, and he began making plans.
Then one night, when he was ready, Drescher told Reid to lure St. Denis to Reid's artist studio in the woods by offering him cocaine. It worked. When St. Denis arrived Drescher and Reid emerged from the darkness and leveled .22 pistols at him. They told him to get inside the house but St. Denis turned and ran. Both men fired at St. Denis repeatedly until he went down. He was hit twelve times.
The killers lowered their empty pistols and approached the prone figure of St. Denis. Suddenly, St. Denis stood up shakily and stumbled towards his car to escape. Drescher ran after him and tackled him, then yelled for Reid to get a knife. While Drescher and the wounded St. Denis struggled, Reid ran inside the house and returned with a knife. Drescher took the knife and held it poised high above St. Denis' chest.
"Chant!" he screamed at St. Denis, "Chant!"
In his mind Drescher was doing St. Denis a favor. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says, "Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me." St. Denis knew this too, and even as he continued to struggle he began to chant.
"Hare Krishna, Hare..."
Drescher plunged the knife deep into St. Denis' chest.
St. Denis screamed but continued to chant as he coughed blood and tried to throw Drescher off. Drescher plunged the knife into him again and again until the blade hit a rib and broke.
"Krishna, Krishna..." St. Denis would not die and still tried to fight back. Reid, almost in a panic by now, ran into the house and came back with a screwdriver. Drescher took it and began stabbing St. Denis with it. St. Denis screamed in agony, but still he would not die. Reid looked around and found a hammer. He handed it to Drescher. Drescher hit St. Denis in the head with it as hard as he could, crushing his skull. St. Denis finally went limp.
Drescher, exhausted and arm weary, climbed off St. Denis. He and Reid stood for a moment looking down at the mutilated body, catching their breath. Suddenly from the bloody mouth of St. Denis came a high-pitched shriek of agony that froze the insides of the two killers. Then there was only silence.
"Help me carry him over there," Drescher said to Reid.
The day before the murder, Drescher had prepared a way to hide the body. He'd diverted a nearby stream with a makeshift dam, then dug a shallow grave in the stream bed. St. Denis was a big man and it was a struggle for the two killers to carry him to the grave site. When they finally arrived and dropped the body, Reid collapsed in exhaustion.
"Get up! Let's go!" Drescher hissed.
Reid pulled himself to his feet and they rolled the body onto a large sheet of plastic and began to wrap it up. As they were about to cover his bloody face St. Denis opened his eyes again.
"Don't do that," he said calmly, "you'll smother me."
Reid screamed in terror and fell backwards. Drescher kicked St. Denis then rolled him into the hole and shouted at Reid to help him. Panting and muttering they quickly shoveled in the dirt, stomped it down and covered it with rocks. Then they broke up the dam and the stream returned to it's natural course, covering the grave. Somewhere in the process, St. Denis finally died.