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.