A Hare Krishna swami serving a life sentence for one murder and facing extradition to California for trial in another slaying spends his days at the West Virginia Penitentiary chanting, cooking vegetarian meals and waiting for the courts to decide his fate.
“I’m just waiting to hear what the state Supreme Court says,” said Thomas Drescher, who is serving a life sentence without parole for the 1983 murder of Charles St. Denis at the nearby New Vrindaban Krishna commune.
“If they rule against me, I’ll appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. What do they expect me to do? Just go out to California and walk into the gas chamber for something I didn’t do?”
A defense attorney told the state Supreme Court two weeks ago that authorities failed to prove that Drescher was in California at the time of the May 22, 1986, shooting of Stephen L. Bryant, a disillusioned Krishna devotee who had called for the death of Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, New Vrindaban’s spiritual leader.
Shot Twice in Head
Bryant, of Royal Oak, Mich., was shot twice in the head as he sat in his van parked on a Los Angeles street about a year after he began his crusade against Bhaktipada, who he said was involved with drug trafficking, prostitution and child abuse.
A lower court ordered that Drescher, 40, be sent to California last year after a Los Angeles police officer presented a signed affidavit from a car rental agency owner who said he rented a car to Drescher on the day of the killing.
The state Supreme Court’s decision on the swami’s appeal of that extradition order is pending.
“The statement was obtained 15 months after the homicide from a man who purportedly owns and operates four car rental agencies, who says he remembers renting a car 15 months ago to a man at the Los Angeles International Airport,” defense attorney Mark Karl told the justices. “This busy businessman has an incredible memory.”
Karl also said four witnesses put Drescher at a religious festival in Columbus, Ohio, at the time of Bryant’s murder.
Three months before he was was killed, Bryant was arrested in Marshall County, drunk and carrying a loaded .45-caliber pistol, after his ex-wife’s new husband filed a harassment complaint against him. Bryant told police that he had come to kill Bhaktipada.
Drescher, who faces the death penalty in California if convicted of the murder charge against him, acknowledged that he trailed Bryant in an attempt to protect Bhaktipada.
“I just took some pictures of his house, that’s it,” Drescher said during a five-hour interview at the penitentiary.
“He was involved with drugs. Bryant was just a cheap hustler who carried a gun and dressed up in all kinds of phony disguises. He just shook down the wrong person out there and they took care of him.”
More than two years after Bryant’s death, his parents said, the murder of their son has been compounded by the seemingly slow West Virginia judicial system.
“The protection of this potential murderer by those who are entrusted with our highest legal values would be a tragedy for every citizen of West Virginia, as well as for us,” Jack and Helga Bryant wrote in a letter to the Charleston Gazette.
Drescher, who was made a Krishna swami last year during a ceremony in the penitentiary yard, serves as a religious leader to five devotees inside the century-old prison.
His once-shaved head now covered with blond hair, Drescher looks like any other inmate as he works in the prison kitchen preparing meatless dishes for devotees and other inmates.
“I’m a priest 24 hours a day,” Drescher said. “If someone needs to see me for some spiritual counseling, there’s no problem.
“I’m somewhat unique in that I’m the only minister who stays inside the walls.”
The sect’s Governing Board Commission criticized the ceremony and does not recognize Drescher, whose spiritual name is Tirtha Swami, as a guru. The board excommunicated Bhaktipada in March, 1987, for allegedly drifting from the sect’s tenets.
Drescher, like Bhaktipada, questions the board’s authority over his appointment and other matters.
The adopted son of a Buffalo, N.Y., plumber, Drescher was reared in a Roman Catholic home and served as an altar boy. He was attracted to the Hare Krishna movement in 1972, when he returned from a year in Vietnam with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
War Had Impact
“Vietnam really had an impact on me,” Drescher said. “I was awarded three Purple Hearts. After that, I couldn’t be satisfied with the same goals and ideals that my parents had.
“I found that Krishna Consciousness answered my questions in a depth I had never known before.”
Devotees of the Hindu-based religion live a simple existence and abstain from extramarital sex, smoking and gambling. Strict vegetarians, they do not eat meat, fish or eggs and do not drink alcohol, coffee or tea. They also believe in reincarnation and the sanctity of all life.
Drescher was convicted in December, 1986, of murdering St. Denis, a fringe member of New Vrindaban. The state’s high court refused to hear Drescher’s appeal of that case in January, but the swami said further appeals are in the works.
Drescher’s co-defendant in the St. Denis case, Daniel Reid, 32, of Los Angeles, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and testified against Drescher as part of a plea arrangement. Reid received a one- to five-year sentence as part of the deal.
“Look, I’m not a one-man crime wave,” Drescher said. “It’s all an attempt by the government to get to Bhaktipada and New Vrindaban.
“I’ve been offered a deal if I implicate Bhaktipada in Bryant’s death, but I’m not going to.”
Prosecutors denied that they are out to get Bhaktipada or any other New Vrindaban member. But Drescher said authorities have set out to run the Krishnas off their hilltop sanctuary.