The Swami is dead
AP Photo/Henry Doktorski Swami Bhaktipada is seen in a 2008 photo provided by Henry Doktorski. A biographer for the disgraced former leader of a Hare Krishna community in West Virginia, Doktorski, says Bhaktipada has died in India. He was 74.
Few things have united the local community together Republicans and Democrats, the middle class and the poor more than a proposal made in 1987 to turn Flagstaff Mountain into a Hare Krishna community.
The man who instigated the Flagstaff proposal was Swami Bhaktipada, who preached that the intent of a previous Hare Krishna leader was to "build seven temples on seven hills," and who had taken over as the leader of the American Hare Krishnas. He wanted one of the hills for one of his temples to be the Flagstaff.
The Swami never had his dream materialize.
First there were indictments by the U.S. Department of Justice. Then Flagstaff was sold to another local party.
On Monday, Swami Bhaktipada died at the age of 74 in Mumbai, India.
Bhaktipada, who was released from prison in 2004 after serving eight years of a 12-year sentence, moved to India in 2008. After his release from prison, he lived in Manhattan for four years.
In 1996, Mr. Bhaktipada accepted a plea bargain under which he pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering - which included mail fraud and conspiracy to commit two murders - while simultaneously denying his involvement in the murders.
He originally was sentenced to 20 years, but through a retrial the sentence was eventually reduced to 12.
The swami was born Keith Gordon Ham in Peekskill, N.Y. He was the son of a Southern Baptist minister.
He became a devotee of the Hare Krishnas, and eventually succeeded Srila Prabhupada as the head of the American Hare Krishna movement. Prabhupada came to America from India in 1956 and established New Vrindaban, the City of Gold, in the panhandle of West Virginia.
Within New Vrindaban was Prabhupada's Palace, a structure so elaborate that tours of it are still being offered for a fee.
Swami Bhaktipada wanted to expand the Hare Krishna movement, and in 1987, the then-owners of Flagstaff Park were having financial difficulties and were considering selling it.
There was a public hearing regarding the Flagstaff proposal, held at Jim Thorpe's Memorial Park. Memorial Hall was packed with people. Over 1,000 people attended, seemingly all voicing strong sentiment against the Hare Krishna proposal. The late Sen. James Rhoades attended the meeting and was quoted as saying, "If they (the Krishnas) want to see how a red neck fights, then watch me."
Some who attended wore "Swami Buster" T-shirts.
Rhoades, who was a Republican, and state Rep. Keith McCall, a Democrat, jointly introduced legislation to establish Flagstaff as a state park, which would prohibit the Hare Krishnas from purchasing it. The state park proposal never passed, though.
A group of local residents formed and attempted to raise money in an unsuccessful effort to purchase Flagstaff as a way of keeping the Hare Krishnas away.
Despite the large outcry against it, Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada told a gathering of reporters that he was ready to recommend to his followers that the 425-acre Flagstaff Park site be purchased for the purpose of building a "City of God."
It was the law which came to the aid of the local folks.
In late November 1987, the U.S. Department of Justice announced federal indictments against various member of the Hare Krishna commune of New Vrindaban, including Swami Bhaktipada.
The indictments included arson, firearms violations, and mail fraud. Part of the indictment stemmed from the murders of two Hare Krishna members who defied Bhaktipada's rule. The swami was linked to their deaths.
Also in November, Ramantha Suka, vice president of the Hare Krishna organization in Philadelphia, announced that he didn't regard Bhaktipada's group as brothers.
Suka said at the time, "We want to distance ourselves as much as possible from the West Virginia group."
The Hare Krishnas' governing body excommunicated Bhaktipada in 1987 and New Vrindaban itself the next year. But, proclaiming the community independent of the larger movement, he refused to step down. In May 1990, a federal grand jury indicted Bhaktipada on six counts of mail fraud
The indictment against Bhaktipada charged that he had engaged his followers to commit the two murders. At trial, prosecutors argued that he had considered both of the murdered men threats to his multimillion-dollar empire. In 1991, he was convicted on all six counts of mail fraud and three of the five counts of racketeering. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
An appeals court vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial
In 1996, Bhaktipada accepted a plea bargain under which he pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering - which included mail fraud and conspiracy to commit both murders - while simultaneously denying his involvement in the murders. He was sentenced to 20 years, later reduced to 12.