Troubled Karma for the Krishnas

The murder of a disgruntled disciple sparks a grand jury probe

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The case of Steven Bryant, who was found shot dead in his van in Los Angeles last May, might have slipped into oblivion were it not for the victim's reputation. Bryant, 33, was widely known as a longtime Hare Krishna who had turned against the sect in recent years. A bit of a crank, he bounced between West Virginia and California telling lawmen that the ever chanting, saffron- robed, pig-tailed, panhandling sect had turned corrupt.

Bryant accused the Hare Krishnas of child abuse, drug dealing and systematic violence. He charged that the Krishna temple near Moundsville, W. Va. -- a 4,000-acre community called New Vrindaban that features an Oz-like palace decorated with gold leaf -- was becoming like the Rev. Jim Jones' notorious People's Temple.

Law officers like Sheriff Donald Bordenkircher of Marshall County, W. Va., decided that Bryant's stories contained everything but substance. They dismissed his fear of being on a Hare Krishna hit list -- until he was murdered. Now authorities are reconsidering some of Bryant's tales. California police have charged Thomas Dresher, 37, a former Krishna devotee from New Vrindaban, with Bryant's slaying. Meanwhile, police in West Virginia have uncovered evidence to charge Dresher and an ex-sect member, Daniel Reid, 31, with murder in connection with the 1983 disappearance of yet another Krishna, Charles St. Denis.

Inquiries by the FBI and the state police are under way in West Virginia. William Kolibash, U.S. Attorney for northern West Virginia, will impanel a grand jury Sept. 15 to probe possible murder conspiracy and drug dealing at New Vrindaban. Said Kolibash: "The Bryant homicide triggered the inquiry."

Suspicions about the sect have circulated since 1979, when California Temple Leader Alexander Kulik was convicted of distributing heroin. He was also accused, with others, of laundering drug money through an investment company, Prasadam Distributors, controlled by sect members. The new questions could hardly have come at a worse time for the Hare Krishna movement in the U.S. (membership: about 3,000). Since the death in 1977 of Founder Srila Prabhupada, the sect has split into mutually hostile factions. The internal trouble was dramatized publicly last fall when a disillusioned devotee bludgeoned the leader of the West Virginia temple, Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada. The assailant is serving a 15-month prison term in West Virginia.

Bhaktipada, 48, who was left partly deaf and slightly lame by the bludgeoning, dismisses the West Virginia investigations as "absurd." He claims that Bryant began attacking the sect because he thought it had caused his wife to leave him. "He was vindictive," says Bhaktipada. Is there dissension within the Krishna temples? The guru concedes, "We have differences of opinion."

Investigators admit that the Hare Krishnas' penchant for secrecy will make it hard to find out what goes on in the inner sanctum. Still, according to U.S. Attorney Kolibash, the authorities will have more leverage when the grand jury takes over the probe. He adds that he is determined to find out "who calls the shots." As Steve Bryant's end attests, that is not merely a figure of speech.