Shawano sect still veiled in secrecy
SHAWANO — This is the epitome of small-town Wisconsin.
Coffee shop waitresses call people by name and offer an extra slice of homemade bread — buttered, of course. Main Street has no parking meters. The high school is the hub of the social scene for much of fall and winter.
But just north of Shawano, in the town of Wescott, there’s a group that occupies a swath of land — more than 210 acres — that no one knows much about.
The Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology this month became more than a curiosity when Shawano residents learned that a member of the group is suspected of putting together a written threat against 60 people in the community. A Canadian businessman who has financial dealings with the group provided the list and has turned police informant.
The threats implied that the group wanted people causing them problems “taken care of,” Shawano police Chief Ed Whealon said.
Investigators have established a sect member as a person of interest in the case but said that person is not in custody, Whealon said. No charges have been filed.
The institute’s chief executive officer was arrested Nov. 14 on an unrelated federal contempt warrant but has since been released from custody, the institute’s lawyer, Alan Eisenberg, said Friday.
Eisenberg said the threats case is baseless.
“A: There never was a threat,” he said. “B: Nobody that we know of engaged in any such behavior. No. 3: None of the institute people have been questioned, called in for questioning … nothing.”
The Institute of Science and Technology does not have a religious component, Eisenberg said. It’s a nonprofit organization raising money to fund a university in India.
Eisenberg said the recent allegations stem from a hatred for the group’s leader, Avraham Cohen, a doctor and professor who lives in Baltimore.
“Avraham Cohen was born in India and is dark-skinned,” Eisenberg said. “I’ve heard a ton of racist, derogatory remarks about him. They also absolutely resent the fact that he’s Jewish.”
The case took another twist last week when someone faxed a letter offering a reward for the police informant to a Wausau TV station. The document said the informant needed to be “brought to justice.”
FBI spokesman Leonard Peace confirmed the letter exists and that its origins are unknown. Peace would not comment on how the fax fits into the pending investigation.
By any other name
Cohen has used other names during his time around Shawano. When he originally moved to the area in the mid-’70s, he went by Rama Behera or Brother Rama Behera. He later used the name Dr. RC Samanta Roy, the name that still appears on many property holdings.
Eisenberg said the group’s property on Frailing Road is offices and warehouses — not a religious compound.
“It is my understanding that there are some people who meet for Bible readings on Sunday, but I don’t know who they are,” Eisenberg said. “My understanding is that it’s not an organized religion. I believe that whoever the group is, it’s nondenominational, but it has nothing to do with the Institute of Science and Technology … no connection.”
The group occupying the Frailing Road property once used the moniker The Disciples of the Lord Jesus, a name that Eisenberg said is no longer part of the picture.
“They haven’t been around for over 20 years,” Eisenberg said.
The compound has gated entrances on Wisconsin 47 and a guarded entrance on Frailing Road. Women with a video camera confront visitors when they approach the property line. Passing vehicles and license plates are recorded.
Mike Schuler, Wescott chairman for 20 years, said he’s not sure what happens on the property but knows more people are around on weekends. Schuler said his name was on the threat list. The town’s offices are across the road from the institute’s property.
“Go over there on Sunday morning, you’ll find 15, 20, 25 cars parked there … all with out-of-state plates,” Schuler said. “They’re having church.”
Other residents said they routinely see weekend visitors carrying blankets and pillows into the buildings.
“They are very secret, but to me, if they want to be secret and do what they want to do, let them … as long as what they’re doing is legal,” Schuler said. “I don’t care how secret my neighbors are or my town is, person to person, as long as they are doing things within the law, we’re OK.”
Schuler said his chief complaint about the group is that they don’t go through proper channels or obtain proper permits for construction projects on their property.
Town building inspectors have been to the group’s properties on many occasions to enforce building codes on projects — many of which were built at night.
“They build something without permits, we have to call them in and go throughout the whole process of having permits issued after the fact,” Schuler said. “Their race track was put together with no up-front permits. They still don’t do them right now with special events. The town has an ordinance for special events permits, and they refuse to pick them up.”
Most in Shawano know Cohen’s group through its business holdings. Its members run the People’s Choice gas stations in town, a couple of motels, two gift shops and a race track. The group owns dozens of property parcels in the county. Several storefronts remain vacant, with for sale signs taped to the windows listing Eisenberg as the real estate agent.
Area officials are concerned vacant properties will never be sold or rented. Many have delinquent taxes, which Eisenberg said will be paid.
“Besides the casinos, the Institute of Science and Technology-related companies are the largest tourism concern in the county,” Eisenberg said. “They totally exist to promote the area. They have no other goal.
“When people come to the casinos, they stay in the group’s hotels, they eat in the hotel’s restaurants, they gas up their cars … they buy gifts at the gift shops,” Eisenberg said. “I know for a fact that there are people who live there that resent the heck out of this guy because of the color of his skin and because of his Jewish faith.”
Schuler said race and religion have nothing to do with it.
“They said they purchased these properties to open them up and make money so they would have enough money to build an international boarding school,” Schuler said. “Yet, out of the roughly 15 properties they have in town, at least a dozen of them are vacant.”
Schuler said he hasn’t seen or heard of formal plans for a school in a dozen years.
Efforts to reach Shawano Mayor Lorna Marquardt — who was named on the threat list — have been unsuccessful. She filed a defamation suit against the group in 2007; that case still is pending in Shawano County court.
Bad news, bad reputation
Shawano residents — not just those named on the threat list — remain concerned. Many know people named on the list. Few, if any, want to talk to reporters, worried their names will be added to the list.
Many are concerned Shawano is getting a bad reputation due to recent headlines.
“We’re not thrilled about the negative publicity out there about the community,” said Nancy Smith, executive director of the Shawano County Chamber of Commerce. “Whether it’s caused any problems for anyone, I don’t know.”
Smith said none of the institute’s businesses are chamber members. She would not comment on the group’s effect on tourism.
“It’s business as usual for us,” Smith said. “We’re healthy economically. We’re just keeping on.”