Community and group tangle as it buys up Shawano properties
Shawano – The declaration hung throughout the summer above a Shell station in this small northeast Wisconsin town: “NO WE DIDN’T.”
Framed by gas rates and displayed on a bustling stretch of chain restaurants and other businesses, the message would seem cryptic to an outsider. The sign meant the gas station had not been sold to a group led by R.C. Samanta Roy, which has been gobbling up local businesses and properties in a campaign whose ultimate end, according to its tax records, is to provide funds for a Western-style school in eastern India.
Add that to a series of lawsuits and enforcement actions this past summer, and it’s no wonder local residents keep asking: Just who is Samanta Roy, the former “Brother Rama” Behera, who has claimed personal visitations from Jesus, and just what are his designs?
“Nobody knows just what he’s up to,” said Mike Schuler, the town chairman of adjoining Wescott. “And that’s what has people worried.”
The reclusive 65-year-old immigrant from the historic Orissa state of India has exerted an influence in Shawano, a North Woods gateway town of 8,300 about 40 miles northwest of Green Bay, since the early 1970s. He is rarely seen and almost never heard from outside his cloistered group of adherents, none of whom responded to interview requests. Public records examined for this story reveal no estimates of the group’s size.
But his non-profit organization, the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, is active.
It sued Shawano city leaders over the summer, claiming they discriminated against the group in its efforts to obtain a liquor license for one of its hotels. During the summer, a group representative called the local sheriff nearly 100 times to report harassment at its compound.
The early days
It all began with the purchase of several acres in adjoining Wescott that served as a worship place for the group transplanted from the Twin Cities area. They were commonly called the Disciples of the Lord Jesus and operated in a style described in The Milwaukee Journal at the time as ascetic and critical of mainstream Christianity.
Samanta Roy has said in earlier interviews, including one with The Milwaukee Journal in 1977, that he came to the United States to study engineering at Columbia University in New York. Records show he attended a single year of graduate study there, in 1964.
Soon after his arrival, he said, he became enraged at the Christian missionaries who were going to his native India. According to his Milwaukee Journal interview, he was going to ask that his relatives commit violence against the missions, only to have Jesus appear and admonish him.
The conversion story was an important one in his early ministry, according to former group members from the early 1970s, who heard “Brother Rama” on the radio in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and heard him preach in churches throughout the upper Midwest.
“He also said that he spoke directly to Elijah, sometimes when he was in the bathroom,” said Elliott Lane, 50, now of Fresno. Lane was introduced to the group in the 1970s and remained involved until 1996, when he said he left because it became too controlling. “But some people said he was a false prophet.”
Whatever the case, “Brother Rama” began hosting gatherings that would last through the weekend at a home on Frailing Road and Highway 47, where he would make predictions about the soon-to-be end of the world, and play an involved role in members’ lives. Group members have testified that this included when and where they could go to the bathroom, whom they could marry and what jobs they could pursue, the emphasis being severing contact with the outside world, according to court records and news accounts.
“He didn’t want us to be worldly,” Lane said.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the group was the subject of sensational headlines after some members were forcibly removed by relatives, in some cases with the aid of local law enforcement, for what the family members called “cult deprogramming.” An investigation by the Shawano County district attorney found no evidence of wrongdoing by the followers.
After a period of relative anonymity, the group began making news again in 2000, when it started purchasing local businesses and properties. The fudge shop. A Mexican restaurant. The go-kart track. Two hotels. Three gas stations. Vacant lots on the outskirts of town, unused buildings in the center of the city, properties large and small. All told, the acquisitions were valued in the millions, according to property records.
Amid this expansion came the sensational trial and conviction in 2002 of a group member for the repeated rape of his daughter. Central to the man’s defense was his claim that he had been brainwashed and broken-down during his two decades of involvement with Samanta Roy. Several former members took the stand to allege a ghouls’ gallery of abusive practices in the group.
Samanta Roy’s followers struck back, denying the allegations, claiming religious intolerance and saying there was a concerted effort by local officials, disgruntled former members and a biased media to smear and destroy their religion.
Wave of litigation
If the group and Samanta Roy no longer are giving interviews, they are letting their lawsuits speak for them.
In addition to suing elected leaders of the City of Shawano for alleged civil rights violations after a zoning dispute involving liquor licenses, eight newspapers and television stations in Minnesota and Wisconsin were sued in federal district courts over stories and broadcasts that the group deems defamatory and racist. The group seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
The group also has been on the receiving end, fined for repeated failure, dating back to the 1970s, to obtain proper permitting for its building projects and to pay property taxes, according to county records and zoning administrators.
Samanta Roy’s group was sued successfully last year by an alliance of Shawano area gas station owners for unfair pricing when the group’s gas stations were found to be charging too little. The plaintiffs won close to $30,000 in damages.
Doing business as Midwest Oil, the group faces similar trouble in Minnesota, where its gas stations have been sanctioned by the state for similar practices, though the case is being appealed.
Three of the lawsuits filed by the group have been against Green Bay television stations. The first lawsuit, against WBAY, was related to the sexual assault case and was dismissed in December 2002. The other two lawsuits were filed this year against WGBA, which is owned by Journal Communications Inc., which also owns the Journal Sentinel. These latter lawsuits allege defamation, intrusion and discrimination. A judge this month dismissed one of those suits.
Several attempts to reach group members and Samanta Roy were fruitless. Phone calls and e-mails went unreturned. This summer, a reporter was told by a man to wait at the group’s main complex in Wescott for Darlene Sense, who has acted as a local group spokeswoman. A woman fitting her description arrived soon afterward and declined any comment.
Some Shawano business owners say they can’t compete with the institute because members labor for free to benefit the group.
Frank Slattery, the lawyer for the gas station owners, said “My clients think they are at a competitive disadvantage because (the Samanta Roy group) doesn’t pay their help.”
In late summer, the Midwest Oil stations were charging $2.78 a gallon for regular unleaded while the prevailing price in town was $2.99. The Samanta Roy stations also were distributing free soda, coffee and doughnuts.
Even with such giveaways, the non-profit group seems to be in good financial health, according to the most recent Internal Revenue Service reports available. The group has been operating a school in India, according to its IRS documents, that is funded by the American concerns. The IRS documents offer no information about the school.
Some of the expenditures for the institute over the years also have gone to the expansion of the original Frailing Road property, which nowadays has the feel of a fortress. Much of the work on the property is done at night, according to neighbors, including the creation of huge berms that shield the property behind them from view from the public right of way.
Dating back to the 1970s, some residents opposed to Samanta Roy have harassed the group with “Rama runs,” and in 1977, gunshots were even fired into the Frailing Road headquarters (no one ever was arrested).
Sense, the spokeswoman, frequently stands guard outside the building, according to Shawano County Sheriff Robert A. Schmidt, and already this year has called police more than 90 times to report harassment.
“We get a lot of calls out there,” Schmidt said. “But whether or not it’s a problem depends on your point of view.”
Scott Paape, the manager of the group’s state-of-the-art speedway for the last year and a Milwaukee native, defended Samanta Roy, saying he was a shrewd businessman with a long-range plan that would benefit the region by bringing in tourism and promoting economic growth.
He said Shawano’s “founding fathers” have spun fantastic tales about Samanta Roy because they feel threatened by his growing economic power and are afraid of ceding their influence.
Interviewed in a shed filled with high-performance go-karts, Paape said he had no contact with the group’s religious side and defended its aggressive posture against local officials and the media.
“If someone’s messing with me, I’m going to mess with them right back,” Paape said. “(Samanta Roy) is just protecting his own.”