Baltimore County police say they’ve been stymied in investigating injuries to a teenage girl at a Pikesville house that is owned by a suspected religious cult leader from Wisconsin.
The 18-year-old is not providing many details about the Tuesday incident that has left her hospitalized, and neither are witnesses, according to police.
That doesn’t surprise some people familiar with the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, whose leader owns the house where the incident occurred.
The victim and witnesses are likely doing what they are told by their leader, according to a former group member and a man who has studied and testified on cults. Leader Avraham Cohen, also known as Rama Behara and R.C. Samanta Roy, has unquestioned authority over the 150-member nonprofit organization, they said yesterday.
News reports about Cohen have described his organization in rural Shawano, Wis., as a religious cult. But SIST has maintained that it is simply a spiritual and educational organization. A lawyer who has served as a SIST spokesman would not comment Thursday on the Pikesville incident.
Cohen’s connection to Maryland goes back about a decade when one of his children moved to the state. That is why he purchased the Pikesville property, according to Nancy Ritland, who spent 32 years in the organization. The property is now assessed at $678,000, according to state records.
SIST was started as a small, nondenominational Christian church in the mid-1970s, said Ritland, who raised three children within the group before leaving in 2007. Ritland said her children have remained, and she’s had no contact with them since.
Ritland said SIST members endure psychological — and in some cases, physical — abuse. She said Cohen has bought up property worth millions of dollars in Wisconsin and Maryland largely from the offerings of his followers.
Indoctrination begins at birth, said Ritland, who now lives in Minnesota. Members must home-school their children, instructing them that if they do not follow Cohen’s commands, they will go to hell, she said.
“You can’t imagine what is going on in there. He’s put people through sure hell,” said Ritland, 55.
Although former SIST members have accused group leaders of abuse, according to news reports, no one has been arrested and the group has generally avoided legal troubles.
In 2008, SIST was connected to a threat list involving 60 people in Shawano. No arrests were ever made but the FBI says the case remains open.
On Tuesday night, authorities were called to Behera’s home in Pikesville, Maryland to respond to a report of an injured 18-year-old female. Neighbors say they heard a commotion.
Police say when they arrived at the scene, the reported finding a victim who had suffered multiple injuries, consistent with an assault. Officers, however, say the victim and witnesses who were at the home at the time were not cooperating.
The victim was taken away in an ambulance but police decided to return hours later to search the home for a possible suspect.
When they forced their way in Wednesday morning, however, no one was inside.
Police say they have questioned a person of interest in the case but that is not Behera.
Authorities say the victim and witnesses are now claiming the incident was an accident, but police aren’t so sure.
“Circumstances led us to believe that an assault possibly occurred. We have since been told by them that happened was accidental,” said Lt. Rob McCullough, with the Baltimore County Police Department.
“The stories are somewhat conflicting. That’s the best I can tell you and that’s why we are looking into it,” said McCullough.
Several former members of SIST believe the group’s leader is pressuring those involved to change their stories.
“He has used the loyalty of his followers to commit acts of crime against other people,” said Elina Lane. Lane said her family stopped following Behera in the 1990’s.