Former Hare Krishna spiritual leader released from prison

The former leader of a Hare Krishna splinter group accused of using the murder of two dissidents to protect a multimillion-dollar business enterprise has been released from federal prison nearly four years early.

Swami Bhaktipada, who also is known as Kirtanananda Swami and was born Keith Ham in Peekskill, N.Y., was released Wednesday from the federal correctional facility in Butner, N.C., a spokesman at the facility confirmed. Details of his release were unavailable late Wednesday.

Bhaktipada, 66, was arrested in 1987, charged with racketeering and accused of ordering the murders of two devotees who had threatened his control of the New Vrindaban Krishna community in Marshall County.

He appealed his initial racketeering conviction, then pleaded guilty at a second trial in August 1996, and was sentenced to 20 years. A federal judge reduced the sentence to 12 years in 1997, citing Bhaktipada’s failing health. Bhaktipada suffers from severe asthma and has complications from childhood polio.

Bhaktipada was accused of amassing more than $10 million through illegal fund-raising schemes, including the sale of caps and bumper stickers bearing copyrighted and trademarked logos.

Under the plea agreement, Bhaktipada pleaded guilty to the first count of an 11-count federal indictment. He admitted to mail fraud included in the racketeering count, but he did not admit any connection to the slayings of the two dissidents.

One of the dissidents, Charles St. Denis, was killed in 1983 at the New Vrindaban community. Another, Stephen Bryant, was killed three years later as he sat in his van in Los Angeles.

Bhaktipada maintains he was the subject of a vendetta by federal prosecutors, who were out to make a name for themselves by attacking a religion that is viewed as strange.

“Krishnas aren’t very popular. This is the buckle of the Bible Belt, and alternative religion isn’t favorably received,” Bhaktipada said in 1996 when he pleaded guilty.

New Vrindaban, known to many as the Palace of Gold, was once some 700 members strong, the crown jewel of the Krishna movement in America. The community was expelled from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1987.

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Associated Press, USA
June 17, 2004

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday June 18, 2004.
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