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Jury Deliberates In Krishna Case

December 15, 1987

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (AP) _ An arson and fraud case against the leader of the nation’s largest Hare Krishna community went to the jury after defense attorneys argued that the government’s chief witnesses were unreliable.

James Lees, attorney for Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, said Monday during closing statements that the witnesses tailored their testimony to please federal prosecutors.

″It was the bad guy who created the investigation,″ Lees said. ″This isn’t the United States government going after the bad guy. This is the other way around.″

Bhaktipada, 50, and a follower, Thomas Drescher, 39, also known Tirtha Swami, were indicted in September on charges of conspiracy, arson and mail fraud.

Both swamis denied charges of setting a fire that gutted a vacant two-story apartment building owned by the commune to collect $40,000 in insurance money.

Testimony in the weeklong trial ended Monday afternoon and the case went to the jury.

If convicted of the arson and conspiracy counts, Drescher and Bhaktipada each face a maximum prison sentence of 30 years and $750,000 in fines. If convicted of the mail fraud charges, they each face a maximum prison sentence of 25 years and $1.25 million in fines, said U.S. Attorney William Kolibash.

Lees and Mark Karl, representing Drescher, on Monday attacked the integrity of prosecution witnesses Howard Fawley, the former treasurer of the Krishna community at New Vrindaban, and Daniel Reid, his former assistant.

Fawley has pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud stemming from the case. Reid pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter in the slaying of Charles St. Denis, a fringe member of New Vrindaban who lived at the burned building.

Fawley testified that Bhaktipada asked about the fire insurance on the building before it was burned.

Reid, who is serving a sentence of one to five years, said Bhaktipada said ″yes″ and nodded when he asked if he wanted the structure burned on July 14, 1983.

Bhaktipada, who testified last week, disputed testimony by his former treasurer that he approved a plot to burn the apartment building in a scheme to collect the insurance money.

Bhaktipada has maintained the charges are part of a $4 million effort by the federal government to harass the community, located about 70 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

Drescher, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the June 1983 killing of St. Denis, did not testify during the trial. Drescher is serving a life term without the possibility of parole at the West Virginia Penitentiary.

He is also fighting his extradition to California to face a murder charge there in the death of Krishna dissident Steve Bryant of Detroit. Bryant, a former resident of New Vrindaban, was shot to death in May 1986 as he sat in his van on a Los Angeles street.

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