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Hare Krishna Leader Confident As Arson Trial Begins

December 8, 1987

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (AP) _ A Hare Krishna leader expressed confidence that he would receive justice after a jury was seated in his arson and fraud trial.

Opening arguments are scheduled for today in the trial of Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, 50, spiritual leader of the nation’s largest Krishna community, New Vrindaban.

Bhaktipada and Thomas Drescher, 39, also known as Tirtha Swami, are being tried on charges of burning an apartment building in 1983 to collect $40,000 in insurance.

U.S. District Judge William Kidd quizzed potential jurors for more than three hours Monday about their religious affiliations, their thoughts about the sect and whether they owned property insured against fire.

When a man who had told Kidd he did not go to church later said that he owned property but did not have insurance, the judge joked, ″You better go to church.″

Bhaktipada ignored much of the proceeding and instead read a book about a Russian and his search for God and truth. But he watched intently at the end of the day when the names of the 12 jurors and two alternates were read.

Climbing into a black Cadillac limousine to leave the courthouse, Bhaktipada said, ″I have faith in the American system of justice.″

At New Vrindaban, sect members chanted round-the-clock Monday. ″It’s just a simple prayer to God to please watch over him,″ said Garga Risi, a follower of Bhaktipada.

Bhaktipada, referred to as Keith Ham in the indictment, has maintained the allegations are part of an elaborate $4 million effort by the government to harass members of the sect.

He and Drescher are accused of conspiring to defraud the Inland Insurance Co. of Huntington. They each face charges of conspiracy, using an incendiary device to commit a felony and malicious destruction of a building and five counts of mail fraud. Each count carries a possible penalty of five to 10 years in prison and fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.

Drescher, formerly of Ravenna, Ohio, is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for the 1983 murder of a fringe member of New Vrindaban.

He also faces charges in California in the 1986 slaying of a Krishna dissident on a Los Angeles street.

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