Sep 30, 2012

Wanted Hindu guru escaped to India, officials say

By Eric Dexheimer

Austin Statesman

Two days after a Hays County jury convicted Prakashanand Saraswati of 20 counts of indecency with a child for groping two teenagers who lived at the Hindu ashram he'd founded, newly filed court documents say his followers met in a devotee's home a mile up the road in Driftwood to plan how to spirit him out of the country before his sentencing.

Later that night of March 6, 2011, or early the next morning, at least one of them accompanied the guru, who uses a wheelchair, over the Mexican border to Nuevo Laredo, according to the documents. After secretly moving just south of Tijuana in mid-2011, Prakashanand — who'd shaved his long white beard and cut his shoulder-length hair — then used a fake passport to escape to India in November.

The information, as well as other details of how Prakashanand's followers in Texas and across the country clandestinely moved the spiritual leader while evading law enforcement, is included in court documents filed in Hays County. An affidavit in support of a search warrant signed last week by a Hays County judge seeks access to Yahoo email accounts of a preacher and close associate of the guru's who lives in India.

Although many of the assertions in the document came from law enforcement interviews with devotees, much also was obtained from cellphone records and private emails written between Prakashanand's followers.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Marcum, who has been leading the effort to track down the 83-year-old guru known to his followers as Shree Swamiji, confirmed details of the agency's efforts to monitor and track Prakashanand during the past year and a half.

The operation planned and carried out by Prakashanand's followers to keep him hidden from police and move him among the three countries involved his spiritual devotees from Pennsylvania, California, Florida, Texas and Mexico, according to the court filing.

Individual tasks were divided among the devotees so that each could minimize his or her culpability, Marcum said. "It is the most sophisticated scheme I've seen as far as fugitive investigations go," he said. "They were very smart about what they did."

Still, he added, the U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating several of the guru's supporters, and it is likely some will be charged with harboring a fugitive, aiding and abetting an escape or making false statements to a government agent. Daryl Fields, a spokesman for the Western District of Texas's United States Attorney's Office, which would bring any such charges, declined to comment.

The news that Prakashanand was able to sneak into India almost certainly decreases the likelihood he will be captured and returned to San Marcos, where a state district judge on March 7, 2011, sentenced him to 14 years in prison on each of the 20 counts.
He also forfeited $1.2 million in bonds and promissory notes when he went on the lam.

Although both countries have extradition treaties with the United States, the U.S. Marshals doesn't have an active office in India, as it does in Mexico. That means Prakashanand would have to be apprehended and adjudicated by Indian authorities.

Meanwhile, Marcum said, all indications are the spiritual leader is being protected and cared for in India by Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat — JKP — the large and wealthy umbrella organization of which Barsana Dham, the ashram he founded in 1990, was a part. The ashram, located on 200 acres in South Austin, was renamed Radha Madhav Dham a month after the trial. Shyama Rose, one of the girls who was kissed and groped by the guru, said his escape to India effectively ends the case against him. "I feel the door is closed on it," she said. "There's nothing more to be done."

She added: "I'm sure we'd all sleep better if he were locked up. But he's in his own little prison."
Karen Jonson, who this year published "Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus," a book about her life at the ashram, said: "While a measure of justice was served by his conviction, it would still be the right thing for Prakashanand to have to endure the result of his crimes against children, to serve his punishment as determined by the courts of this country." Still, she added, "As long as he is
alive, there will always be hope for his capture and return to Texas."

According to the affidavit, three days after Prakashanand disappeared, marshals interviewed a Florida devotee, who said that he had been contacted by a temple employee in Nuevo Laredo "pleading for him to come to Mexico to assist her in helping Saraswati evade law enforcement."

The man, Ethan DeMitchell, said he also had been instructed to "purchase a fake passport so that Saraswati could flee Mexico to India," and to start contacting private charter jet companies to explore how to hire a plane to fly the guru out of Mexico. DeMitchell, who according to the affidavit also told marshals he spoke with Prakashanand on the phone from Mexico, didn't immediately return phone calls.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection records, various ashram employees crossed the Texas-Mexico border numerous times throughout 2011, the affidavit said. When contacted by marshals investigators, most either declined to be interviewed in detail, or "stated that they did not believe Saraswati was guilty of the convicted offenses, and they hoped he would evade capture and never go to prison."

One of the devotees named in the affidavit, Jenifer Deutsch, also called Vrinda Devi, has been a spokeswoman for Radha Madhav Dham. She traveled from Austin to Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana a half-dozen times between March and November 2011, according to the court filing.

Deutsch didn't return a phone message left at the ashram. But Chirag Patel, the ashram's managing member, said, "We have no knowledge of anyone at the ashram supporting (Prakashanand's) escape."

Late last year, federal investigators began to receive hints that Prakashanand was no longer in Mexico, the court filing shows. In December 2011, for example, marshals learned that his personal aide, Vishwambhari Devi, who seldom left his side, "had recently activated a life insurance policy in India," the affidavit said.

Six months later, Marcum said he heard from two confidential sources that Prakashanand had made it safely to India. Over the following months, the affidavit said, two other sources confirmed that the spiritual leader had successfully fled Mexico sometime in November.

"We were about a week behind him" when he escaped, Marcum said. "We were pretty close."