Religious leader convicted of sex crimes disappears

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When Karen Jonson was writing her book “Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus”, she knew the perfect prologue.

The book details the 15 years she spent as a spiritual seeker at the Barsana Dham temple in Driftwood. It tells her story of how she helped three young girls expose what was kept secret at the temple; that the girls had been molested repeatedly by Hindu guru Prakashanand Saraswati.

But there was only one way the book could begin. Not the day she arrived at the temple. Not the day a victim reached out to her for help. It had to begin on Monday, March 7th, 2011.

Three days earlier, a Hays County jury found Saraswati, also known as Swami Ji, guilty on 20 counts of Indecency with a Child. Each count carried a sentence between 2-20 years in prison, meaning the 82-year-old Swami would likely spend the rest of his life in jail.

“I was so relieved,” Jonson said when the verdict was returned.

The sentencing phase of the trial began on the day Jonson recounts in her prologue. Proceedings were to begin at 9 a.m. but were delayed because Saraswati was late.

9:00 became 9:15. And then 9:30.

Finally, it was obvious to Jonson something was wrong.

“(Prosecutor) Cathy Compton came over to me and said ‘it looks like we are missing a swami.’”

By the time those words had been uttered, a getaway plan was already underway, an international search would begin soon after, and a mystery was born.

At the time, Jonson only knew what was happening in the courtroom.

“All hell broke loose.”

MONEY FOR FREEDOM

At church, at football games, it is the case Hays County District Attorney Sherri Tibbe cannot completely shake.

“People still ask me ‘What happened to the swami?’” Tibbe said about the questions which linger three years later.

And there is one question that looms larger than all the others. The same question Karen Jonson asked her the day Swami Ji disappeared.

“Why would you let him go?”

During the trial, Swami Ji was out on bail. He was allowed to leave the courthouse each day and return the next. Even after the guilty verdict, which virtually assured him of prison time, he was not detained.

“They wanted to see him get away and they had the money to do it”— Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Marcum

“It worried me,” said Jonson, “It worried me he was not remanded into custody and there was no one assigned to watch him.”

Jonson’s worry was from what she knew about Swami Ji. He was a highly revered person with thousands of devotees at the temple.

And a person of his stature would have access to something that would prove to be very important in his getaway.

Money. And lots of it.

“Initially, we were concerned about him being a flight risk,” Tibbe explained, “He was an Indian national, he had a passport, and he traveled frequently.

But as pre-trial hearings and court settings went by, those fears faded.

“He came to all the hearings, he was always in court when he was supposed to be with his attorneys.”

However, in hindsight, Tibbe admits mistakes were made.

“People still ask me ‘What happened to the swami?’”— Sherri Tibbe, Hays County District Attorney

“It is something when we looked back at it after the fact, we would have asked the bond to be raised,” Tibbe said. Since the Swami Ji trial, the Hays County DA office now always asks the judge to raise the bond after a conviction for a defendant who is out of jail on bail.

But Tibbe believes even if the judge raised Swami Ji’s bond, he may still have managed to flee thanks to that seemingly endless amount of money which concerned Jonson in the first place. Even with a $10 million personal recognizance bond and a $1 million cash bond, Swami Ji was still able to make bail.

“They had shown in the past, they were going to come up with whatever amount of money was needed to get him out,” she said. The bond amounts in the case were extremely high for a second degree felony according to Tibbe.

Cases where no bond is available are usually reserved for murder cases and Tibbe said given the charges, that was not a realistic option for Swami Ji.

“On a case like this, he is going to be entitled to some kind of bond.”

THE GETAWAY

Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Marcum is the man who has been trying to track down Swami Ji and bring him back to Hays County. Based on interviews, evidence and sources overseas, Marcum believes Swami Ji made it back to his home country of India where he continues the same teachings he brought to Barsana Dham.saraswati-wanted

How the 82-year-old Hindu leader managed to make it to the freedom he now enjoys overseas is detailed in a search warrant filed nearly 18 months after he disappeared.

“You had a large group of people who wanted to protect him. They wanted to see him get away and they had the money to do it,” said Marcum.

According to the search warrant, several Barsana Dham members met at the temple the day before the sentencing phase was to begin. In that meeting, they created a plan to take Swami Ji to Mexico.

Three days after the swami failed to appear in court, U.S. Marshals interviewed a known follower in Florida named Ethan DeMitchell. During that interview, Mitchell told Marshals he had phone conversations with another supporter who was with Swami Ji in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Marshals say DeMitchell told them he was instructed to buy a fake passport and arrange for a private charter plane which would help get Swami Ji back to India. DeMitchell had $5,000 on him during the interview according to Marshals, money which may have intended to buy the passport and plane ride.

The search warrant indicated the father of two of the victims was a part of the getaway plan and wanted to aid the swami because he thought his daughters were “lying whores.”

Nearly a dozen supporters are mentioned in the warrant which alleges supporters used multiple cell phones and SIM cards to avoid cell phone detection. Those supporters helped the swami shave his beard to alter his appearance and traveled back and forth between the United States and Nuevo Laredo from the day of the disappearance until late May and early June.

At that point, the focus and travel patterns of the supporters turned to Tijuana where it remained until November when Marshals think Swami Ji was finally able to board a plane and fly to India.

Marcum said the task of finding Swami Ji became much more difficult the minute he crossed the Mexican border.

“He had a pretty good head start,” said Marcum. “He had an entire weekend to get to Mexico.”

Ironically, the thing that made such an escape plan possible was the same thing that allowed Swami Ji out of jail in the first place.

Lots and lots of cold, hard, cash.

“Money allowed him to get out of the country by means of a fake passport and a flight,” said Marcum. “If you have the money, it is not difficult to do.”

Marshals say sources in India have told them Swami Ji has been seen at several churches in India, specifically near New Delhi.

Finding an exact location for Swami Ji is the first and vital step for Marshals so they may issue a provisional warrant and although finding the swami may depend on sources abroad, Marcum thinks secrets remain at the Driftwood temple Swami Ji left behind.

“I believe there are people there who know where he is, without a doubt.”

KXAN asked Marcum if people at the temple have been helpful to the investigation.

He simply replied, “No.”

A NEW TEMPLE

Radha Madhav Dham
Radha Madhav Dham

As you approach the Radha Madhav Dham temple, formerly known as Barsana Dham, it is hard not immediately notice the architecture and beauty of the temple which is one of the largest Hindu temples in the United States.

“It is nice to be around this place,” said temple member Pankaj Sharma. “It is peaceful, it is quiet, and you get a peace of mind.”

Built in 1995, the temple sits on 200 acres of land which includes a field of wildflowers, pristine fountains, statues of deities, and homes for members. Such a sight brings plenty of visitors. It was recently named one of the 13 most fascinating houses of worship in America alongside the Salt Lake Temple and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“When (visitors) come and look at the temple, they are amazed to see how beautiful it is,” said member Deepak Kulkarni.

On a given Sunday, you will find people worshipping in the prayer hall, children learning the language of Hindi in a nearby classroom, or the careful science of robotics being taught to teenagers.

“Hundreds of people come here from Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, even other parts of the country,” said Dr. Chirag Patel, a temple spokesperson.

The values of the Indian culture are at every turn, but the past is not.

“There is no influence of (Swami Ji) here at the temple,” said Patel.

After the swami’s disappearance, there were several new board members for the temple including Patel. They decided to change the name of the temple, but say their commitment to the community and their purpose remain very much the same.

“Even back in those days, the temple served one purpose and that is to inspire devotion to God,” said Patel.

Imagery is a powerful tool in the Hindu religion as God and deities are often depicted in human form. However, nowhere on the temple grounds will you find imagery of Swami Ji despite his standing among the Hindu faithful.

“He has had thousands of supporters in the last 40, 50, years. He would be considered a spiritual teacher.”

That is why Patel said his disappearance was just as shocking to members at the temple.

“We were all very shocked when the incident happened three years ago,” said Patel who believes temple members and supporters may have actually been disappointed by the decision to run from the sentencing phase.

“Many who supported him felt by disappearing in that manner three years ago, he would only bring even more infamy to him,” said Patel who pointed out any hope of an appeal process was lost because of the disappearance.

Although Marshals say members of the church are holding back valuable information which could lead to Swami Ji’s location, Patel does not think answers are being kept secret. For nearly a year following the swami’s getaway, he said members were terrified as they were constantly subjected to interrogations by law enforcement.

“I have talked to many devotees who have supported him over the years here and have not come across anyone who says they helped him.”

However, Patel does admit there are members who do not believe Swami Ji deserved prison time.

“Are there still people here who feel he was innocent? I would say yes. But nobody knows his whereabouts at this particular point so there is no point in being in contact with him.”

Instead, Patel said the temple maintains focused on moving past that awful period of time in their much longer and much more glorious history. They have received hate crime threats in the past but are committed to their future as members and neighbors of Hays County.

Swami Ji is now a mystery to them as well.

“Only he knows why he did what he did and no one here has informed me, in any way, of supporting him.”

SERVING JUSTICE

Whether secrets are being held at the temple or not, Robert Marcum is very optmistic U.S. Marshals will one day locate Swami Ji.

Getting him back to Texas to serve his sentence is another story.

“It is very important for us to see a resolution to this case,” said Marcum. “But the government there is going to move at their own pace.”

Even if a location is found and a provisional warrant is issued for Swami Ji Marcum says a potential return to the United States is wrapped in international red-tape.

“Their legal system is going to protect their citizens like our own country would.”

The legal logistics and fees required to bring Swami Ji back may be a mountain too high to overcome. Still, Sherri Tibbe believes a measure of justice has already been had.

“I have spoken to (the victims) since the trial and we are all in agreement that we did the right thing and they got their day in court,” said Tibbe. “We are at peace.”

The sentencing phase went on without the swami present and he was sentenced to 14 years on each of the 20 counts for Indecency with a Child. A 280-year sentence virtually ensures he would have to spend the rest of his life in prison.

But even if he never serves a single day, Tibbe believes the victims, labeled as outcast and liars, some even by their own parents, were vindicated by the verdict.

“We all want him to be in prison and we hope that day will come, but if it does not, we got our peace and we got our justice.”

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