9 Dec 2010

Baltimore police say teen girl hospitalized for injuries but refusing to talk may have been abused by cult she was raised in

The Baltimore Sun - June 11, 2010

Police stymied in probing injuries to teen

Pikesville house linked to suspected cult

By Brent Jones | The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County police say they've been stymied in investigating injuries to a teenage girl at a Pikesville house that is owned by a suspected religious cult leader from Wisconsin. The 18-year-old is not providing many details about the Tuesday incident that has left her hospitalized, and neither are witnesses, according to police.

That doesn't surprise some people familiar with the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, whose leader owns the house where the incident occurred.

The victim and witnesses are likely doing what they are told by their leader, according to a former group member and a man who has studied and testified on cults. Leader Avraham Cohen, also known as Rama Behara and R.C. Samanta Roy, has unquestioned authority over the 150-member nonprofit organization, they said yesterday.

Police were called to a Pikesville neighborhood about 10 p.m. Tuesday and found the victim suffering from injuries consistent with an assault. She was taken to an area hospital and is in serious condition, according to police. Her name has not been released by police, but former SIST members say she is Carmella Goldstein and was raised by her parents within the organization.

Investigators immediately brought in someone for questioning, but he was released and not charged. Police are unsure how many others were in the house, in the 3700 block of Michelle Way, at the time of the incident. County police and federal authorities formed an overnight barricade around the home, only to find it empty when they entered Wednesday morning.

"The witnesses are not very cooperative with police. At this point, we don't know if she was actually assaulted or if this was some type of accident around the house," said Lt. Robert McCullough, a county police spokesman. "We have to put our case together."

Police do not believe Cohen was at the house when the teen was injured, police said.

News reports about Cohen have described his organization in rural Shawano, Wis., as a religious cult. But SIST has maintained that it is simply a spiritual and educational organization. A lawyer who has served as a SIST spokesman would not comment Thursday on the Pikesville incident.

Cohen's connection to Maryland goes back about a decade when one of his children moved to the state. That is why he purchased the Pikesville property, according to Nancy Ritland, who spent 32 years in the organization. The property is now assessed at $678,000, according to state records.

SIST was started as a small, nondenominational Christian church in the mid-1970s, said Ritland, who raised three children within the group before leaving in 2007. Ritland said her children have remained, and she's had no contact with them since.

Ritland said SIST members endure psychological — and in some cases, physical — abuse. She said Cohen has bought up property worth millions of dollars in Wisconsin and Maryland largely from the offerings of his followers.

Indoctrination begins at birth, said Ritland, who now lives in Minnesota. Members must home-school their children, instructing them that if they do not follow Cohen's commands, they will go to hell, she said.

"You can't imagine what is going on in there. He's put people through sure hell," said Ritland, 55.

Although former SIST members have accused group leaders of abuse, according to news reports, no one has been arrested and the group has generally avoided legal troubles.

But financially, the organization has struggled. Cohen's group sought to reorganize under federal bankruptcy protection last year and has failed for the past few years to pay taxes on some of its downtown Shawano properties, according to court records and media accounts. The group owns several commercial properties in the city, some of which are leased to other businesses.

Among the debts listed in the bankruptcy filing, SIST owed the town of Shawano about $73,000 from personal and property taxes, room taxes and interest on the unpaid debt, according to local newspaper The Shawano Leader. Shawano County was owed nearly a half-million dollars in taxes on properties owned by SIST and its subsidiaries. SIST paid off much of the debt this year, according to news reports.

SIST was also in the news in 2008, when the FBI investigated an alleged "hit list" naming 60 people who had been critical of the organization. No charges were filed.

Rick Ross has studied cults in the United States for 30 years and has testified as an expert witness in 13 states. Ross is familiar with SIST — his name was reported to be on the alleged hit list — and said the victim in the Pikesville incident will not say anything that might harm the group or Cohen.

"She doesn't want to bring any further scrutiny," Ross said. "And with my experience with this group, people will say whatever they need to say to protect [Cohen]. If she were to say something that displeased them, she could pay a price and be put out of the group and completely estranged from her family."

Attempts to reach Cohen were unsuccessful. Alan Eisenberg, who has represented SIST in court and spoke on behalf of Cohen, hung up when contacted by a reporter. Eisenberg has previously denied allegations that SIST is a cult and that a hit list existed.

According to a website in support of the group, SIST's goal is to establish a world-class educational institute in the Shawano area.

SIST owns several gas stations, hotels, apartment buildings and small grocery stores in the town, which is about 38 miles northwest of Green Bay and has about 10,000 residents.

Members of SIST mostly stay to themselves, says Ritland. She lived for three years at Cohen's "ranch-style compound" before he arranged a marriage for her in the early 1980s, she said.

She said Cohen's organization frequently arranges marriages between members who might not have even met. Ritland joined when she was 17, disavowing the family that raised her.

Life revolves around the needs of SIST's leader, Ritland said, adding that members would devote nearly their entire paycheck to the organization. Her husband, Steve, who left SIST eight years ago, worked as a computer executive and estimates giving about $1 million worth of earnings to the group, keeping only enough to feed his former wife and eight kids from a previous marriage.

Nancy Ritland said she and her husband married in 2008 after she left SIST, but they had known each other since the 1970s.

"Rama gives directions and you're supposed to follow them like a robot," Nancy Ritland said.

Ritland's account falls in line with research by Ross, who said he has flown to Minnesota and Wisconsin to interview dozens of former members.

"The group has a very troubled history, mostly that [Cohen] is extremely authoritarian, completely dominating his members and followers," Ross said. "It's caused family estrangements. Devotees will not communicate with family members outside of the group. … They're very extreme and intensely devoted to the leader. They have a long history of putting his welfare above everything."

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Chicago Tribune - Associated Press June 10, 2010

Assault probed at home linked to religious group

By BEN NUCKOLS | AP writer

An 18-year-old woman suffered numerous injuries at a suburban Baltimore home owned by the founder of an organization that's been described as a religious cult, but the woman and her associates have not been forthcoming about what happened, police said Thursday.

Officers were called Tuesday night to the home in Pikesville and found the injured woman, said Lt. Rob McCullough, a Baltimore County police spokesman. Police are investigating the incident as a possible assault, he said. At least two other people were with her, and police spoke to one person of interest. However, no arrests have been made.

The woman remained hospitalized Thursday in serious but stable condition, McCullough said. Police don't know how she was injured.

"The victim and the other persons involved in this case haven't been very cooperative because they're anti-government," McCullough said. "We've gotten conflicting information from them throughout this investigation. We don't know at this point whether she was assaulted or whether there was some type of accident."

Because officers weren't certain Tuesday night whether a suspect was inside the home, a SWAT team surrounded it for about 12 hours while police got a search warrant. The SWAT team entered the home late Wednesday morning, and no one was inside, McCullough said.

The home is owned by Avraham Cohen, property records show. He changed his name in 2007 from R.C. Samanta Roy, according to Maryland court records, and also has been known as Rama Behera. A native of India, Cohen is the founder of a religious organization based in Shawano, Wis., known as the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, or SIST.

A website linked to the group describes SIST as a nonprofit with the goal of establishing an educational center. But former members have described the group as a cult.

Cohen is not believed to have been involved in the incident at the Pikesville home, McCullough said.

A message left Thursday with an answering service for SIST was not immediately returned.

SIST owns several businesses in Shawano and has clashed with local leaders. In 2008, the FBI warned of a threat against dozens of people, including the mayor and other government officials. Local police said a person linked to SIST was believed responsible for the threat.

The FBI ended its investigation about a year later, and no charges were filed.

Rick Ross, who has studied cults for nearly 30 years and counsels former cult members, said he was told by the FBI that his name was on SIST's "hit list." He has communicated with more than a dozen former SIST members who described Cohen as an authoritarian leader who separated people from their families. Children born into the group endured "harsh corporal punishment and parental neglect," Ross said.

"The demands of Samanta Roy were extreme. They were extreme in the sense that people sacrificed the welfare of their family and gave their labor to the group to create the group's assets," Ross said. Such practices, he said, are "not uncommon in groups called cults."

Last year, SIST filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Del. In an affidavit to support the filing, SIST CEO Naomi Isaacson wrote that the group's businesses had suffered as a result of "intentional business interference, organized negative publicity, and the general economic downturn in the United States."

Isaacson could not be located for comment.

Court documents filed in Wisconsin in 2007 indicated that Cohen had pledged $500,000 to the Yeshivat Rambam school, an Orthodox Jewish school in Baltimore, the Shawano Leader reported. Cohen represented himself as a Jewish neurosurgeon of Indian descent, according to the documents.

Rabbi Hershel Lutch, the school's executive director, declined to comment Thursday on the school's dealings with Cohen or whether it had accepted the gift.

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ABC News - June 15, 2010

Investigation into 'cult' assault complete; ruled accident

By: Brian Kuebler

PIKESVILLE, Md. - Listening to the 911 call, you can tell even from the beginning, it is clear something just isn't right.

The caller inside 3716 Michelle Way tells the dispatcher there is an emergency, but as the dispatcher tries to gather more information, the caller hangs up.

When the dispatcher calls back he gets a busy signal followed by voicemail.

When medics made it to the scene they found 18 year old Carmella Goldstein laying on a piece of plywood.

She was transported to Sinai Hospital where doctors say she suffered a broken pupil, a punctured lung, fractured ribs, a torn cervix, broken pelvis and a fractured leg.

Doctors didn't think Goldstein would make it through surgery but she did and now remains in critical condition.

But how this all happened is the source of much confusion.

According to the police report witnesses at the house were not cooperative, one never bothered to even come outside which helped lead to the barricade situation last Wednesday.

According to the report, eventually witnesses started to tell the same story...saying Goldstein's injuries were the result of a fall off a one foot tall trailer.

Police would later discover the victim was helping to move a slab of granite and it fell on her causing the injuries.

Severe injuries both the victim and witnesses insist were an accident; a story investigators have few other options but to believe

"That's the best that we can tell from the evidence and witness statements and everything we have at this time. At this point our investigation has been concluded," said Baltimore County Lt. Robert McCullough.

Back at the house on Michelle Way, it remains quiet. The damaged windows from the barricade now boarded up adding more mystery for neighbors about exactly what goes on and just who lives inside 3716 Michelle Way.

While county police have finished their investigation, the FBI's probe into this group remains open.

The house is registered to Avraham Cohen, the known leader of a religious organization called S.I.S.T. that is thought by some to be cult-like.

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Washington Post - Associated Press June 16, 2010

No charges in case linked to alleged cult

By Mike McPhate

No charges will be filed in a bizarre happening at the home of a suspected religious cult leader that left an 18-year-old woman with life-threatening injuries, Baltimore County police said Tuesday.

Police have concluded that Carmella Goldstein was hurt when a slab of granite fell on top of her, according to a police report obtained by The Associated Press. She suffered a punctured lung and a broken leg, pelvis and ribs, and traumatic injuries to an eye and her genital area, according to the report.

She was injured outside a home in the Baltimore suburb of Pikesville that's owned by Avraham Cohen, founder of the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology in Shawano, Wis.

Former members have described Cohen's organization, known as SIST, as a religious cult, saying he wields absolute authority over his followers. Cohen, 70, a native of India, changed his name in 2007 from R.C. Samanta Roy and is also known as Rama Behera.

Goldstein and her associates told police it was accidental, and police don't have evidence to contradict those claims, police spokesman Lt. Rob McCullough told AP. However, the police report indicates that one of Goldstein's associates lied to police about how she was injured, saying she had fallen from a trailer a foot off the ground.

Goldstein remains hospitalized in critical condition, McCullough said.

A website linked to SIST describes it as a nonprofit with the goal of establishing an educational center. SIST owns several businesses in Shawano, and the FBI investigated an alleged “hit list” linked to the group that included the names of dozens of local leaders, including the mayor. SIST filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year.

Richard J. Wolf, an FBI spokesman in Baltimore, confirmed Tuesday evening that the FBI was again investigating the group. He declined to elaborate.

Goldstein was lying in the driveway of the home on a piece of plywood when officers arrived on the evening of June 8, according to the police report. Two women were standing near her, one of whom was later identified as Rivka Roy, 43, the group leader's daughter and a physician.

Roy rode in an ambulance with Goldstein to a hospital and did not say a word the entire time, according to the report. She provided police with Goldstein's name and date of birth and said Goldstein's family lived in Michigan or Ohio, but didn't disclose any further details despite repeated questioning, according to the report. She “became very agitated” and asked repeatedly to speak to a lawyer despite being told she was not under suspicion, the report says.

When officers arrived, they observed someone inside the home and knocked on the door repeatedly, according to the report. About an hour later, a man identified as Manasseh Goldberger emerged, saying he had been afraid to talk to police. He had scratches on his body and was walking with a limp, the report says, and he told police that he and Goldstein were loading items onto a trailer when she fell face-first from a landing one foot off the ground.

The broken slab of granite was found behind the home, covered in blood and surrounded by blood-soaked paper towels, according to the report. A trail of blood was observed between the granite and the spot where Goldstein was found.

Goldberger went back inside the house and remained there for several hours while a SWAT team surrounded it, the report says. After he emerged, he was taken into custody, and he “kept to his original story” about Goldstein falling off the trailer, the report says.

Goldstein underwent surgery, and police interviewed her after she regained consciousness. She confirmed that she had been injured by the slab of granite, calling it an accident. She said she and Goldberger were working on renovations to the home and were moving several pieces of granite when one fell on top of her, the report says.

Roy and Goldberger were released without charges being filed.

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  1. Minnesota judge orders federal marshals to find religious group's leader

    By David Hanners, St. Paul Pioneer Press / MCT
    January 5, 2012

    A Minneapolis lawyer who is the chief executive officer of a group ex-members describe as a religious cult ignored a judge's order to show up to court Wednesday, prompting the judge to order federal marshals to find her.

    It was the second time in as many scheduled hearings that Naomi Isaacson refused U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Nancy Dreher's orders to appear at a hearing involving the bankruptcy of a subsidiary of the religious group.

    Her voice at times revealing flashes of irritation, Dreher told Isaacson's lawyer, Rebekah Nett, that anti-Catholic slurs the two women included in legal pleadings were "beyond the pale."

    She fined the women $5,000 each, half of what she had earlier threatened.

    "There's no respect when someone calls this court a dirty, bigoted Catholic," Dreher told Nett.

    The judge had also earlier threatened to order the women to write letters of apology, but decided against it, saying it would be a "senseless task" because they were unrepentant.

    "Based on what she's filed, I am positive should would never reply," Dreher said of Isaacson.

    As the hearing went on in the federal courthouse in Minneapolis, about 20 followers of Avraham Cohen, the spiritual leader of the religious group, carried protest signs in front of the building.

    "Demand Justice for Naomi Issacson," said one sign, while another graphically expressed fears Isaacson would be killed if taken into federal custody. None of those carrying signs would consent to interviews.

    Security was tighter than usual in and out of the courthouse, but none of the protesters ventured up to the seventh floor to Dreher's courtroom to watch the hearing.

    Isaacson and Nett called Dreher and other court officials "dirty Catholics" in legal fillings. They accused the judge and the rest of being part of a Catholic conspiracy to destroy their religious group, the Dr. R.C. Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology Inc.

    Isaacson, 37, is CEO of that group, which Cohen founded in Shawano, Wis., in the early 1970s. She is also president of the group's subsidiary, Yehud-Monosson USA Inc.

    Yehud-Monosson owned some gas stations and convenience stores and filed for bankruptcy last year. It sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which would have allowed the business to keep its properties, keep creditors at bay and reorganize finances.

    But after the Justice Department's trustee determined Yehud-Monosson had acted in bad faith, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis O'Brien converted the case to Chapter 7, allowing a trustee to liquidate assets to pay creditors. (O'Brien later stepped down from the case.)

    Beginning in November, Isaacson and Nett responded to various court orders with a string of pleadings filled with religious slurs. They called Dreher a "Catholic Knight Witch Hunter," among other names, and described densely woven conspiracy theories allegedly plotted by the Vatican.

    The Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure bar lawyers from making claims that aren't supported by facts or reasoned legal arguments. The rules require attorneys to "reasonably" investigate what they put in a brief.

    Last month, Dreher cited 10 excerpts from the women's filing that violated the rules, and threatened to fine each up to $1,000 per violation.

    Nett showed up for the hearing, something Isaacson failed to do at a hearing in December and again Wednesday despite the judge's order that she appear.

    Since Nett was present, Dreher dealt with her first. Like Isaacson, Nett, 36, of St. Paul, grew up in Cohen's group (their parents were members) and became a lawyer because Cohen told her Jesus told him in a vision that's what she was supposed to do.

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    Dreher called her to the lectern and said the claims in the filings were meant "to harass or to cause unnecessary delay," in the words of the rules of procedure.

    "It has everything to do with what you investigated before you called me a Catholic judge...(and) before you called me a 'black-robed bigot,' " the judge said.

    Nett had devoted 26 of the 42 pages of her response to Dreher's threat of sanctions by detailing alleged Catholic conspiracies through the ages. But she also argued that she should escape a hefty fine because it would restrict her "ability to continue a livelihood that is uneventful and non-confrontational 99 percent of the time."

    As she stood before the judge, Nett told her the case was one in which she felt "caught in the crosshairs" between the standards of the legal profession and a client's demand that certain language be included in the pleadings.

    "I did attempt, on many occasions, to try and get another attorney," she told the judge. "It has gone so far that no one will touch the case."

    In a quiet voice, she told the judge she "really can't respond to the name-calling" included in the filings.

    "I was trying to approach the broader picture for this client," she said. "They feel (they are) being attacked.'

    Dreher said she heard "a certain amount of contrition, but not that much," but she also noted she'd not heard an apology. She said she would issue an injunction barring Nett from filing pleadings that include "disparaging remarks."

    The judge fined her $500 per instance, for a total of $5,000, and gave her 90 days to pay. It is the second time in less than a year a federal judge has sanctioned Nett that amount; last March, a judge in Green Bay, Wis., ordered her to pay for "gratuitous and offensive comments" in a civil filing.

    That judge gave her 21 days to pay. The court docket shows that so far, she's paid $500.

    Dreher also ordered Nett to take 10 hours of classes in legal ethics over the next year.

    Dreher moved on to the absent Isaacson. She ordered federal marshals to carry out the arrest warrant she'd issued Tuesday because the woman had not turned over business records she was first told to provide in September.

    "She's going to end up spending some time in detention until she produces those documents," the judge warned Nett, who is Isaacson's attorney.

    The judge said Isaacson's written response to the judge's threat of sanctions "contains even more inflammatory statements," and the jurist seemed perturbed at the personal nature of the legal rhetoric.

    "She has absolutely no clue what my religious beliefs are, if any, and it is nobody's business," Dreher said. In a footnote to a previous order, the judge wrote that she was "not of any particular faith."


  3. Wisconsin’s Institute of Science and Technology Fears Vatican Conspiracy

    Southern Poverty Law Center
    Intelligence Report, Fall 2012, Issue Number: 147

    By Leah Nelson

    Just outside the city limits here lies the Midwest Amusement Park and USA International Raceway, its vacant grounds and winter-worn buildings evoking the same kind of eerie feeling that makes off-season attractions such good settings for horror films.

    In receivership since 2010, the amusement park is at the center of a long-running, angry dispute between the town and members of a mysterious, Catholic-bashing group that intended to use profits from the attraction and other local businesses to build a school here and fund another in India.

    Now, the group’s CEO is on the run after failing to show up in court last December to explain why she filed court papers denouncing a bankruptcy judge as a “Catholic Knight Witch Hunter” and “popess” — and why she called U.S. bankruptcy courts a cabal of “white Supremacist” “Catholic beasts.”

    The imbroglio is just the latest chapter in the strange history of the Dr. R.C. Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology (SIST), a nonprofit organization with extensive property holdings in the area that once included the Midwest Amusement Park.

    SIST was formerly known as The Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ — or “Brethren,” as they called themselves internally. City officials call the quirky, standoffish group a cult. It was founded in the 1970s by Rama Chandra Behera, a charismatic Indian convert to Christianity whose iron-fisted micromanagement of his followers’ lives led to repeated kidnappings by “deprogrammers” in the 1970s and 1980s.

    In the last decade, the Brethren have again drawn unwanted attention, as young adults who were raised among them claimed to have suffered abuse at the hands of the leader their parents so admired. Some former members, including one who spoke to the Intelligence Report, have alleged that Behera punished them for perceived infractions by applying an electric cattle prod to sensitive parts of their bodies.

    Behera has not lived with his Wisconsin followers for many years, and repeated attempts to reach him through SIST were unsuccessful. Today, he is known as Avraham Cohen and lives in Maryland, far from the turmoil surrounding the group’s affairs here. As his followers fume about what they believe is a Vatican plot to undermine SIST’s business interests and destroy the group, the group’s CEO, Naomi Isaacson, 38, faces a federal arrest warrant for contempt of court.

    Board members and employees of SIST — which claims more than $6 million in net assets and whose unpaid president is Cohen — are worried about what might happen to Isaacson and enraged over alleged attacks on their group.

    SIST declined to provide an official spokesperson to discuss its claims and the allegations against it. However, a group of six people that included three SIST board members, one of whom has acted as an attorney for SIST, met with a writer for the Intelligence Report. Miriam Sindt, a paralegal whose father joined the group in the 1970s and today sits on SIST’s board of directors, said she fears the worst. “Either she’ll get locked up and we’ll never see her again,” she said of Isaacson, “or she’ll come out on a stretcher,” the victim of a Catholic conspiracy to silence her forever.

    A Hindu is ‘Born Again’

    Situated about 35 miles northwest of Green Bay, the town of Shawano (pop. 9,305) appears stereotypically Midwestern. Children sled on snowy hills in the winter, and mud-spattered pickups speed down arrow-straight roads when it’s warmer. At the Farm Inn on Main Street, you can get more kinds of pie than there are days in the week.

    Just outside of town sits a ranch-style house, its windows covered with tarps. Parked at the end of the driveway is a sedan whose grim-faced occupant waits to photograph any interlopers.

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    These days, SIST partisans refer to the building as “headquarters.” But once upon a time, it was just “Rama’s house,” where on weekends The Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ gathered to pray, work and engage in Christian fellowship. Behera, a Hindu-born Indian evangelist who claimed to have been born again into Christianity after Jesus visited him in 1966, preached a fundamentalist and anti-modern message that had a certain appeal among those who were unsettled by changing values in America.

    Most of the Brethren worked regular jobs. On weekends, they listened to marathon sermons and toiled at menial labor on Behera’s property. Long-skirted women and plainly dressed men fixed up the house or worked the land while their children cut grass — with scissors, according to one woman who was raised in the group — or hauled water to distant plants. For the most part, the “Ramas,” as locals called them, kept to themselves, though there were occasionally run-ins over taxes and construction permits. Local teens made “Rama-runs,” speeding by the house and throwing things out of car windows.

    In 1978, shots were fired into Behera’s house. Years later, a homemade bomb sailed into an empty field near the house, terrifying its occupants.

    No one was ever arrested for the shooting or the bomb — a fact that Behera’s followers see as further evidence of a massive conspiracy directed by the Shawano-based agents of the Vatican, who are “white supremacists” and “neo-Nazis” who cannot bear to see “a businessman from India,” as Behera’s followers usually refer to him, succeed.

    In 1990, Behera changed his name to Samanta Roy. Around the same time, he declared his intention to build the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, or SIST, which was to have campuses in both India and Wisconsin. SIST was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1996, with the stated purpose, according to more recent tax documents, of “provid[ing] the American system of education to India, a land that has been dominated by the British-Indian method for centuries.” Eleven years later, having drifted theologically toward Judaism, Behera/Roy changed his name again, this time to Avraham Cohen. At 72, he reportedly now lives under that name in Pikesville, Md., and apparently has not spoken to the media since 1982.

    There is evidence that a school of some sort is operating in India, but the one in Wisconsin seems little more than a pipe dream. SIST — which raises money from gifts and loans from its backers, along with income from its businesses — is increasingly mired in court battles that may end up costing it everything.

    Christianity as ‘Death Cult’

    As Cohen’s followers see it, the Catholic Church has been responsible for practically every major war and atrocity in human history: the French Revolution; the Holocaust; the Rwandan genocide; the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy; and a dizzying array of others. Hitler and Himmler were Jesuit agents, as are Shawano Mayor Lorna Marquardt, Shawano Police Chief Ed Whealon, federal bankruptcy judge Nancy Dreher and myriad alleged co-conspirators. Catholics are said to control the banks, the government and the media. These beliefs are, for the most part, drawn from anti-Catholic conspiracy theories that have been accumulating at least since the Protestant Reformation and that have, like their anti-Semitic and antigovernment cousins, proliferated since the advent of the Internet. “When you ask how do we have solid proof, it’s a whole compilation of things they’ve done over the years,” said Miriam Sindt, one of the group that met with the Report. “When we say ‘they,’ we don’t know entirely who is ‘they.’”

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    What Sindt says she does know is that “Christianity is a false, evil religion that was fabricated.” She and other SIST partisans go on to argue, repeatedly, that “historians” have identified the faith as “‘dirty, filthy, and the most dangerous death cult in human history.’”

    Though Cohen reportedly preached against the practices of mainstream Christian denominations from the beginning, his followers did not always harbor such poisonous hatred for Catholics in particular. According to a 35-year-old woman who was raised among the Brethren and spoke to the Report on condition of anonymity, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Cohen told his followers to begin “researching” the Catholic Church.

    It was around this time that the group had its worst run-in with “deprogrammers,” who tried to free some of Cohen’s followers from what they saw as his unnatural hold on them.

    In 1982, the families of 24-year-old William Eilers and his pregnant wife, Sandy, hired deprogrammers to “rescue” their children from Cohen’s group, believing they had been brainwashed. The families were Catholic and Lutheran, and the deprogrammers took the abducted couple to a Franciscan (Catholic) retreat in Winona, Minn., and held them until they renounced Cohen’s group. Sandy Eilers was apparently sincere, but William Eilers returned to the Brethren. He later sued the deprogrammers, and a federal court ruling in his favor proved pivotal in a series of legal precedents making clear that the abduction of adult children from the clutches of perceived cults is not legal.

    “There is ample evidence that this group is an authoritarian religious fellowship directed with an iron hand by Brother Rama Behera. … [But] the beliefs and practices of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ should not be, and are not, on trial,” wrote the judge in the case. Expressing “substantial sympathy” for the Eilers’ parents, the judge nevertheless ruled that the deprogrammers’ actions, no matter how well intentioned, amounted to illegal false imprisonment.

    In the late 1980s, Cohen began to take up Old Testament ideas, telling his flock to celebrate the Jewish holidays of Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and ultimately renouncing Christianity altogether.

    Cohen was known as a harsh disciplinarian. Speaking with the Report, the woman raised among the Brethren recalled in vivid detail a time when, she said, Cohen punished her for crying at age 3 or 4 by picking her up by the ankle and carrying her into a back room, where he sat on her and “zapped” her with a cattle prod. Teenage girls who displeased Cohen, she added, had their heads shaved.

    Cohen also allegedly arranged his followers’ marriages and named their babies. He told them what professions to pursue. He forbade peanut butter and Italian food — “Pope food,” he called it — and would not allow birthday or Christmas celebrations. Only holidays that would “make us meditate and feel bad about our sins” were celebrated, the woman recalled. “It got stricter and stricter and stricter.”

    One young man left the group and became Amish, the woman said. “I think he was attracted to it because it was a similar life to what was had, but there was more freedom.”

    Sometime after finishing college, she also left — like many of the other children born in the group in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Today, the SIST representatives who met with the Report deny that their organization has anything to do with religion. Pressed, they acknowledge that “the businessman from India,” who is still listed as SIST’s president on 2010 tax documents, is an important figure in their lives but insist that that’s only because of his wisdom and concern for their wellbeing.

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    A ‘Hit List’ Emerges

    For years after the deprogramming scandals died down, the Brethren lived a reclusive existence, interacting with local government as little as possible. The peace ended in the late 1990s when Shawano County announced that a bypass intended to ease traffic to a nearby Indian casino would run directly across Cohen’s land. His followers protested furiously, claiming they wanted to build their school on that exact spot. But the county, using its powers of eminent domain, negotiated a purchase instead.

    In retaliation, the Brethren handed out swastika-festooned fliers comparing the zoning committee to Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler and suggesting that its chairman was an escaped Nazi who had survived by eating bugs.

    Tensions grew even more strained in the early 2000s, when SIST started buying commercial properties. When some buildings remained empty and were boarded up, SIST claimed that “Catholic” and “neo-Nazi” city officials were warning potential tenants away because of a racist vendetta against “the businessman from India.”

    The disputes accumulated, many over unpaid taxes and other bills. Meanwhile, in 2002, a former follower of Cohen’s was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sexually assaulting his teenage daughter. Other former followers wrote the court to claim that the man would never have committed the crime had he not been “brainwashed” and emotionally abused by Cohen — a defense that failed in court but set local tongues wagging. Many other former Brethren have since emerged to make allegations of appalling abuse and manipulation.

    The group’s financial troubles continued after it bought Midwest Amusement Park in 2003. It wasn’t long before fliers — and even a series of YouTube videos — began to appear accusing Mayor Marquardt of being a neo-Nazi who was waging a systematic campaign to destroy SIST.

    In November 2008, the FBI informed 60 city and county officials, media representatives, and other prominent locals that their names had appeared on a “hit list” believed to be connected to SIST. A man who had done business with the SIST subsidiary that ran the amusement park claimed he had accepted the list, along with a $175,000 payment, because he could think of no other way to recover the money SIST owed him, and that he never had any intention of killing anyone. Isaacson, the SIST CEO, retorted that the list was a “deadly swindle” devised by city officials to cover up their “illegal interference with SIST’s financial and business plans.”

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    The investigation is technically still open. But according to the FBI, there have been no breaks for years. In the meantime, relations between SIST and local officials have never been worse.

    Cohen’s supporters continue to crank out screeds accusing Marquardt of being at the center of a conspiracy to destroy them. In one YouTube video posted by the group, a Cohen partisan describes the mayor’s Lutheran faith as a “bestial belief system” and a “tumor.” At People’s Express, a SIST-owned gas station in Shawano, the marquee accuses Marquardt and Whealon, the police chief, of sending “emissaries” to steal gas and the local “Neo-Nazi Newspaper” of covering it up.

    Asked to describe the group, the first word Whealon uses is “frustrating.”

    “It’s a group of people who have never taken responsibility for what they’ve done,” Whealon said. “It’s always someone else who’s done it to them.”

    Is SIST dangerous?

    “There are members of this group that are more than capable of inflicting harm,” the chief said.

    The mayor is upset at the damage Cohen’s followers have done to Shawano’s reputation and feels intimidated by them. She says they’ve followed her home and put video of her house online, and that she once received an unsigned threat in her mailbox. “It’s a nightmare,” she said.

    Now, many of SIST’s assets have already been liquidated by the bankruptcy court, and Isaacson is on the lam.

    In a Jan. 2 open letter to “Churches and Ministers of the United States of America,” Isaacson claimed there was a Christian-orchestrated plot to poison her. She threatened to go to India and organize a revolt against “foreign Christian missionaries” unless the alleged persecution of SIST is called off. “As a White American, I cannot tolerate injustice any longer,” Isaacson wrote to the ministers. “Let’s solve the problem peacefully before your mission faces a big warfront in India.”

    “I will fight until I die,” she wrote. “The choice is yours.”