Crimes of Keith Ham aka Kirtanananda Swami examined on Swami Krishnas: Gurus, Karma, and Murder on Oxygen

Keith Ham aka Kirtanananda Swami poses in robes
Keith Ham, aka Kirtanananda Swami, was convicted of racketeering. Pic credit: @Peacock/YouTube

Swami Krishnas: Gurus, Karma, and Murder on Oxygen is airing a special about Hare Krishna guru Keith Ham, otherwise known as Kirtanananda Swami, who led the New Vrindaban community in Marshall County, West Virginia.

Ham, sometimes also called Swami Bhaktipada, joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), more commonly known as the Hare Krishna’s, in the 1960s and quickly became an important figure in the movement. He attempted to introduce more Western customs into the Indian religion, which brought him many followers but also detractors within the movement.

In 1968, Ham created the New Vrindaban community after leasing acres of land and expanding it over time. At its peak, over 500 people lived there.

The community was best known to the outside world for their orange robes and shaved heads and their fundraising activities, specifically at airports and other public areas.

Members at New Vrindaban had to follow strict moral codes, which meant following strict diets and no alcohol, drugs, gambling, or sex.

However, over time, the community began to come to the attention of law enforcement with accusations of child sex abuse, racketeering, and even murder.

Kirtanananda Swami accused of ordering murders of Charles St. Denis and Stephen Bryant

In 1983, community member Charles St. Denis was murdered on the compound, and three years later, Stephen Bryant was killed in Los Angeles by one of Ham’s followers, Thomas Drescher.

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Ham was later accused of ordering the deaths of these two men because they had opposed him. Bryant had allegedly been writing a book that would have exposed the crimes of Ham and the community.

In 1987, Ham was officially expelled from ISKCON, but his sect continued as the Hare Krishna movement went through a schism as many followers continued to back the rogue guru.

Ham was finally charged in 1990 with murder and racketeering. Prosecutors accused Ham of raising $10 million through illegal fundraising schemes and of ordering the murder of St. Denis and Bryant. He was convicted of racketeering but not murder.

He successfully appealed against the conviction a year later and finally returned to New Vrindaban. However, he continued to be mired in controversy and faced accusations of molesting teenage boys.

Keith Ham, aka Kirtanananda Swami, sentenced for racketeering

In 1996, Ham was retrialed for racketeering, but this time he pleaded guilty. He was initially sentenced to 20 years, but this was reduced the following year to 12 years due to ill health.

Ham was freed in 2004 but was banned from returning to New Vrindaban. He moved to India in 2008 and passed away in 2011.

Swami Krishnas: Gurus, Karma, and Murder airs Monday at 8/7c on Oxygen.

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