Wisconsin’s Institute of Science and Technology Fears Vatican Conspiracy
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.
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.
Members of the Dr. R.C. Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology live on this compound in Westcott, Wis., just outside Shawano.
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.’”
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.
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.”
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.”