Houston: An 83-year-old wheel-chair bound Indian spiritual guru, a fugitive after being convicted of groping two young girls, may have sneaked clandestinely into India, a US court has been told. US Marshals, still looking for him, suspect that Prakashanand Saraswati, known to his devotees as Swamiji, may have fled America in connivance with his close associates.
Just days after a Hays County jury in Texas convicted him in March 2011 on 20 counts of indecency for molesting two teenagers, the self-styled guru has been missing. A judge sentenced him in absentia to 14 years in prison on each count and the guru also forfeited $ 1.2 million in bond and promissory notes.
Newly filed court documents reveal that Prakashanand, who moves around in a wheelchair apparently crossed over into Mexico two days after his conviction while being at large on bail and may have used a network of devotees to make his way to India.
Eighteen months later, federal officials are still unraveling the mystery of how he got out of the country and who helped him.
Deputy US Marshal Robert Marcum, who is leading the investigation to track the guru down, called his flight with the help of his religious adherents in Texas, Pennsylvania, California and Florida as "the most sophisticated scheme I've seen as far as fugitive investigations go. They were very smart about what they did."
Marcum added it is likely some of the guru's devotees will be charged with harboring a fugitive, aiding and abetting escape or making false statements to a government agent.
The information, as well as detailed accounts of how guru's followers moved him around the country while evading law enforcement, is part of the documents filed recently in court.
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 US Customs and Border Protection records, the suspicions that fugitive Swami may have used the Mexico route was strengthened by the fact that his Radha Madhav Dham ashram employees frequently crossed the Texas-Mexico border throughout 2011.
When contacted by marshals investigators, most either declined to be interviewed in detail, or "stated that they did not believe guru 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."
In 2011, 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."
Mexico and India both have extradition treaties with the US, but the US marshals don't have an office in India. However, Marshal Robert Marcum said the disappearance of wanted Swami would be actively probed.