Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hindu priest sentenced

http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/article/Swami-skips-on-11-million-bond-1048981.php

Swami skips on $11 million bond
By Roy Bragg
rbragg@express-news.net

Updated 01:09 a.m., Wednesday, March 9, 2011
SAN MARCOS — An 82-year-old Hindu spiritual leader convicted of molesting two girls and who failed to appear for the punishment phase of his trial nonetheless was sentenced Tuesday to 140 years in prison.

The eight-man, four-woman Hays County jury took just 50 minutes to return a verdict against Prakashanand Saraswati, founder of the Barsana Dham ashram, located near Driftwood. The jury also agreed that the swami should pay $200,000 for molesting the girls, both of whom lived in the mid-1990s with their families at the ashram.

Saraswati, also known as Shree Swamiji to his followers, was convicted last week of 20 counts of indecency with a child, or 10 counts for each victim. In each of those, the jury assessed a 14-year sentence and a $10,000 fine. Prosecutors asked that the sentences run consecutively.

District Judge Charles Ramsay deferred, saying he would take it under advisement.

Jurors announced their decision to Ramsay, who then passed the sentence to an empty chair at the defense table. The whereabouts of the swami, identified in court proceedings by his religious name Swamiji, remains a mystery.

Sheriff's deputies have been unable to find him, his attorneys say they are clueless about where he might be, and the wealthy devotee who posted two large cash bonds for Saraswati testified Tuesday that he didn't spend a lot of time trying to find his spiritual mentor.

Nor did Peter Spiegel appear concerned that he stands to lose $11 million because of the swami's absence. When asked how he felt, he told prosecutors, “I don't know.”

Spiegel told the jury he agreed to post the bond without knowing what he was signing, but didn't care even after learning of his financial commitment.

“Someone put a piece of paper in front of me and told me to sign it,” he said, referring to the legal agreement drawn up by attorneys and approved by the court to ensure Saraswati's appearances in court.

Even when he had to re-sign a corrected agreement days later, Spiegel says he gladly did it so that Saraswati could continue his charitable works in his native India.

And now?

“I feel sad about the whole situation,” Spiegel said.

There's been no sign of the swami since Sunday night, when Spiegel and others testified that they saw him at a dinner with other temple members at an Austin residence. (In previous testimony, a witness mistakenly said he was last seen on Saturday).

The defendant didn't show up for court 12 hours later, and his car still was parked Monday at a San Marcos hotel.

Defense attorneys asked the jury for probation for their missing client, trotting out witnesses who testified that Saraswati suffered from bad feet, a bad memory, slurred speech, a bad back, and heart disease.

“To put him in the penitentiary, at his age and with his disabilities,” Jeff Kearney said, “is a death sentence.”

But prosecutors argued for prison time, saying the victims, now adults and living out of state, would relive the abuse forever.

“When (one of the victims) puts her newborn baby to her breast, will she see the face of the defendant?” Assistant District Attorney Amy Lockhart asked, causing a victim, sitting in the gallery, to weep.

And she ridiculed the notion of probation.

“I never thought,” Lockhart quipped to jurors, “that I'd ever see someone ask a jury to give probation to a fugitive.”



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