Jury stings Ananda Church and its leaders

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 11, 1998

COURT: Jury stings Ananda Church and its leaders

Plaintiff awarded more than $600,000 in damages

by Vicky Anning

After six days of deliberation, a jury decided last week that the Ananda Church of Self-Realization and its leader J. Donald Walters--known to followers as Swami Kriyananda--must pay for wrongdoings committed against a former member.

The jury awarded $625,000 in damages to plaintiff Anne-Marie Bertolucci, 34, a former Ananda devotee who sued the church and two of its leaders for fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She left the church in 1994, complaining she had been sexually exploited.

The damages will be shared between Walters, who was ordered to pay $265,000; the church, which was ordered to pay $330,000; and senior minister Danny Levin, 42, who was ordered to pay $30,000. Bertolucci and Levin, a senior minister known to church members as the "light-bearer," had a sexual relationship in 1993. Levin was married at the time.

But Thursday's decision does not bring the much publicized trial to an end. On Monday, the jury reconvened to consider punitive damages against the church and its leaders, according to Judge Lawrence T. Stevens, who presided over the lengthy and often emotionally fraught trial. The new deliberations are expected to last one or two days.

Ananda leaders--including David Praver of Ananda's Palo Alto church on El Camino Real--spent much of the weekend giving depositions about the "net worth" of the church, which has several thousand members at communities in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Grass Valley, as well as a bookstore in Mountain View, the East-West Book Shop, and its own publishing house, Crystal Clarity Publishing.

In 1994, Ananda bought the former St. Aloysius Church at 2171 El Camino Real for $2.14 million, and has a 5-acre apartment complex at Monroe Drive in Mountain View with its own meditation room and swimming pool.

Bertolucci originally sought more than $1 million in damages in her suit. Her lawyers said Thursday that punitive damages were likely to be higher than the damages already awarded to their client.

Members of Ananda have maintained throughout the trial that the case against them is false.

"The ruling came as a shock to us," said spokeswoman Karen Gamow. "We have been silent throughout the three months of this trial at the request of our lawyers. But now the case is ended, we are able to speak freely to the public, something we have long wanted to do." Gamow said that most of the charges were so magnified by the plaintiff as to become completely unrecognizable and absurd.

"There were many outright fabrications," she said.

"Everyone is laughing about how preposterous the charges are," said Gamow's husband, David, who said that the jury had only been given a narrow view of the church that the plaintiff's attorneys have labeled a cult.

"A cult is just a religion smaller than yours that you don't understand," said Gamow.

A recording by a follower named Davie on the Ananda trial hot line Friday said that the church was still trying to assess the implications of the verdict, but maintained that Bertolucci's case against the church was unfair.

"I think the main thing is we do need to understand that, even if this jury decided against us . . . we know who we are, we know this whole case was false and we know that they told innumerable lies about us."

Ananda's lawyer Gordon Rockhill did not return calls.

Bertolucci and her lawyers were celebrating the verdict Thursday night.

"It's been such a long haul," said attorney Ford Greene. "I was overwhelmed."

Bertolucci said she felt vindicated.

"I hope this jury verdict puts the message out to the Palo Alto community that this isn't a bona fide organization," she said.

Greene said that punitive damages would not only act as a punishment to the church and its leaders, they would also act as a deterrent to other churches.

"It really set a precedent," said Bertolucci, who said that churches should be as accountable to their followers as doctors are toward their patients, since churches "really go to the core of your soul."

The jury found Walters, 71, guilty of fraudulently representing himself as a celibate religious leader--or swami--although he had sex with several of his devotees during 30 years at the helm of Ananda. Several women came forward during the civil trial to testify that Walters had sexually exploited them after they had given him back rubs and massages.

Levin was sued for $30,000 in compensatory damages. He was not present while the verdict was being read, because his wife died last week from breast cancer.

Disaffected Ananda devotee Don Price, who now belongs to Walters' former church, the Los Angeles-based Self-Realization Fellowship--said that the jury's verdict completely vindicated Bertolucci's case against Ananda and its leaders.

"For the past 30 years, the people of Ananda have chosen to follow personality over principle," said Price. "They've had no accountability, no checks and balances on (Walters') power."

But Greene said that it may be difficult to get all the damages from Ananda, who will likely appeal against the jury's decision, according to Bertolucci.

"I think it's going to be like pulling teeth," said Greene.

--Vicky Anning 

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