Krishna Venta lived, and died, in the grand tradition of leading California cultists. He was a figure of paradox, contradiction and mystery.
The be-robed and barefooted messiah arrived by airplane in Los Angeles in 1949. With him was his wife Ruth, wearing clothes of the style of biblical days. He carried a huge press book and showed waiting reporters clippings from his triumphant tour through Europe. As he stood on the steps of the airplane, he looked down on the assembled newsmen and explained simply "I may as well say it. I am .Christ!" But there was an ignoble touch to that first entrance which took away from the glory and excitement. The skunk at the lawn party was a small girl who had been with the new
However, Krishna Venta did tell the world a number of important things that spring day.
"In Rome ten thousand people met me. I had a police escort.
Had he had an audience with the Pope? "No, the Pope was too busy to see me," he said curtly. But he did go on to mention that this was not his first trip to the Eternal City. About 600 A.D. he had been the honored guest of Pope Leona, he said, hinting that papal manners had declined in the last 1400 years.
The reporters began to bait him. How had he obtained a birth certificate for a passport if he were that old?
"Well, now, I'll tell you," he drawled. "I used a passport issued in the name of Frank Pencovic. He was a boy who disappeared in San Francisco at the age of three."
Did the government know this? "What do I care? I'm a citizen of the world," he replied. On that memorable day, reporters also told him that Caltech technicians said that there was a possibility of an earthquake. Did he have any views on this? He leered knowingly. "You don't have to be a prophet to know that," he said.
As he walked away that day, the little girl pointed an accusing finger at him and said, "Mama says to be careful of him.
He's got a bad case of athlete's foot!" '.
In the months to come, Krishna Venta made a series of headlines.
He claimed 145,000 followers at this time. Within a few months after his arrival he was in jail for nonsupport of two minor children by his first wife. But, a few months later, in July 1949, motorists were startled to see Krishna and his crew of barefoot cultists, wearing robes and long hair and beards, directing traffic after a plane wreck at the Box Canyon border.
The cult itself had found this isolated area north of Los Angeles and built a few rude shelters. It was named the Fountain of the World. The only requisite for joining was to live by the Ten Commandments and learn Krishna Venta's teachings. The followers went through a three-month probationary period, then signed an article of intention giving all earthly goods to the communal group. Krishna, meanwhile, was everywhere. He returned from a junket to Chicago muttering that press agents were too damned expensive there and saying the Chicagoans were "cool" to him.
The first annual convention of the Fountain of the World group was held March 29, 1953. Members celebrated Easter' Chnstmas and the New Year in one three-day service and also initiated members into the Aaronic priesthood. Meanwhile the cultists themselves had become figures in many a scene of tragedy in California. They fought fires. When Bakersfield was devastated by earthquake, Krishna Venta and his group appeared to help. Again, When floods struck nearby Ventura, his group arrived and helped the sufferers.
From where did this bearded leader emerge? No one is quite sure. He was forty-seven, records show, and his real name was Francis Pencovic (aliases Frank Jensen, Frank Christopher, Frank Hiendswatzer), part-time boilermaker in San Francisco.
He had had a number of arrests at various times. He had been picked up in 1,941 for writing threatening letters to President Roosevelt, but was later released. He was sentenced to nine months in Santa Paula in 1942 for issuing fictitious checks, placed on three years' probation and later sent to the state mental hospital at Stockton for observation. There were also a variety of other charges ranging from nonsupport of children, panhandling and begging to the theft of food.
He outraged some of the more conservative clergymen of Southern California when he re-enacted, for the public, the Crucifixion. In the drama he carried a huge cross-made by two followers from a discarded telephone pole-to the top of a high peak near the cult headquarters. Here he was tied to the cross as dawn broke, and with a crown of thorns tied to his head he uttered the words Of Christ on the cross. In 1954 he and his followers popped up at the Army-McCarthy hearings in Washington, D.C.
He was a prime attraction when he and his five "apostles" arrived in the crowded hearing rooms. He told reporters he was bitterly opposed to McCarthy. "The three Joes have been causing all the trouble," he lamented.
"What three Joes," asked reporters. Krishna Venta scratched his head. "Why, Joe McCarthy and Joe Stalin," he said.
"And who else?" asked reporters. He paused, meditating for a moment.
"Why, Tojo!" he said triumphantly.
That same year he was again in the news when several disillusioned followers complained that he had taken $2900 of the communal money. He had appeared in Las Vegas at about this time and, wearing his robes and smoking fine cigars, had been a heavy loser at the crap tables. On January 8, 1956, he went to jail in Oakland on a child support charge and his followers picketed the jail. They carried huge signs which proclaimed, "Penalized for lifelong dedication to God." He was soon out, but back again in a few months on the same old charge of child support. No sooner had his attorneys temporarily solved this problem than he was sued for $4300 in back rent for the Box
Canyon property. He resolved this, only to be hauled into court again in Ventura and ordered to pay $50 a month each for the support of his two sons by the former marriage. He appealed and it was ruled that he did not have to increase his support of $20 each month, as the judge had ordered. (An interesting dissent was filed by one judge at the time of the appeal, which could set a precedent on communal cult operations. Said the judge: "Any father can enter a religious cult where property is
owned communally and escape payment for support of children.")
By fall of that year Venta was ready to look for greener pastures.
He announced plans to move to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska with 140 followers. Cultists filed homestead claims and made a theological change by announcing that they would wear shoes in the twenty-degree-below-zero winters they could expect in this area but would go without shoes in the Alaskan summers.
Their simple creed was clear for all to understand. It stated simply that one should love one's fellow man and do good works. His devoted followers, eccentric as they were in appearance, were soon greatly respected for their efforts during calamities in Southern California. They seemed to be everywhere: walking about in brush fires in their bare feet; aiding victims of the various crises which struck in mountain, desert and suburban areas.
In the Box Canyon headquarters, a hierarchy had been set up. The Master wore robes of yellow. Green was for the students, blue indicated that the cultists could administer medicine, brown was for the kitchen help, gray for those willing to take responsibility. The men and boys never shaved. By now Krishna Venta- had announced his acceptance of belief in reincarnation.
He explained that he had no age: "Since time started I have been with the world. Since the beginning." While he claimed thousands of followers, there were only thirty-five people living in the isolated area in 1956. Amid mammoth boulders and oak trees, a clutter of small houses had been built. Behind the area was a huge cliff. The colonists raised goats and poultry, although they seldom ate meat. The branch in Alaska was thriving by now. There were 120 cultists hard at work and they
were known as "The Barefoot People."
Here, as in California, they were noted for their good works and respected, odd as they were, by other settlers in the isolated area.
Then at 2 A.M. on the morning of December 7, 1958, tragedy struck in California. A mighty explosion ripped the main building of the tiny colony and fires rent the area. The force of the explosion was so terrific that buildings in the entire colony were demolished, As the smoke cleared, it was found that the beloved leader and a number of the cultists were gone. For an hour no one could quite make out what had happened. Then, slowly, information began to collect.
Yet when the entire story was in, the Master was shrouded in even more mystery than ever before.
The explosion had ripped ten human bodies-including Krishna-into disconnected bits of flesh. And the district attorney in Los Angeles announced that, two days before, two former cultists, Peter Kamenoff, forty-two, and Ralph Muller, thirty-three, had appeared to claim that Venta systematically
had had illicit sex relations with female cultists, including girls under the legal age of consent. They further charged that he had tried to sanctify some of these affairs with legal marriage ceremonies. They said, too, that he practiced medicine without a license, allowing sick cult members to die from lack of medical attention, As police pieced the story together, on the night of the blast, these two disaffected cultists had gone to meet Venta and taken with them twenty high-potency sticks of dynamite in a case made into a crude time bomb.
They had tried to intimidate Venta into a public confession of the malpractices of which they accused him, When he haughtily refused, they set off the charge, tearing themselves and their enemy to bits, killing seven innocent people, and injuring others who had been sleeping in the totally demolished brick building.
This, if it were true, would have been weird enough, but no stranger than some other mystical cult doings, The trouble was, many of Venta's followers denied the whole affair. There was even talk that Venta had not died in the blast but was still alive.
badly injured, after the blast. The boy was quickly shushed by Mother Ruth before he could give any of the details of this encounter, or vision, as the case may be.
In the days following, the remaining colonists knelt in the charred ruins to pray. His wife told investigators that Krishna himself had predicted eighteen years ago that he would be cremated in 1958. "Do not use the word dead," she cautioned. "He is the Christ and we do not believe in death." She went on to say that Krishna's "original body" was probably in Meta Verde Valley, at the foot of Mount Everest. She was tearless as she told all this.
Mother Ruth became president of the seven acting apostles as the cultists started rebuilding. He would return in two years and unite cell by cell, she said. Meanwhile the group would carry on. Without tears or sorrow, they buried the charred body which they claimed was Krishna Venta.
The day after the bombing, the daily thought for the day was tacked on the bulletin board of the decimated area. It read "You are a two-fold being, one material, and the other spiritual. Which one do you wish to serve? For in serving two masters your house becomes divided."
And so, today, the cultists await their beloved Krishna, man of mystery. Charlatan or prophet, he had left behind a group of devoted and sincere followers, this tall, Christ-like figure who had, at one time, handed out dollar bills on Broadway marked "Money is the root of all evil." Who had been thrown out of the lobby of the Claridge Hotel. in London. Who liked fine luggage and cigars. Who claimed to have no navel, and to have visited the world 163,000 years ago.
In front of the gutted ruins where tragedy struck, there stands a sign: "Love One Another-Serve One Another." Some thirty five cultists live by their motto: "To be positive, creative, constructive in all we think and do." They believe that love is the strongest force on earth and greet strangers with "We love you." Each day a team of six women canvasses for donations door to door. Twice a day cultists hold "concentration" periods.