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As young girls in the 1990s, Shyama Rose and sisters Kate and Vesla Tonnessen loved living in Barsana Dham, the Austin, Texas, ashram of the International Society for Divine Love.
Prakashanand Saraswati, 86
“Being a kid at Barsana Dham was pretty amazing,” Kate Tonnessen, now in her 30s, recalled. “To live on 200 acres of what was about as wild land as you can get in Texas.”
They, their parents and other families moved to the ashram in pursuit of enlightenment under the guidance of their spiritual leader, Prakashanand Saraswati, whom they called “Swamiji,” an honorific Hindu term for a guru.
“It was sort of understood that Swamiji was God, just on earth,” Vesla Tonnessen told CNN’s “The Hunt with John Walsh.” “He held absolute power over anything.”
The children of the ashram loved Saraswati. “We always felt as kids that he seemed like an Indian version of Santa Claus,” said Kate Tonnessen.
“He was very affectionate with everybody, and then the kids, he was really, like, cuddly and he’d give you hugs and kisses that just felt like your grandpa. But then sometime his kisses got weird.”
The abuse began when the girls were around age 12.
“The first time that he put his hand up my shirt,” Kate Tonnessen recalled, “I thought it was an inappropriate touch, and it was, uh, pretty devastating to me.”
“He would sometimes, you know, show up at my house at 3 in the morning and just come in,” Rose recalled.
“He’d tell me to go lock the door, and then he’d pull me onto the bed and kiss me and ask me to unhook my bra,” Kate Tonnessen said.
All three girls experienced acts of indecency at the hands of a man they were taught to believe was a god on earth.
As Rose recalled, “We were told if we said or thought anything negative against the society or against him, we could literally go to hell.”
Rose talked to her mother about what Saraswati had been doing. Her response shocked her.
“When she kinda knew and not only didn’t stop it but promoted it, like, what do you do as a kid?,” Rose told “The Hunt.” “I was like kind of flabbergasted when she told me, ‘Just enjoy it.’”
As Kate Tonnessen recalled, “After talking to Shyama and getting that confirmation that what had occurred to me had been happening to her, I don’t know, I just panicked and I spent days in darkness, writing in this journal.”
“On the third day, my mother kind of burst into my room and was livid and she’s like, ‘I read your journal.’”
Like Rose, Tonnessen expected support from her mother. Instead, her mother sided with her guru. Tonnessen said, “I was in trouble for seeing it as something other than religious.”
“I had considered telling somebody; telling an adult outside of the ashram,” Tonnessen said. “But the idea of what would happen if I did was just too painful to accept.”
“If I told someone, I’d be pulled out, away from my family.”
Allegations against Swamiji’s guru
Without support from their families or communities and afraid to go to the police, the girls stayed and endured until they were old enough to leave Barsana Dham.
“When I turned 18 and moved out, I felt entirely free for the first time,” Kate Tonnessen said.
Shyama Rose went to college to pursue a degree in computer science. “I was told by my mother that I shouldn’t go, and that I was being worldly; and that I wasn’t smart enough,” Rose recalled. “But, you know, I just decided to take off and go.”
Saraswati had a guru of his own, a well-known holy man from India named Kripalu who came to the United States in 2000 to spend time at Barsana Dham.
In a later online search, Kate Tonnessen discovered that Kripalu had faced accusations of rape in India and in Trinidad.
“I couldn’t stop shaking, recalled Tonnessen. “I clicked on it, and all these pages opened up; these news articles about how Kripalu had been accused by a young Trinidadian girl of rape.”
As Vesla Tonnessen recalled, the Kripalu allegations changed the equation for the three women. Knowing that Saraswati served and worshipped Kripalu, could the arrival of the guru’s guru put other girls still living in the ashram at risk?
“I think it just became clear that we weren’t the beginning and the ending of any abuse. And that there was probably a lot more abuse out there,” Vesla said. “And I think that was the point when we realized, like, well we should say something.”
“So then, after your parents, where do you go? You go to the police.”
In 2008, the three women brought their allegations to the Hays County, Texas, authorities. Though Saraswati never had sexual intercourse with them, in the eyes of the law his touching of their breasts while they were under the age of consent constitutes a felony.
But for Kate Tonnessen, it was too late to seek justice. The statute of limitations for this offense – 10 years after her 18th birthday – had expired a mere two months earlier. But her younger sister Vesla and their friend Shyama Rose were still within the 10-year limit. Assistant District Attorney Cathy Compton pursued their case.
“When you have somebody who is repeatedly molesting children, you could not possibly charge every single time something happened,” Compton told “The Hunt.” “We just decided, we’re going to charge 10 counts for each girl.”
An indictment was handed up against Prakashanand Saraswati, but his devotees’ faith never wavered.
“There was absolutely no belief whatsoever in these three young ladies,” Hays County Lieutenant Sheriff Jeri Skrocki told “The Hunt.” “Everyone that lived out at the temple rallied around Swamiji.”
Kate and Vesla Tonnessen’s parents were among those who sided with the Saraswati.
“It feels like potentially what it feels like [when] a parent dies,” Kate Tonnessen told “The Hunt.” “But it wasn’t death that took them away. It was their own attachment to their guru that allowed them to override their love for me and my sister.”
Producers for “The Hunt” reached out to the women’s mothers, who did not comment.
Trial and conviction
Saraswati was released pending trial on a $1 million dollar bond, paid for by a member of the ashram.
His lawyers managed to delay proceedings for three years, but the case finally went to trial in 2011. On March 4, 2011, Saraswati was convicted of 20 counts of indecency with a minor.
The verdict came down on a Friday. The judge permitted Saraswati to return to Barsana Dham for the weekend. The punishment phase was set to begin that Monday, but Saraswati never showed up.
In his absence, the judge sentenced him to 14 years in prison for each of the 20 counts.
The hunt for Prakashanand Saraswati
“What happened in this case happens all over America,” said “The Hunt’s” John Walsh. “I’ll never know why. Think about it, he’s from another country. He’s got the resources to run. He did.”
Authorities believe he crossed the Laredo, Texas, border into Mexico, and from there fled to India.
Ultimately, the case in Trinidad against Saraswati’s guru, Kripalu, was dropped, “amid rumors of corruption and bribery,” according to Cathy Compton. His accusers in India recanted. Kripalu died in 2013. But Rose and the Tonnessen sisters still hope to see his disciple brought to justice.
“He’s still out there and he’s still abusing people,” said Vesla Tonnessen of Saraswati. “I don’t think that will stop until he’s imprisoned.”
Prakashanand Saraswati is thought to have various health issues including back problems and possibly diabetes. The U.S. Marshals Service believe he’s living in India between New Delhi and the town of Mussoorie. If you’ve seen Prakashanand Saraswati, please, call 1-866-THE-HUNT or go online at CNN.com/TheHunt. You can remain anonymous, we’ll pass your tip onto the proper authorities and, if requested, will not reveal your name.
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Saraswati’s ashram has since changed its name to Radha Madhav Dham.
The managing members assert that they have no ties with Saraswati, that they did not assist in his departure, and they have no knowledge of his whereabouts.
Radha Madhav Dham also asserts that its leadership has been changed; that the new leaders have cooperated at all times with law enforcement; that they removed all images of and references to Saraswati, and that they have created controls to ensure a safe environment.