The Bizarre Story Behind The Suicide Bombing Of A SoCal Cult
The killers arrived before dusk in a rickety pickup truck, stopping at a cheap, no-name motel on the outskirts of Tarzana. Hunkered down in their room, Brother Elzibah wrote farewell letters to his loved ones, including his young son ("I am willing to give up my life to free you"). Then the monks pressed "RECORD" and made their martyr statements as the tape whirred.
"It is now 7:30pm," noted Brother Jeroham. "Within the next four hours, we will drive to Box Canyon, see Krishna... and the demand a right adjustment be made... This may be our last night in the world. Dear God, give us freedom or death."
Twenty sticks of dynamite, three detonators, batteries, blasting caps and electric cable sat in their truck. The clock ticked. It was December 10, 1958.
They knew their nemesis by many names -- Krishna Venta, The Voice, The Master. He was probably in his 40s but it was hard to know for sure. He was tall, blue-eyed and hawklike with long, dark, curly hair and a bristle-brush beard.
He had first popped up in Canoga Park a decade earlier, perpetually barefoot and draped in yellow peasant robes, claiming he had been born a half million years prior on a planet called Neophrates. He said he was infused with the same "everlasting" spirit as Abraham Lincoln and Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith. He predicted the United States would be consumed by a cataclysmic race war. Anyone wishing for safe passage through Armageddon would need to give him all of their possessions and live by his strictures, loosely based on the Ten Commandments.
In 1949, Krishna and 60 acolytes moved to a 23-acre glen in Box Canyon, a narrow parcel near the Chatsworth Reservoir in the Santa Susana Mountains of Simi Valley, about 25 miles north of downtown L.A. In the beginning, they lived in tents while Krishna, his second wife, Ruth, and their two boys installed themselves in one of the numerous sandstone caves. Eventually, the group built several sturdy edifices from materials gleaned from the surrounding creeks and hillsides, including segregated dormitories, a two-story dining hall and an administration center. (Oak trees grew through the ceilings of two buildings.) The jewel of the commune was the stone-walled monastery, built by the pilgrims as a tribute to their Master.
Soon, stranded motorists along ribbon-thin Box Canyon Road began noticing a strange phenomenon. Kind, mysterious people, barefoot and wearing robes of varying colors, would emerge from the brush, proffering a four-wheel-drive tow truck. Ditto for the local firefighters deployed to battle fires and floods in nearby communities. The pilgrims were capable first-responders.
On the morning of July 12, 1949, the pilot of Standard Airlines Flight 897R, blinded by patchy fog on the approach to Burbank Airport, clipped the edge of a hill in the Santa Susanas and cartwheeled into the mountainside at 140 mph. Of the original 48 passengers, only 15 survived. At the time, it was Southern California's deadliest aviation accident.
The local press arrived to find a bizarre tableau. SNAP. There was Krishna himself, among the burning wreckage, directing evacuations in his bare feet and robes. SNAP. There were his parade of followers, visiting survivors at their hospital beds for days after the disaster. Eventually, LOOK magazine published a four-page pictorial ("California's Offbeat Religions: We Love You") that introduced the nation to the WKFL (Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Love) Foundation.
Its adult members came from all corners of life -- from day laborers to white-collar professionals -- and worked six days a week tending to the small herd of goats and sheep, harvesting the furrows that grew their mainly herbivorous diet, or baking homemade bread on outdoor wood stoves. Children were communally raised and schooled. Marriages were permitted only on March 29 -- Krishna's birthday -- and were nonsexual.
The honeymoon with these genteel California kooks and their pioneer-style lives crested around 1956, when Krishna Venta was arrested and imprisoned for failure to pay child support. The court record revealed a peripatetic existence that was very much of this world.
...AND THE PROFANE
Francis "Frank" Herman Pencovic, born to Jewish immigrants in San Francisco in 1911, spent the Great Depression as a hobo, riding the rails under a plethora of aliases. During the early years of U.S. involvement in World War II, he was arrested for writing threatening letters to President Roosevelt, did nine months in jail for petty larceny and spent a month at the California State Mental Hospital in Camarillo.
It was also revealed that his frequent trips nationwide and abroad to spread the word of the Foundation (accompanied by his right-hand, Cardinal Gene Shanafelt, who dealt with "temporal matters") were interrupted by detours to opulent casinos. In Las Vegas, someone snapped a photo of him alongside famous gambler Nick "The Greek" Dandolos just before Krishna lost almost $3,000 at craps. The Foundation paid the debt.
Back in Box Canyon, some chafed at how their fellow pilgrims excused Krishna for behaving less like a spiritual leader and more like an imperious studio mogul: Gambling, driving like a speed demon and often berating them through languid clouds of cigar smoke ("I am your shepherd, you are the sheep.")
By the time rangy, raw-boned Ralph Smith Muller, 33, and swarthy, wild-haired Peter Dumas Kamenoff, 42, came to the fold with their families, another hypocrisy of the Krishna threatened to come to light: They claimed he was sleeping with both their wives.
In late 1957, Muller and Kamenoff -- who had taken the names Elzibah and Jeroham -- were attempting to sow discord among WKFL followers. Why was the commune comprised mostly of young females (including at least one ex-model)? Why, despite having a wife, did Krishna choose to bed most nights with a random "Sister" in his personal station wagon?
Krishna told his flock that the errant monks were recruiting for a breakaway sect and claimed that they beat their wives. On December 9, 1958, the day after Muller and Kamenoff unsuccessfully tried to interest a special agent with the California Department Of Justice in their cause, Muller appeared at an oil well supply company in Whittier, telling the clerk he was buying supplies to use for "blasting."
These details, and many others in this story, come from The Bombs, Bombers and Bombings of Los Angeles, written by Michael Digby.
The following evening, at the motel in Tarzana, Muller and Kamenoff retrieved their materials and set to work. When the IED was completed, they gingerly placed it in an olive-drab musette bag (a popular type of zippered canvas pack used by GIs). By midnight, they were ready. They climbed into the truck and began the 30-minute drive to the Santa Susanas. They parked at the sole WKFL entrance under a wooden sign that declared: YE WHO ENTER HERE ENTER UPON HOLY GROUND.
Around 1:30 a.m., a pilgrim named Brother Martin had just finished his evening chores when he heard raised voices coming from the monastery.
"I saw lights were on... and I went over," he would testify. "The Master and Cardinal Gene were in the corridor of the building talking to a young man about 25 or 26... carrying a musette bag... Cardinal Gene and the Master were extremely displeased with him and I had never seen them angry since I have been here."
Noting that the heated conversation stopped abruptly when the men spotted him, Martin excused himself to go back to the men's dormitory. He later reasoned he had walked about one-eighth of a mile before an enormous explosion lifted the top of the monastery.
The enclosed rock walls of the canyon amplified the blast, which was heard more than 20 miles away. A woman who lived a mile away was blown out of bed by the shockwave.
"The shattering explosion jarred us from our sleep," recalled Krishna's son Sharva, 11, who was in the boys' dormitory. "The roof fell in on top of us. Everything seemed to catch on fire... Our beds, the walls, our clothes and all our possessions... It hardly seem like no more than five minutes had passed after we left the dormitory than it was burned completely to the ground."
In an exquisite irony, the engine-room door of the nearest volunteer fire station was blown off its hinges, holding up first responders trying to reach the fire, which eventually chewed through nearly 150 acres.
Thick brumes of smoke choked the canyon for days afterward. The coroner's office reported ten deaths "caused by extreme mutilation," including Krishna Venta and Cardinal Gene. The youngest victims came from the children's dormitories: Keela Baker, 7, and Cardinal Gene's son Elwyn, 11.
Although rumors persisted for weeks that Krishna had cheated death, his dental plate and a piece of jawbone were identified. The FBI also identified part of a hand and a single thumb as belonging to his killers.
The survivors buried their Master's remains in a potter's grave in North Hollywood's Valhalla Cemetery. "We are trying very hard to react to this as the Master would want us to," a pilgrim named Sister Mary told the press. "That is to be cheerful and positive. For mourning is negative."
Under the new leadership of Krishna's widow Ruth, the sect rebuilt some of its original buildings, but the post-bombing exodus of members from Box Canyon rendered the group untenable. Near the WKFL compound sat 12000 Santa Susanna Pass Road, the former site of Spahn Ranch, where in 1969 Charles Manson and his followers commenced a more murderous interpretation of Armageddon.
The last remnants of the WKFL fizzled in the early 1980s. By then, however, Krishna Venta's influence had bloomed in other pastures. One of his acolytes named Dorothy Martin ("Sister Thedra") moved to Chicago and became the guru for the Seekers, a UFO-doomsday cult. David and Gladys Smith, a married couple, and Erma Winfrey, a cook who had sustained severe burns in the bombing, wound up dying in the jungles of Guyana alongside 900 fellow members of Jim Jones' suicidal Peoples Temple cult.
In recent years, even wild and woolly Box Canyon has fallen sway to the tides of gentrification, as well-heeled residents have moved into the area, some even building homes upon the ruins of the old WKFL commune. Realtors may have their work cut out for them: In the recent Woolsey Fire, portions of Box Canyon were once again visited by apocalyptic hellfire and had to be evacuated.
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