Baltimore County police say they've been stymied in investigating injuries to a teenage girl at a Pikesville house that is owned by a suspected religious cult leader from Wisconsin. The 18-year-old is not providing many details about the Tuesday incident that has left her hospitalized, and neither are witnesses, according to police.
That doesn't surprise some people familiar with the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, whose leader owns the house where the incident occurred.
The victim and witnesses are likely doing what they are told by their leader, according to a former group member and a man who has studied and testified on cults. Leader Avraham Cohen, also known as Rama Behara and R.C. Samanta Roy, has unquestioned authority over the 150-member nonprofit organization, they said yesterday.
Police were called to a Pikesville neighborhood about 10 p.m. Tuesday and found the victim suffering from injuries consistent with an assault. She was taken to an area hospital and is in serious condition, according to police. Her name has not been released by police, but former SIST members say she is Carmella Goldstein and was raised by her parents within the organization.
Investigators immediately brought in someone for questioning, but he was released and not charged. Police are unsure how many others were in the house, in the 3700 block of Michelle Way, at the time of the incident. County police and federal authorities formed an overnight barricade around the home, only to find it empty when they entered Wednesday morning.
"The witnesses are not very cooperative with police. At this point, we don't know if she was actually assaulted or if this was some type of accident around the house," said Lt. Robert McCullough, a county police spokesman. "We have to put our case together."
Police do not believe Cohen was at the house when the teen was injured, police said.
News reports about Cohen have described his organization in rural Shawano, Wis., as a religious cult. But SIST has maintained that it is simply a spiritual and educational organization. A lawyer who has served as a SIST spokesman would not comment Thursday on the Pikesville incident.
Cohen's connection to Maryland goes back about a decade when one of his children moved to the state. That is why he purchased the Pikesville property, according to Nancy Ritland, who spent 32 years in the organization. The property is now assessed at $678,000, according to state records.
SIST was started as a small, nondenominational Christian church in the mid-1970s, said Ritland, who raised three children within the group before leaving in 2007. Ritland said her children have remained, and she's had no contact with them since.
Ritland said SIST members endure psychological — and in some cases, physical — abuse. She said Cohen has bought up property worth millions of dollars in Wisconsin and Maryland largely from the offerings of his followers.
Indoctrination begins at birth, said Ritland, who now lives in Minnesota. Members must home-school their children, instructing them that if they do not follow Cohen's commands, they will go to hell, she said.
"You can't imagine what is going on in there. He's put people through sure hell," said Ritland, 55.
Although former SIST members have accused group leaders of abuse, according to news reports, no one has been arrested and the group has generally avoided legal troubles.
But financially, the organization has struggled. Cohen's group sought to reorganize under federal bankruptcy protection last year and has failed for the past few years to pay taxes on some of its downtown Shawano properties, according to court records and media accounts. The group owns several commercial properties in the city, some of which are leased to other businesses.
Among the debts listed in the bankruptcy filing, SIST owed the town of Shawano about $73,000 from personal and property taxes, room taxes and interest on the unpaid debt, according to local newspaper The Shawano Leader. Shawano County was owed nearly a half-million dollars in taxes on properties owned by SIST and its subsidiaries. SIST paid off much of the debt this year, according to news reports.
SIST was also in the news in 2008, when the FBI investigated an alleged "hit list" naming 60 people who had been critical of the organization. No charges were filed.
Rick Ross has studied cults in the United States for 30 years and has testified as an expert witness in 13 states. Ross is familiar with SIST — his name was reported to be on the alleged hit list — and said the victim in the Pikesville incident will not say anything that might harm the group or Cohen.
"She doesn't want to bring any further scrutiny," Ross said. "And with my experience with this group, people will say whatever they need to say to protect [Cohen]. If she were to say something that displeased them, she could pay a price and be put out of the group and completely estranged from her family."
Attempts to reach Cohen were unsuccessful. Alan Eisenberg, who has represented SIST in court and spoke on behalf of Cohen, hung up when contacted by a reporter. Eisenberg has previously denied allegations that SIST is a cult and that a hit list existed.
According to a website in support of the group, SIST's goal is to establish a world-class educational institute in the Shawano area.
SIST owns several gas stations, hotels, apartment buildings and small grocery stores in the town, which is about 38 miles northwest of Green Bay and has about 10,000 residents.
Members of SIST mostly stay to themselves, says Ritland. She lived for three years at Cohen's "ranch-style compound" before he arranged a marriage for her in the early 1980s, she said.
She said Cohen's organization frequently arranges marriages between members who might not have even met. Ritland joined when she was 17, disavowing the family that raised her.
Life revolves around the needs of SIST's leader, Ritland said, adding that members would devote nearly their entire paycheck to the organization. Her husband, Steve, who left SIST eight years ago, worked as a computer executive and estimates giving about $1 million worth of earnings to the group, keeping only enough to feed his former wife and eight kids from a previous marriage.
Nancy Ritland said she and her husband married in 2008 after she left SIST, but they had known each other since the 1970s.
"Rama gives directions and you're supposed to follow them like a robot," Nancy Ritland said.
Ritland's account falls in line with research by Ross, who said he has flown to Minnesota and Wisconsin to interview dozens of former members.
"The group has a very troubled history, mostly that [Cohen] is extremely authoritarian, completely dominating his members and followers," Ross said. "It's caused family estrangements. Devotees will not communicate with family members outside of the group. … They're very extreme and intensely devoted to the leader. They have a long history of putting his welfare above everything."