Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A guide to religious gurus and fraudsters

Sathya Sai Baba

Sai Baba

This Indian guru, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi (shown here), was known for miracle healings, clairvoyance, bilocation, and materializing objects, and is venerated by millions of followers worldwide even after his 2011 death. But this famous guru is not without controversy.

Since the 1970s, skeptics have suggested all is not as it seems with Baba. British journalist Mick Brown investigated Baba and found that the people who Baba claimed to have “resurrected” from the dead were either still dead or denied, um, having ever died. A documentary accused him (without proof) of being “not just a fraud, but a dangerous sexual abuser.”

No charges were leveled against Sathya Sai Baba in his lifetime and the guru compared his accusers to the “cawing of crows.”


Peter Popoff

One of the most (in)famous televangelists, Peter Popoff made a name for himself by his seemingly miraculous ability to talk to God.

Peter Popoff

On his weekly television show in the 1980s, he would routinely state the specific addresses and illnesses of people in the audience, then “cure” them.

According to the man who eventually exposed him, Popoff was making around $4 million a year throughout the 1980s. Then, in 1987, James Randi discovered that Popoff wore an earpiece onstage and his wife transmitted bits of information about unsuspecting audience members that she collected before the performance.

Popoff admitted that his wife “occasionally” gave him names of audience members.


Todd Coontz

Should you, the viewer, give Todd Coontz a certain amount of money, you will soon be blessed with untold financial rewards from God himself.

There is nothing illegal about this type of marketing, though Coontz is widely vilified by the Internet community. Charlotte local television news ran an exposé on Coontz’s activities that include shots of his million dollar condo and a stable of luxury cars.

Coontz refused to tell the reporter how much of the money donated to the ministry he keeps for himself and has never been charged with a crime.


Jim Bakker

Jim Bakker

Jim Bakker and first wife Tammy Faye made millions as televangelists: their Praise the Lord show was carried by over a 100 television stations in the 1970s. They used their money to build a theme park and buy a satellite to broadcast their ministry 24/7 on their own TV channel.

Their lifestyle became the epitome of 1980s-style conspicuous consumption, and they justified their excesses by noting that “if Jesus were alive today he would be on TV.” In 1987, Jessica Hahn, a secretary at Bakker’s church accused him of rape.

Though he was never charged, the allegations caused him to step down from the ministry. Shortly after that the Bakker’s were the subject of a 16-month grand jury probe and only Jim was convicted of eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

Tammy Faye was never convicted of any wrongdoing, and despite her promise to “stand by her man” she divorced Jim three years into his prison term.


Gerald Payne
The head of Greater Ministries International (GMI) was one of five church officials to be charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and unlawful monetary transactions after a federal investigation discovered a pyramid scheme run by the church.

During the trial, federal prosecutors revealed that over the course of six years Greater Ministeries, located in Tampa, FL, defrauded 18,000 people to the tune of $448 million. Payne asked people to donate to his ministry and cited work GMI did with the homeless as the place where their money would go. He told other people that if they invested in the church they would eventually get their money back with interest.

Early “investors” in GMI were paid back with money from later donations but, the prosecution demonstrated through seized church videotapes of official meetings, even the money that supposedly went to the homeless was diverted into the deep pockets of the church officials.


Baptist Foundation of Arizona

This charity promised believers that they would provide “asset management services to Christians who desire to benefit worthy ministries while earning a market return on their investments.” But starting in 1992, the charity recorded a loss of $3.2 million. An exposé by the Phoenix New Times revealed that BFA then began to hide its debts by funneling bad investments to a separate bank that was kept out of the public eye.

The paper alleged that the BFA also engaged in Ponzi schemes and land flipping. In the end, when the BFA declared bankruptcy, the organization reported $70 million in assets compared to $530 million in liabilities.

Several of the top ranking members of the BFA were convicted of fraud and sentenced to multi-year jail terms.


Swami Nityanand

Swami Nityanand

This young and charismatic Hindu mystic was named one of the 100 most spiritually influential people living today by Mind Body Spirit magazine. He established a major ashram near Bangalore called Nithyananda Dhyanapeetam that calls for the revival of ancient Vedic traditions. In 2010, a video of Nityanand making out with a young woman was released on an Indian television show.

Based on this video, Nityanand was arrested on charges of rape and fraud and spent nearly two months in jail before being allowed to post bail. After two years of controversy, the television network’s COO admitted that the tape had been a blackmail attempt by one of its employees. Shortly after that, however, an Indian-born American citizen publically accused Nityanand of rape, a charge he vehemently denied. This additional charge of sexual misconduct led to several prominent Hindu holy men withdrawing their support of Nityanand. Court cases for fraud, rape, and assault are still pending.



Known as the “guru’s guru” Muktananda was one of the most respected members of America’s “consciousness circuit”. He founded the practice of Siddha Yoga, a system of meditation meant to realize self-actualization. In the U.S., the practice manifested itself in the wildly successful Siddha Yoga Dham Associates (SYDA) Foundation and published 16 books explaining the precepts of Siddha Yoga.

For most, Muktananda was above reproach, but in the 1980s and 90s he was accused of sexual abuse by several women. Anne Hamilton-Byrne alleged that Muktananda molested women on the pretense of checking their virginity. Several other woman claimed to be raped by him. No charges were ever leveled against Muktananda though many followers were disillusioned with the guru when they learned his alleged actions were not in keeping with his aesthetic teachings.


Jim Jones

From the moment of birth, Jim Jones’ mother was convinced that she had given birth to a messiah.

In the mid-1960s Jim moved to Brazil with his family, convinced it was the only safe place during the impending nuclear holocaust. He then spent about a decade in San Francisco building up a group of loyal followers while simultaneously building Jonestown in Guyana. There, Jones preached “translation,” the idea that he and his followers would die together and move to a blissful life on another planet.

That, and Jones’ paranoia that international intelligence agencies were going to turn all the residents of Jonestown into fascists, led to his ordering the poisoning of 909 members of Jonestown, 303 of them children, as well as a U.S. congressman. Jones himself died of a gunshot wound to the head; it has never been clear if he committed suicide or he was killed by one of his own men, presumably on his orders.


Arnold Potter

False prophet, son of God, victim of seasickness?

In the first half of Arnold Potter’s life he was involved in the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He was baptized into the faith by Joseph Smith himself and followed the church out to Utah in the 1840s, but during a several-month voyage to Australia, he underwent a “purifying, quickening change” and ended up back in the U.S. calling himself “Potter Christ, Son of the living God.” In order to make sure that everyone knew his new designation, he wrote “Potter Christ – The Living God – Morning Star” on his forehead in black ink. He wandered around Council Bluffs, Iowa, in a white robe with several black-robed followers.

In 1872, he announced that it was time for the “Potter Christ” to ascend into heaven and jumped off a cliff. His followers declined to follow.


Marshall Applewhite

Marshall Applewhite

Is it dangerous to be a Trekkie? The life and death of cultist Marshall Applewhite indicates that it just might be. While he and Bonnie Nettles were traveling the country in the 1970s, figuring out their philosophy, Applewhite spent a lot of time talking about Star Trek, Revelation and the possibility that humans and extraterrestrials would meet at the end of the world. These ideas eventually coalesced into the community of Heaven’s Gate. The insular group eschewed contact with the outside world, waiting to “ascend to heaven.”

This apparently came about in 1997 when the Hale-Bopp comet passed close to earth, whereupon Applewhite and 38 of his followers decided to commit suicide to hitch on a ride on the spaceship attached to the comet. As far as we know, spaceships do not “hide” behind comets.


Buddhist Panhandlers

In the summer of 2013, Toronto was infested by a plague of fake Buddhist monks. These men would shave their heads and dress in saffron robes and then harass visitors for food and cash.

The typical game of these fake holy men was to approach a tourist with begging bowl outstretched and ask for a donation. After the tourist shelled out, the “monk” would follow them down the street and make a scene until their victim gave them even more money.

There are Buddhist monks in Toronto, however, although a real, practicing Buddhist monk never solicit donations.


Menachem Youlus

This self-styled “Jewish Indiana Jones” conned over a million dollars from victims in the greater New York area by lying about the adventures he experienced while hunting for Holocaust-era Torahs.

In one instance, he told an investor that he had found a scroll under the floorboards of a building at Bergen-Belsen. Youlus had apparently fallen through a hole while touring the concentration camp and unearthed a treasure-trove of forgotten Judaica and later used a metal detector to find a metal box of Torah scrolls buried at Auschwitz. He used these stories to raise funds for future “endeavors” – though most of the money went to pay his children’s private school tuition.

Youlus’ deception was eventually uncovered and he pled guilty to two counts of fraud, earning a four-year prison sentence.

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