In newspaper interviews in the 1970's, Rama Behera said he was a Hindu from India who moved to the United States and converted to Christianity when Christ appeared to him in 1966. At that time, he said, he began his work as a missionary and preacher, eventually gathering followers of his fundamentalist Christian teachings through sermons and radio broadcasts.
According to his early preaching, early interviews, and former members, his teachings at first were vehemently critical of organized Christianity, but stressed the importance of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "Yea the preaching of the Gospel is the power of God it does change one's life”, he is heard saying in a 1979 radio address. “And the one who is truly born again, he has the answer to them that are without the answer."
The group began going by the name the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and former followers say they became increasingly devoted to Behera, who they viewed as God's messenger and closest servant on earth.
In 1974, Behera bought a home just outside of Shawano where he met several times a week with his followers for worship, prayer, and preaching. That building is now surrounded with trees, and covered by tarps. It is the present day headquarters for S.I.S.T.
Former members say the group began to change significantly in the early 1980's. At that time, family members of some of Behera's followers became weary of the group as the so-called disciples became more and more devoted to Behera, often shunning other aspects of their life. "He was the man of God, he was a prophet and he could receive word from God”, said Elina lane, who was in the group from the time she was born until 1996, when she was 17. At that time, she left the group, along with her parents and 5 siblings. “Why not have someone who receives direct communication from God, who knows your life already, why not have him direct you?"
A handful of the disciples were taken from the group against their will by their families and 'deprogrammers’, who held them for days in attempts to break them of what they saw as Behera's hold. A couple of the attempts were successful, but some weren't. One high-profile case involved Bill and Sandy Eilers, a husband and wife kidnapped by family members for 'deprogramming'. Sandy denounced the group, but Bill returned. False imprisonment charges were filed against the parents and deprogrammers. Those charges were later dropped.
After that incident, newspaper headlines decried the group as a ‘cult, and Behera defended his teachings in headlines across the Midwest. But former members say after what he saw as mistreatment by the media, Behera and his group became much more seclusive, and outside ministry and radio broadcasts stopped. "He felt like he had to hide himself, developed a mentality of ‘us versus them’, and felt like the world was going against him”, Lane says. “I think he no longer felt like he belonged in the public eye, that he had to hide."
Behera refused all further media interviews, and former members say over the following decade, his teachings became much more strict, moved away from the New Testament, and became even more critical of mainstream Christianity. Meanwhile, they say, Behera related more and more with Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.
Former members say those beliefs are illustrated in a 49-page pamphlet created as an instructional booklet for children within the group. It talks of the atrocities of organized Christian religions, the evils of a Christian life, and included dozens of quotes from Behera, who had now changed his name to Doctor Samanta Roy.
Shortly after his name change in 1990, Doctor Roy created the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology - a non-profit business that group members say was created to support a school in India.
The group began making headlines again as they purchased millions of dollars worth of property and businesses in Shawano, and former followers say Samanta Roy shifted the focus of his followers towards the businesses, asking them to work in them and support them however they could.
The religious teachings, they say, also shifted. The strict rules of the past decade were relaxed, and Roy's religious teachings moved closer to Judaism. Samanta Roy changed his name again to Avraham Cohen in 2007, a change his attorney says was inspired by Roy's conversion to Judaism. One SIST-owned hotel recently changed from the Best Western, to the 'Kiryat' - a Jewish name. The group's attorney, Alan Eisenberg, has said the C-E-O, Naomi Isaacson is Jewish, and was denied Kosher food while in the Brown County jail.
Attorney Eisenberg has maintained SIST has no religious ties whatsoever, and employees deny a religious connection.
But former members say people that grew up as the 'disciples' are today's SIST employees, and like the group's leader, The 'Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ' has changed in name only. “Really, they are one and the same”, says Lane. “I think it's just another name change. Now that we've had 30 years of negative history with 'the Disciples', he's converting to the business side, which seems to have less negative history. In the end, obviously, it's turning around and it's developing its own life.”
Individuals who have left Cohen's group estimate there have been a few hundred members over the past three decades, and many of those involved in SIST today were born into the group.
Again, Attorney Eisenberg has maintained SIST has no religious connections, and Cohen is not a religious teacher.
While law enforcement has said a member of SIST is being investigated as a person of interest in connection to the hit list, that person has not been named. No arrests have been made and no charges have been filed.
SIST says Shawano officials, and not anyone from their group, are behind the hit list.