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SJ Merc 010898


Thursday, January 29, 1998

 BY MINAL HAJRATWALA, Mercury News Staff Writer

Memo: Mercury News Staff Writer Deborah Kong contributed to this story.


The man his followers call Swami Kriyananda listened with a calmness befitting a spiritual leader Wednesday as lawyers summed  up three months' worth of often-graphic testimony in a case that could financially devastate his worldwide empire of New Age communities.

A San Mateo County jury of seven women and five men will begin  deliberations today in Redwood City on whether J. Donald Walters,  71, and his Ananda Church of Self-Realization created a climate not of meditative tranquillity but of sexual coercion and fraud, in which he and his ministers preyed on female devotees who came to them in  search of God and left ''emotionally shattered,'' lawyer Michael  Flynn said.
But defense attorney Gordon Rockhill argued that plaintiff Anne-Marie Bertolucci ''knew exactly what was going on'' when she  began seeing a married Ananda minister. Rockhill read from a November 1993 letter in which Bertolucci apologized to Walters for  the affair, writing, ''I felt hopelessly and deeply in love. . . . I just ask that you pray for me.''

''The human animal has a tremendous capacity for rationalization,'' Rockhill said. ''They craved one another. . . . Then she cries foul.'' If at least nine jurors determine Bertolucci was wronged by the church and its officials, a penalty phase would begin in which, Bertolucci's lawyers said, she may ask for up to $10 million. Bertolucci is suing Walters, the church and minister Daniel Levin. Levin's dramatic  testimony captivated the courtroom earlier this month when he wept  on the stand and repeatedly professed his continuing love for Bertolucci.

Bertolucci said Levin, vice president of the church's publishing  company, where she worked, preyed on her over a period of months.

When she went to Walters for help, she testified, she ended up  watching a movie with an oral sex scene and being offered a neck massage during which her head ended up in Walters' lap.

Eventually, she said, she lost her job and was expelled from Ananda Village, a cluster of 350 wood-shingled homes on 900 acres just below the snow line in Nevada City. She had moved there six years ago, at age 28, after taking meditation classes at Ananda's Palo Alto church.

But Rockhill sought to draw a portrait of Bertolucci as a ''woman of some experience'' who sought to blame Levin for the secret affair  only after he decided to return to his wife. He said Walters and other church leaders worked to end the affair as soon as they learned of it, giving Bertolucci a higher-paying job in a different Ananda Village office. When that proved insufficient, they offered her work at other Ananda communities.
Bertolucci shook her head at Rockhill's version of events, writing  notes to her lawyers and wiping away tears during his 2 1/2-hour  argument.

Walters, who had been tending to matters at Ananda's retreat in Italy throughout much of the trial, returned only to watch its final stages. He appeared relaxed, smiling as he shook hands and talked with about 30 supporters at breaks and the end of the day.

During the trial, Bertolucci's lawyers sought to establish a pattern of sexual abuse, calling nearly a dozen women to testify they had sexual relations with Walters.

Flynn urged the jury to take action to ''stop the fraud. Just stop it.'' He said Bertolucci would never have joined the community had she  known that Walters -- a swami who had taken monastic vows, including celibacy -- had a ''30-year history of sexual predatoriness.''

Rockhill disputed that characterization, saying Walters told Ananda followers in 1981 that he was no longer a celibate swami when he entered a ''spiritual marriage'' with a devotee. Walters admitted in court to episodes of ''sexual weakness'' but said the incidents were consensual.