Thursday, December 18, 2014

Krishna Venta and the WKFL Fountain of the World

Krishna Venta (nee Francis Pencovic), founder of WKFL Fountain of the World

The Guru was a long-haired, bearded, strangely charismatic ex-con who had declared himself the Messiah.

The Guru’s disciples were lost people seeking meaning and purpose in their lives. They followed him into the mountains above Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, where they lived communally in a sandstone-pitted canyon, grew their hair long, walked around in bare feet, and subsisted on a simple diet.

The Guru taught his followers that modern American society was hopelessly corrupt and doomed to extinction. There would be a terrible war between Whites and Blacks, he said, which would destroy the nation. But he knew of a secret place in the desert where he and his flock could escape to, and wait out the cataclysm. Then they would emerge and create a new civilization.

The Guru had big dreams. Although he was a Holy Man, he also sought fame and money. But his attempts to break into media stardom bore little fruit – he was just a little too weird to win mass acceptance, even in Southern California. So he retreated to his little flock, where his acolytes – especially the women – read his word as law, and dutifully followed his commands.

And then, suddenly, it all exploded, in a firestorm of violence that claimed ten lives and sent shockwaves throughout the Southland. “California cults” would never be seen with the same innocent bemusement as before.

The Guru’s name was Krishna Venta, and his cult, the WKFL Fountain of the World, met its bloody apocalypse in 1958 – over a decade before a far more famous bearded, ex-con, self-proclaimed Messiah would terrorize the Southland.

Not much is known about the early life of the man who would later call himself Krishna Venta. Public records show that he was born Francis Herman Pencovic in San Francisco, on March 29, 1911, to Russian-Jewish immigrant Albert Pencovic and his wife, former Utahn Maude Busenbach. After graduating high school in Elko, Nevada, the young Pencovic spent his young adulthood roaming across Depression-era America, working at odd jobs. Marrying in 1937, Pencovic fathered two children, but divorced in 1944, and then spent a short stint in the Army.

Pencovic also acquired a considerable criminal record. Between 1930 and 1942, he was arrested for crimes ranging from burglary, to petty larceny, to violations of the Mann act, in cities from Miami to Little Rock to Los Angeles. In 1941 he was busted for writing threatening letters to President Roosevelt; one year after that, he did a nine-month jail stretch at Santa Paula for passing bad checks. Later, he added a one-month stay at the California State Mental Hospital to his checkered personal history.

Around 1946, the peripatetic Pencovic began showing the first signs of incipient guru-dom. After spending some time in Salt Lake City, where he met his second wife, Ruth, he became fascinated by the Mormon religion, especially its doctrine regarding the “Melchizedek Priesthood” – the ancient order that Latter-Day Saints scripture said had originated with Adam, been conferred on the great Biblical patriarchs, and been restored in modern times by Joseph Smith. Pencovic started telling anyone who would listen that he had received the Melchizedek ordination through a being called “Christ Everlasting,” and now hosted this being in his body.

This entity, he would later say in his talks and writings, first arrived on Earth about 100,000 years ago, along with 24 rocket ships filled with refugees from the Planet Euphrates. These were the original human beings, migrating from their doomed planet under the leadership of “Ademus,” the original “Christ.” Ademus established the Order of Melchizedek – the divine plan for the human race in its new home, which would exist so long as its doctrine was kept pure and applied selflessly. He granted Adam, his most loyal follower, this priesthood, and married him to his own daughter Eve. The pair became the first humans living under this sacred rule.

Of course, any reading of Genesis reveals how well that arrangement worked. Nevertheless, the Order of Melchizedek was reestablished first with Enoch, and then again with Methuseleh, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Elijah. Each time the Order either died with the man who held it, or degenerated into corruption and misuse.

Pencovic said that the man called Jesus became the apotheosis of the Order – the Christ fully realized in human form. But his most important teachings were suppressed by the Romans for three centuries, until Jesus appeared to the Emperor Constantine and authorized him to revive the Order, taking care that the ancient doctrines would be preserved in their entirety. The Order lasted in the West until the Fourth Crusade of 1199, when marauding Crusader armies sacked the Constantinople library and destroyed documents containing the key Melchizedek teachings.

In India, the Christ appeared in the form of Krishna, and tried to set up the Order there, but the East was too insular to properly transmit the doctrines to the rest of the world. Centuries later, the Christ appeared in America to both Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Smith, inspiring them respectively to end slavery, and reestablish the Melchizedek Order through the Mormon priesthood. Sadly, both men were killed before they could fully accomplish their missions, and their successors once again perverted and distorted the sacred charges.

Portrait of Krishna Venta by Ruben Lackstrom

 And now, in postwar America, the Christ had returned once more to revive the Order. He was hosted in the body of Francis Pencovic, who now called himself Krishna Venta, in emulation of the Christ’s Eastern persona. Tall, blue-eyed, and aquiline-faced, Krishna grew his hair and beard out to fully embody his Messianic image, and began to walk barefoot in all weather while clad in a simple robe.

Krishna Venta warned listeners that humanity faced a terrible cataclysm. The Gog and Magog of modern worldly materialism – the Capitalist West and Communist East – were playing a deadly game of chicken with nuclear warheads, he said. And America, which had too long oppressed its peoples of color, would soon be consumed in a Soviet-instigated and –aided race war. The nation, and civilization itself, were doomed.

Krishna’s mission was to gather 144,000 followers – the number of elect mentioned in the Book of Revelation – by 1965, and lead them to a secret desert valley where they would wait out the tumultuous events of the coming years. When the dust settled, they would emerge from hiding, and found a new civilization that adhered strictly to the ancient Melchizedek code.

In 1948, Krishna Venta formed the WKFL Fountain of the World to organize the small group of followers he’d acquired. The group’s initials stood for Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love, and it proffered a simple set of goals to guide its members in their daily lives:

  1. To forget the outside world.  (Jealousy, greed, superstition, hatred, condemnation, etc., are of the world, and are not to be brought in or to manifest in the W.K.F.L. Fountain of the World.)
  2. To become familiar with the inside workings of one’s self.  (Know thyself, and become a good care-taker of this physical body or temple in which you express and over which you are the care-taker.)
  3. To become unified with one another spiritually, mentally, and physically.  (Get along with one another.  Have a purpose in life.)
  4. To forget self.  (Do good for goodness’ sake and forget selfish desires.)
  5. To create a desire within one’s self toward higher spiritual equality.  (As good as you are, try to be better.)
  6. To obtain wisdom.  (Search for Truth.  Keep an open mind.)
  7. To search for understanding in all things.
  8. To face problems without thought of escape.
  9. To become absorbed in love toward all things, seen and unseen, and so fulfill the laws of God.  (An inevitable result of fully living the preceding rules.)
  10. To let the Spirit descend upon you.  (Let the Spirit of Good be the light that guides your life.)
  11. To become teachers, not in the world, but in the Fountain, that all men who come out of the world shall find comfort in our midst.  (The greatest reward available to man in mortality is Peace of Mind.)

The entrance to the WKFL compound in Box Canyon

The Foundation settled on a 23-acre plot in Box Canyon, a brushy, sandstone-crested glen in the Santa Susana Mountains, 25 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. At first, they lived in tents and huts, but eventually built a small colony of buildings to house the sect’s brothers and sisters.

Visitors were always welcome at the Fountain, and were allowed to stay for three days. Potential members spent three months on the property as probationers; if they were approved for full membership, they turned over their worldly goods to the sect, donned robes as their daily costume, gave up footwear, and vowed not to cut their hair (or in the men’s cases, their beards) until peace was established on earth, and all peoples lived in harmony.

Wedding of WKFL members "Brother Alan" and "Sister Barbara".

 Although marriages were recognized and performed by the group, they were “spiritual” in nature, and nuptial ceremonies were only celebrated on Krishna Venta’s birthday – March 29th. Married couples and singles alike remained chaste, the sexes lived in segregated quarters, and children were raised communally. And as with so many other California cults, they followed a mostly-vegetarian diet, even though they raised goats and sheep on the land.

Krishna Venta’s followers quickly gained a reputation in Southern California as dedicated – if odd-looking – humanitarians.  When brush fires broke out in the dry, windswept mountains, the robed, barefoot, bearded and long-haired WKFL Brothers battled the flames alongside professional firefighters. When a Standard Airlines C-46 crashed in the hills above Simi Valley on July 12, 1949, Krishna and his people helped carry out dozens of charred corpses from the wreckage, and tended to the survivors. The Brothers and Sisters also provided aid and shelter to disaster victims and battered women, and ran a food bank and a rehab center on the Fountain grounds.

Brothers and Sisters of the WKFL

 The good works earned Krishna Venta and the Fountain tons of sympathetic press. Look Magazine did a four-page spread on the group, titled “California’s Offbeat Religions: We Love You,” which featured photos of Foundation stalwart “Bishop Mary” performing an improvisational dance, and a picture  of Krishna and his followers holding candles in the dark, their faces eerily shadowed. Other newspapers and magazines focused on the group’s firefighting efforts, or on the odd fact that during them, Krishna often slept in his station wagon alongside a nubile Sister (he explained that he did this to regain strength and body warmth after the hard, dangerous work). But none of the stories failed to mention the cultists’ robes, long hair and beards – the hippie era was still many years away, and the sheer weirdness of the Fountain folks’ appearance made great copy in the era of crew-cuts and grey flannel suits.

New York Times ad for a series of Krishna Venta lectures
in Manhattan during October 1954.

Krishna himself lapped up the publicity, but wasn’t always around to enjoy it. He spent much of his ten-year reign as Fountain leader on the road, spreading his teachings and seeking converts. On a trip to Europe in 1949, he tried to meet with both Pope Paul XII and King George VI of England – although rebuffed both times, a British newsreel caught the bearded, be-robed guru chatting with Bobbies outside Buckingham Palace, and strolling through Hyde Park with wife Ruth and some bemused English commoners. When he returned to L.A. from the junket, Krishna greeted the assembled press at the airport with the words, “I may as well say it. I am Christ! I am the new Messiah.”

Krishna Venta, "crucified" by his followers.

Several years later, Krishna Venta and five Fountain members turned heads in the U.S. Senate when they sat in on the Joe McCarthy-Army hearings. (The guru disliked the Wisconsin senator, and believed that he was one of the “three Joes [that] have been causing all the trouble” in the world, the others being Joe Stalin and Tojo.)  Krishna also outraged Southern California’s orthodox religious leaders when he performed an Easter Passion play where, clad in a loincloth and dripping fake blood, he hung from an improvised cross atop a hill near the Fountain as an amplified recording of Jesus’ last words echoed through the canyon.  And he further scandalized the spiritual world when he traveled to Las Vegas, had his picture taken with famed gambler Nick the Greek, and then dropped nearly $3,000 at the craps tables.

Krishna Venta’s most embarrassing public episode came in 1956. That year, he was arrested and jailed in Oakland for non-payment of child support; apparently, he hadn’t sent his fist wife a dime since his stint in the Army twelve years earlier, and had ignored her many entreaties for money, claiming that his role as Barefoot Holy Man made him exempt from such worldly trivialities as court orders. After the arrest, his followers dutifully picketed the jail, holding signs that said that the deified deadbeat-dad was being “Persecuted for lifelong devotion to God.” Eventually the case went to the State Supreme Court, which ruled against him in Pencovic v. Pencovic (1955) -- now considered a definitive precedent in cases where spouses attempt to evade child support or alimony by joining religious sects.

WKFL members demonstrate during Krishna Venta's imprisonment

Despite the loads of publicity – positive and otherwise – Krishna Venta enjoyed, the Fountain never attracted very many disciples. Krishna tried to exploit pre-statehood Alaska’s homesteading laws by establishing a satellite settlement in the bush country near Homer, but it never grew to more than 120 residents. The Box Canyon community itself boasted fewer than 60 full-time occupants, including children. Ultimately, the Fountain followers’ strange appearance, Spartan lifestyle, and dedication to an eccentric and maverick Messiah were just too extreme for all but the most selfless seekers. Southern California hosted plenty of far less demanding sects and cults, and most prospective disciples sought enlightenment elsewhere.

By late 1958, big trouble was brewing in Box Canyon. Two Fountain members – Peter Kamenoff, AKA Brother Elzibah, and Ralph Muller, AKA Brother Jeroham – were seriously disgruntled with Krishna Venta. So much so, that on December 8th, they met in Los Angeles with James H. Mulvey, an investigator for the California District Attorney. The two cultists told Mulvey that their guru was misappropriating Fountain funds, gambling in Las Vegas with the life savings his dedicated followers had entrusted to him. They also said he was also practicing medicine without a license, and endangering the lives of cult members with quack treatments. And they claimed he was carrying on illicit affairs with Fountain women, including their own wives and several underage girls.

WKFL suicide bomber Peter "Brother Elzibah" Kamenoff

 Kamenoff and Muller told Mulvey that they wanted the D.A. to help them get their wives and funds out of Krishna Venta’s clutches. To that end, they volunteered to try to get a confession of wrongdoing from the cult leader. Mulvey told the two that the State was actively investigating Krishna, and would welcome any additional evidence they could gather. When Kamenoff and Muller closed the meeting by saying Krishna needed to be “eliminated” for his crimes, Mulvey figured the men were planning to give the guru an earful about his doings, and then ease him out of Fountain leadership with the aid of the State.

But the investigator had badly misjudged the men’s impatience with the legal system, and their rage at Krishna Venta. The next night, Kamenoff and Muller made a two-hour audio tape listing the cult leader’s crimes, and swearing vengeance against him. Although the tape and the transcript mysteriously disappeared from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s archives years ago, one ominous passage by Ralph Muller from near the end of the recording survives:
 Dear God, give us this night freedom or death...within the next three or four hours we will get into the pickup truck, drive to Box Canyon, see Krishna...and demand a right adjustment be made...We have dedicated our lives to this mission and whatever may come, this may be our last night in the world.
On the morning of December 10th, 1958, Kamenoff and Muller drove into Box Canyon, parked on the Fountain grounds, and demanded to see Krishna Venta. When the guru emerged from the cult’s administration building and confronted his accusers, Muller produced a flight bag containing twenty sticks of dynamite, and detonated the charge.

Aftermath of the WKFL suicide-bombing. Ten people,
including the two bombers and Krishna Venta, lost their lives.

 The blast leveled the two-story building with a report that could be heard twenty miles away. Krishna Venta, the two bombers, and seven other people were killed instantly in the explosion, which also touched off a fire that burned 150 acres of brush. The same firemen and emergency volunteers whom the Fountain people had previously helped with firefighting now converged on the canyon, tasked with the grim duties of dousing the flames, aiding the wounded, comforting the terrified survivors, and recovering pieces of the shattered corpses.

The bombing made the cover of the Los Angeles Times.

 For weeks afterwards, rumors persisted that another victim’s corpse had been misidentified as Krishna’s, and that the guru had escaped the blast, and was hiding in the hills, waiting to return to lead his flock. But the Box Canyon Messiah neither returned to the Fountain, nor rose from the dead in emulation of the Christ he claimed to be. The Brothers and Sisters of the Fountain laid their leader to rest in North Hollywood’s Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery, and returned to their work as a spiritual community.

Since Krishna had been absent so often from the settlements, his followers were used to running the Fountain without him. But without his leadership, or his flair for publicity, the Fountain spent the next two decades slowly fading into obscurity, and then oblivion. By the mid-1970s, both the Box Canyon and Homer settlements had been abandoned, and the Brothers and Sisters had moved on to new lives.

Three Fountain members who escaped Box Canyon’s gelignite Gotterdammerung weren’t so lucky when they hooked up years later with another self-proclaimed Savior. Perhaps seeking to rekindle the sense of community and purpose they had with Krishna Venta, Erma Winfrey, a septuagenarian cook, and David and Gladys Smith, a married couple, followed the Reverend Jim Jones down to Guyana, and then perished along with over 900 other Peoples Temple members in the grisly mass suicide of November 1978. Tragically, the Smiths’ five children also died during Jonestown’s “White Night”.

Today, virtually the only trace of Krishna’s spiritual influence that still exists is in the so-called Earth’s Order of Melchizedek (EOOM). EOOM is an obscure sect founded in 1972 by Matia Lorion Melchizedek, a Fountain member who attempted to take over the Box Canyon settlement in the wake of Krishna’s death. Although Matia himself passed on several years ago, the group seems to still exist – at least in cyberspace – and promulgates Krishna’s teachings about the Melchizedek Order, along with study of the Urantia Book and other esoteric writings.

The WKFL compound as it appears today. Note the surviving inscribed gate.

 As for the Box Canyon property, it recently hosted yet another claimant to the Melchizedek Heritage: the “Dominion of Melchizedek”, a curious entity that has claimed to be at once a sovereign nation and a religious order, and has been continually accused of running international financial scams and citizenship frauds. Years earlier, the land was occupied for a time by American Indian Movement radicals, two of whom were put on trial for murdering a cab driver (they were eventually acquitted).

But the most famous Fountain resident of all was, like Krishna himself, a long-haired, bearded ex-con, who spent three days at the compound in 1968 with a handful of his own acolytes. His name was Charles Manson, and he would write himself into California-cult history in far bigger and bolder letters than Krishna and his devotees ever did.


My Search for Krishna Venta (Blog by KV/WKFL researcher Shawn Sutherland)
WKFL Fountain of the World Official Website (Maintained by author Jon Layne Fisher, who grew up on the Box Canyon compound and survived the 1958 bombing)
Earth's Order of Melchizedek (EOOM) (Spiritual claimant to Krishna Venta's legacy)
Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions -- Eighth Edition. Detroit: Gale, 2008.
Mathison, Richard. Faiths, Cults, and Sects of America. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960

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