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For Theresa Marie, an adrift young idealist, an introduction to Gandhi in Los Angeles in 1983 was the fulfillment of her "destiny to find a way to bring peace to the world." Together she and Yogesh planned a U.S. reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of nonviolent activism.
They planned a cross-country march in 1984 patterned after Mahatma Gandhi's legendary salt march, gathering a group of American dreamers to hike from Los Angeles to New York. They went from town to town, delivering the newly christened Yogesh Gandhi's message of pacifism, peace, and love. The fervent loyalty Gandhi earned from members of that march was a paean to the well-dressed Indian's uncanny power of persuasion.
"I thought he was a man with a lot of power," recalls Don Conreaux, a New York yoga instructor who served as the group's support-vehicle driver, advance man, and foot masseur. "Somewhere in 1984, we all took off from Los Angeles. They just improvised as it went. I kind of went ahead of the group. I let people know that the salt march was on its way. As they entered the city, I would have the peace gong."
That same year, Theresa Marie and Yogesh married, and Mrs. Gandhi prepared and filed the paperwork necessary to create a California nonprofit corporation in the name of Yogesh's great-granduncle, dedicated to teaching "oneness, truth, love, peace and nonviolence," according to government documents.
Early on, Gandhi seemed to have a keen grasp of the foundation's lucrative potential.
"When I brought people in who knew about nonprofit law, we would tell him what the law was, and he wouldn't obey it. He just didn't care," Theresa Marie recalls.
In 1988, Theresa Marie wrote a letter to Nancy Reagan saying the president deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for disarming Russia. Mrs. Reagan was similarly disarmed, and according to records at the Ronald Reagan Library, Gandhi met with the president Oct. 13, 1988, to present the Gandhi Peace Award.
It was a watershed moment, Theresa Marie recalls. Gandhi possesses piercing eyes, a booming, authoritative voice, and pedigree manners -- the components of near irresistible charm.
"They told him he could only have a minute and a half, but he charmed President Reagan. He basically took over the whole proceeding," she says.
Subsequent awards were to prove less auspicious. In 1990, Gandhi convinced a group of financial backers to accompany him to Moscow for what he said was a scheduled presentation of the award to Mikhail Gorbachev.
In what was to become a Gandhi Foundation modus operandi, Gandhi claimed close contacts in Moscow that proved ephemeral. Gandhi finally got the award to Gorbachev by pushing through the crowd at a speech and thrusting a Mahatma Gandhi statuette on the Russian leader.
"The statuette was stuffed in his arms," Theresa Marie recalls.
Despite such periodic catastrophes, by 1995 Gandhi had performed enough legitimate-looking publicity stunts to poise himself for greatness. Freed from his wife's moralistic fetters as the result of a 1991 divorce, Gandhi undertook a project that would catapult his odd, quasi-charity onto a world stage.
Somehow, Gandhi met Hogen Fukunaga, a Japanese cult leader with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, delusions of limitless grandeur, and an odd attraction to the self-styled Bay Area spiritual leader.
By the mid-1990s, Fukunaga's Ho-No Hana San Pou-gyo organization had attracted more than 100,000 followers who contributed millions to the construction of a luxurious Tensei Village in Japan, near Mount Fuji.
But things had begun to sour for Fukunaga in Japan. His adherents were starting to sue for damages related to their treatment by the sect or for money they felt they were owed. By 1996 there were more than 400 such cases pending in Japanese courts, according to news reports, and Fukunaga needed to plow new ground.
In the spring of 1995, Fukunaga met with Gandhi and Yoshio Tanaka, who owned a health-care products business with operations in the U.S. and Japan. According to documents filed in San Francisco federal court, Tanaka hired Gandhi to "provide certain public relation type services to benefit Fukunaga."
The services involved preparing Fukunaga to repeat the success stateside he had achieved in Japan. According to a proposal Gandhi presented to Tanaka, the trio would lay the groundwork during 1995 and 1996 to take the United States by storm. Gandhi would lead an unorthodox and expensive worldwide publicity campaign, according to the plan. Then, Fukunaga would become a key U.S. player in "Televangelism: A $2.5 Billion Industry," according to a prospectus Gandhi allegedly faxed to his Japanese patrons, which is now listed as "Exhibit A" in federal court.
With Gandhi as their fixer, they would take over the world.
And for a brief period, it seemed they would.
In September 1995, Gandhi made arrangements for a formal presentation of the Gandhi Peace Prize to Fukunaga in Bombay, India. That same year Gandhi arranged for visits between Fukunaga and the pope, Mother Teresa, and the Indian religious leader Saibaba. The next May, apparently by dint of a $325,000 contribution to the Democratic National Committee, Gandhi arranged for a photo opportunity with Bill Clinton.
But this auspicious moment would also begin the trio's downfall. As journalists and government investigators began to scrutinize the fund-raising practices of Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign, the Democrats were compelled to return the money to Gandhi because the donation appeared to come from a foreign source -- Tanaka -- which would make the contribution illegal.