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Mistrial Declared in Murder Case Against Alleged Hit Man for Sect : Courts: Jury deadlocks 8 to 4 favoring acquittal of suspect in killing of an embittered former Hare Krishna devotee. The victim traveled around country preaching against the group.

January 11, 1991|MICHAEL CONNELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A mistrial was declared Thursday in the murder case against an alleged hit man for a Hare Krishna sect after a Van Nuys Superior Court jury deadlocked, 8 to 4, in favor of acquittal.

Thomas A. Drescher, 42, was charged with fatally shooting Stephen Bryant, 33, on May 22, 1986, while Bryant sat in a van parked near a Hare Krishna temple in West Los Angeles.

Bryant was an embittered former member of the Hindu sect who traveled the country in his van writing and preaching against the organization.

Authorities alleged that Drescher was to receive $8,000 to kill Bryant in order to protect the sect of Swami Bahktipada, whose 4,000-acre site in West Virginia was once one of the largest Hare Krishna temples in the United States.

Drescher has already been convicted in West Virginia and sentenced to life in prison for the 1983 slaying of a former Krishna member in that state.

"There was a lot of evidence; it just didn't prove him guilty to me," said a woman juror who asked not to be identified. "The case didn't jell."

Jury Foreman Ben Gafford said he was one of four panelists who voted for conviction, but he added that the decision was very close. He said the jury perceived the police investigation as "sloppy" and some of the evidence unconvincing.

"There was no smoking gun," Gafford said. "It's entirely understandable that the other eight (jurors) voted the other way. It was that close."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling E. Norris said Drescher, who remains jailed, will be tried again. A hearing to set a trial date was set for Feb. 1.

The prosecutor said the defense's attack on the police investigation and the immunity given some witnesses may have swayed jurors toward acquittal. But Norris said there was ample evidence to convict.

"Basically, the case is there," the prosecutor said. "It is a strong case. I think this is a tragic result."

Barry Levin, one of Drescher's attorneys, said he also was disappointed with the outcome.

"He should have been acquitted," Levin said. "The prosecution's case had a lot of problems.

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