Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hare Krishna Who Set Manson Ablaze

Demons Within, Danger at Large / Everyone who ever knew Jan Holmstrom knew it was only a matter of time before the paranoid schizophrenic who'd murdered his own father attacked someone else. And last November, at a Hare Krishna temple in San Francisco

Ho Thaai Walker, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published 4:00 am, Sunday, February 19, 1995

With four shotgun blasts, Jan Holmstrom ended his father's life in the driveway of his family's fashionable Pasadena home, and then handed the gun to a stunned 9-year-old Cub Scout as he walked away.

While doing time for the murder, Holmstrom sent threatening letters to his family from prison and set a fellow inmate, cult leader Charles Manson, on fire.

Now, he sits in the San Francisco County Jail awaiting trial on charges that he tried to stab a Hare Krishna member to death last November inside a temple on a quiet Cole Valley street -- a crime that resembles one he was arrested for more than two decades ago in another temple, in another town.

Those who know Holmstrom hope that this latest act of violence will be the one that keeps him behind bars for good and lets them live their lives in peace, without worry, without the fear they have lived with for years that he will come after them.

"It's a relief that he was arrested again in the respect that he's not going to be able to hurt anyone else," said a family member who asked not to be identified because she fears for her life. "He's touched so many lives and hurt so many. He should never be set free."

To his family, Holmstrom, 46, is a "a sleeping giant in a time bomb" -- a man plagued by violent mood swings and delusions they say have resulted from a history of drug abuse and paranoid schizophrenia.

When he murdered his father, a prominent Pasadena gynecologist, in 1974, the family that adopted Holmstrom when he was 9 days old disowned him and have not spoken to him since. Their fear that he would be released from prison and come after them was channeled into scores of letters to state officials, begging them to pull the strings that would keep Holmstrom behind bars forever.

"(Holmstrom) is a classic example of a person who should not be let loose," said retired Pasadena police investigator Ron Davis, who arrested Holmstrom after his father's murder. "He should not be out on the streets."

Yet while that seemed more than obvious to Holmstrom's family and the police who came in contact with him, Holmstrom was released from jail and paroled to San Francisco in 1990. Ever since, Holmstrom's family has lived in hiding from him.

"It's very hard," said the family member. "All of the members of the family are scared to death of him."

It was 6:10 p.m. last November 26 when police received a frantic call from the Hare Krishna temple at 84 Carl Street. The woman on the telephone told the dispatcher that someone in the temple had just stabbed another person.

"He's here, we've got him down, hurry!" the woman yelled. The woman told the 911 dispatcher that the suspect was an ex-con who had recently been paroled and had been coming to the temple. She dropped the phone after saying she had to find someone to help the Krishna members who were holding the suspect.

The Krishnas who have made the house on Carl Street their sanctuary and home live simply and quietly, The temple often goes unnoticed by passers-by. An unassuming, gray, two-story house with a red tile roof, it is nestled between a bustling cafe that specializes in crepes and a tiny triangular park that serves as a hangout for transients.

Inside the Carl Street temple, the members practice their religion, a Hindu movement based on ecstatic devotion to Lord Krishna, the second god of the Hindu trinity. Founded in the United States in 1966, the Krishnas have lost the controversial edge that once defined them and have become less conspicuous.

Carl Street sits in Cole Valley, a burgeoning yuppie neighborhood that borders the Haight district. The quiet of Carl Street is interrupted by the loud hum of the N-Judah trolley that rolls in front of the temple every 15 minutes to spill out commuters.

Krishna Kumar Das, the 27-year-old president of the Carl Street Hare Krishna temple, has probably known Holmstrom longer than any other member there.

The two met in 1990, soon after Holmstrom was paroled, at a temple in Berkeley where Kumar Das was working as head cook. When Kumar Das left the Berkeley temple to manage the Carl Street temple, Holmstrom followed.

At the temple one afternoon last month, in a sunlit second-floor office, Kumar Das, a bespectacled man with a soft voice and a quiet nature, recalled that Holmstrom was up-front about his past with Krishna members from the moment he started visiting the temple.

Holmstrom, who has followed the Hare Krishna way of life since 1971, told them right away that he had just gotten out of prison for killing his father. He said he realized the killing was wrong, Kumar Das said.

Kumar Das was skeptical about letting Holmstrom into the temple because of his violent past. But Holmstrom was accepted because members thought that "it wouldn't be fair to exclude him," Kumar Das said.

Although Holmstrom usually visited the temple every day, at times he would stay away for weeks. Holmstrom told the members very little about what he did outside the temple. All they knew was that he did not have a job.

To his Krishna family, Holmstrom was known by his religious name, Ujal Das. And as a member, he was always very respectful, polite and devoted to the philosophy and culture of the Hare Krishna life.

But there were oddities, instances when he seemed almost "mechanical in the way he spoke to people," Kumar Das said. "He was not very at ease."

"He never did anything frightening, though," Kumar Das added.

Then the usually docile Holmstrom changed.

Holmstrom became preoccupied with a temple member and started giving her "strange letters" -- part love letters, part ramblings, Kumar Das said. In one letter, Holmstrom described the woman as a "princess hidden in a guru's tomb."

At 3:30 one morning, a week before the stabbing, Kumar Das, who lives at the temple with three other members, said he awoke to the sound of a blasting radio. He found Holmstrom sitting in front of the cafe next door with a radio turned on full volume.

Kumar Das asked Holmstrom to turn the radio off. Holmstrom ignored him.

"It was that (incident) that I realized something was wrong. (Holmstrom) was usually so obedient."

Afterward, Kumar Das asked the other temple members if they felt comfortable with Holmstrom visiting the temple. The consensus was that they did not.

The day before the stabbing, Holmstrom went to the temple, seeking refuge because he had been kicked out of his Lake Street apartment, Kumar Das said. But temple members told him he was not welcome.

The next day, November 26, Holmstrom returned to Carl Street, police say. He went to the cafe and pretended to be the Greek housepainter who was painting the outside of the temple at the time. He faked an accent and asked an employee at the cafe if he could use their back door to gain entrance to the temple because he had locked himself out, police say.

The employee let Holmstrom through the door, and Holmstrom entered the temple's side door, police say. He greeted several temple members who were sitting in the kitchen, picked up a knife and made his way up the temple's stairs to the second floor. There he found Krishna member Andrew Vongottfried, according to police.

Vongottfried had just finished shaving and was about to take a shower when he encountered Holmstrom. When Holmstrom attacked him with the knife, Vongottfried thought, "Oh, my God, it's time to die," he later told Kumar Das.

He tried to fight Holmstrom off. Vongottfried's screams brought fellow Krishna member Urddva Raita Das to his aid. Raita Das, a Vietnam veteran, pulled Holmstrom off Vongottfried and held him until other Krishna members could help. Then he placed plastic bags over Vongottfried's wounds to seal them until paramedics arrived.

Vongottfried had been stabbed seven times. Hospital officials told San Francisco Police Inspector Jeffrey Levin that Vongottfried would have died had he arrived at the hospital five minutes later.

Levin said Holmstrom appeared "lucid and calm" when police interviewed him at Park Station after the stabbing.

"He denied involvement (in the stabbing)," Levin said. "He said he didn't do it, that he came to the temple, entered through the front door, went to use the bathroom and found the guy bleeding."

Levin said police believe Holmstrom was stalking the temple member he had been sending letters to and that he had planned to kill everyone in the temple that day so he could get to her.

Holmstrom was charged with one count of first-degree burglary with the intent to commit felonious assault, one count of attempted murder with the use of a deadly weapon and one count of assault with a deadly weapon.

Since he's been in police custody he has been involved in three fights with other inmates, authorities say.

Kumar Das said Holmstrom's attack has left him angry. And he is worried about the Krishna members' safety should Holmstrom be released.

"I'm quite angry that he did this," Kumar Das said. "I hope the best for him but I think the best is for him to be locked up. I wish he could live a good life, but he's not able to be an ordinary person. Repeatedly he has hurt innocent people."

The demons that came to possess Holmstrom did not surface until he was in his late teens, his family members say. Up until then, he was a model child -- bright, funny and popular.

Born prematurely, Holmstrom weighed barely five pounds at birth. He was adopted by Emil Holmstrom, a gynecologist and histopathology specialist at Kaiser Permanente Hospital, and his wife, Peggy.

"He was just a wonderful kid, everybody loved him," said the family member.

He loved to just "sit and chat," she said, and he had an avid curiosity that moved him to pore through his father's medical books.

But at about age 16, Holmstrom lost interest in school. He began smoking marijuana. Later he started taking LSD.

In his late teens he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia -- a mental disorder accompanied by a distortion of reality and a fragmentation of one's personality. His family was told that he needed medication to curb his mood swings.

"We did everything we could for seven years. There were lots of psychiatrists and hospitals," the family member said.

Beginning in 1967, at age 19, Holmstrom was in and out of jail on charges ranging from marijuana possession to disturbing the peace -- in one case helping himself to gasoline at a service station to douse his jacket before trying to set it on fire.

His behavior became more bizarre as time went on, his family said. He dropped out of his circle of friends, hallucinated a great deal, became unkempt and seemed detached and uncaring. He had a fascination with fire and an obsessive fear of swastikas and crosses.

One night his family came home and found that he had placed lit candles throughout the house, some of them on the carpet. Another time, he tried to set fire to their church.

They grew to fear him. They decided he could no longer stay at home. "We were so frightened of him we had changed all of the locks on the house," the family member said.

Holmstrom went to live at a nearby halfway house. He was only allowed near his family's house to walk up his parents' driveway to the mailbox to retrieve a monthly check for rent and food.

In 1971, after Southern California was rocked by a severe earthquake, Holmstrom had a "vision" that told him to join the Hare Krishnas. He joined a Los Angeles temple, seemed to fit in and at one point even went to Mexico City to establish a temple there. But for reasons unclear, Holmstrom began to lose favor with Los Angeles temple members, and there were times when they refused to allow him into the temple, a family member said.

During an October 1973 incident that mirrors the one in San Francisco last year, Holmstrom allegedly stabbed another Krishna member in a temple kitchen in Venice, Calif. He was arrested for the knifing but was later acquitted of the charges. He was banished from the temple.

Three months later, he killed his father, nearly decapitating him with a 12-gauge shotgun as the elder Holmstrom returned home from work.

Pasadena police investigator Ron Davis, now retired, arrested Holmstrom just a few blocks from his parents' home minutes after the shooting.

"He was very quiet," Davis said, recalling Holmstrom's arrest. "He didn't seem aggressive, didn't seem the violent type. But he is violent; he just doesn't seem that way by first impression."

The gun Holmstrom used was turned over to police by a Cub Scout who told police he had been sitting in a car with friends about a block away from the scene of the shooting when Holmstrom walked by and handed him the weapon.

Family members believe a dispute over money between Holmstrom and his parents the previous week may have precipitated the murder. They also believe that Holmstrom was trying to lure his mother out of the house that day to kill her, too. During the trial, his mother testified that right before the shooting her doorbell had been rung frantically several times but that she had found no one there when she answered it.

Sketches police found in Holmstrom's room at a halfway house after the killing depicted two bodies lying in a driveway.

In December 1974, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Behind bars, he remarked to a prison guard that killing people was "just like stepping on spiders."

In 1984, at the state's prison facility for psychiatric prisoners, Holmstrom's path crossed that of mass murderer Charles Manson.

Manson was 13 years into his life sentence for the 1969 killing spree that left actress Sharon Tate and seven others dead. Holmstrom, who by this time had been classified as a mentally disordered offender, had already been in trouble for assaulting a guard.

The two men were in the hobby shop of the California Medical Facility at Vacaville when Holmstrom doused Manson with paint thinner and set him on fire with matches. The flames were put out but Manson, then 48, was left with second- and third-degree burns over his face, hands and scalp.

Holmstrom later told prison officials that Manson had chided him for chanting Hare Krishna chants and that God had told him to kill Manson.

Holmstrom's lockup did not keep his family from being intimidated by him. They received notes in the mail with crude drawings of each family member.

One sketch, apparently of his mother, shows a woman in a housedress with a large cross on her chest. The drawing includes scrawlings that read: "Peg: socialist, killer of babies, fanatic, drunkard, whore, wicked witch, evil, Miss goody two shoes. . . . Her days are coming to an end quickly. The white witch is going to be burned to ashes."

Another, a depiction of Holmstrom's deceased father, shows a man wearing swastikas and holding a hypodermic needle in one hand. "Dr. Emil Gustav Holmstrom," it reads. "Gloomy Gus, Killer of babies, Herr doctor . . . whiteGod . . . He died on Jan 22 1974 No one can escape the wrath of God."

Holmstrom was eligible for parole in 1982 but the attack on Manson and other inmates and guards kept him in prison for seven more years.

That was when Holmstrom's family was told that regardless of their many letters to prison officials and the state attorney general, Holmstrom would be released from prison to the Los Angeles area.

"I just had a fit when they told me he was going to be sent to Los Angeles," a relative said. "I just thought that was absolutely ridiculous. I was frantic."

Family members were able to convince state officials that Holmstrom would be a severe threat to the family and the community if he were paroled in the Los Angeles area. State law permits victims of violent crimes to request that a parolee be paroled at least 35 miles away from their victims.

So Holmstrom was sent insteadto San Francisco, where he was under the dual supervision of the Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Health for three years, said Miriam Joselyn, a parole agent with the Department of Corrections.

"I remember Holmstrom because we were watching him for any sign that he would pose a threat to the public," Joselyn said. "We supervised him very closely and we kept (an eye on him) for the maximum length of time possible."

But when he was done with his parole, no one paid attention to him. The "sleeping giant in a time bomb" began to wake, Inspector Levin said.

"He went for a long period of time after being paroled from prison without committing any violent acts," Levin said.

Joselyn, whose office has not had contact with Holmstrom for the past two years, said it wasn't hard to remember who he was when she learned of the November stabbing at the Hare Krishna temple.

"There are those cases and that was a name -- that as soon as it popped out in the news an alarm went off. There are some names you don't forget," she said.

Holmstrom's November arrest also grabbed the attention of family members. A cousin saw the story in a local newspaper and called other family members, who all voiced the same view: "We're all safer than we were yesterday because he was in jail," a family member said.

San Francisco Assistant District Attorney George Beckwith said it is too early to know what will happen with the Holmstrom case, which is set to go to a preliminary trial on Wednesday. But he said that Holmstrom could face 25 years to life and that his brushes with the law may make him an eligible "three strikes" candidate -- increasing the time he would have to spend in jail. to what? do we know?

Sheila O'Gara, the deputy defense attorney assigned to Holmstrom's case, said she could not comment on the case.

For Holmstrom's family, the anguish and heartache that began two decades ago is renewed each time they hear of some new crime he allegedly committed -- someone else who has been hurt. Betrayed by their own trust in the criminal justice system that they believed would never allow Holmstrom out of jail, they say they can only hope their fears can finally be put to rest.

"I was assured they would never, never let him out, but this is where the justice system is," a family member said. "I worry about myself, but I've lived a wonderful life and I'm very happy to be alive. I worry about society. Jan has nowhere to go. He has no future. His mind has been destroyed."


-- Born in 1949

-- Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in his late teens

-- Joined Hare Krishna in Los Angeles in 1971

-- Arrested in 1973 knife attack on Hare Krishna temple member in Venice, Calif. He was later acquitted.

-- Convicted of his father's murder in 1974. Sentenced to 10 years in prison.

-- In 1984, doused fellow prisoner Charles Manson with paint thinner and set him on fire. Manson suffered second- and third-degree burns.

-- Released from prison in 1990. Paroled to San Francisco.

-- Charged in November 26, 1994, stabbing attack at San Francisco Hare Krishna temple.