Virginians Slain in Attacks Lived Out Peaceful Ideals

American Alan Scherr and his daughter Naomi were killed during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India; wife Kia is at left.
American Alan Scherr and his daughter Naomi were killed during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India; wife Kia is at left. (AP)
By Jerry Markon, Amy Gardner and Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 29, 2008

FABER, Va., Nov. 28 -- Alan Scherr was an art professor with a comfortable life in the Maryland suburbs, but he spent 25 years studying Transcendental Meditation in a quest for something more. The search took him and his family to Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where they shed their old life in Silver Spring and meditated in the complex of a New Age mystic.

"It is pleasure almost to the point of unbearable ecstasy," he wrote upon meeting the mystic, a former actor known as Master Charles, who was himself a disciple of a prominent Indian spiritual guru and who founded the Synchronicity Foundation here in 1983.

Scherr's life with the spiritual community led him and his 13-year-old daughter, Naomi, on a pilgrimage to India, where they were gunned down Wednesday as they ate a late dinner at a hotel in Mumbai. The 58-year-old former University of Maryland professor and his daughter were among five known Americans killed in the terrorist attacks that rocked India.

As they mourned the deaths, family and friends struggled to comprehend how a man defined by his quiet spirituality had met such a violent end -- along with the daughter who was raised in part by monks in the family-like atmosphere of the rural Synchronicity compound, 30 miles from Charlottesville.

"It's an unbelievable tragedy that he should be struck down by terrorists when his whole life was about creating peace," said Marcia Kaspark, Alan Scherr's ex-wife. "His whole life was about spirituality."

The journey that Synchronicity officials called the "trip of a lifetime" for more than 25 members of the group was shattered when gunmen burst into the first-floor cafe at the Oberoi Hotel. Alan Scherr was killed first, execution style, with a bullet to the head, said Michael Lang, former chairman of the Synchronicity Foundation, which runs the Virginia compound and its businesses selling books and CDs about meditation.

Naomi, a high-achieving student who was home-schooled at the compound and planned to attend boarding school in New York next fall, was shot next, Lang said. "It's hard for me to imagine the rationale for shooting a 13-year-old girl in the back of the head," he added. "Naomi was the sweetest, loveliest, most innocent young girl."

Bobbie Garvey of Synchronicity said she called Kia Scherr, Naomi's mother and Alan's wife, on Thanksgiving to say the two were missing. On Friday morning, Garvey called back to say that Master Charles had identified the bodies. "And she whispered something I couldn't understand and started to cry," Garvey said of Kia Scherr, who was in seclusion with her two adult sons from a previous marriage.

Master Charles remains in India, where he escaped the attacks by spending 45 hours locked in his hotel room. Four other Synchronicity members in the cafe were wounded. The group had left for India on Nov. 14 and planned to return Monday.

It was a tragic milestone on a spiritual journey with Indian roots for Master Charles, who grew up in New York and Florida as a practicing Catholic and whose real name is Charles Cannon.

One night after a stage performance in New York, two friends just back from India showed Cannon a picture of a prominent Indian mystic known as Swami Muktananda, said Lang, the former Synchronicity chairman. "Master Charles looked at the picture and went into a trance," Lang said.

Cannon would become known as Brother Charles, then Master Charles, and serve as the primary American emissary of Muktananda, whose admirers in the 1970s included former California governor Jerry Brown and singers John Denver and Carly Simon.

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