A con man who pretended he could magically double people’s money was just operating a Ponzi scheme cloaked in religious mysticism. It fell apart after he allegedly hired some old soldiers to murder two associates to stop them from exposing the scam.
Many Indonesians still believe magic is real, especially when it is given a veneer of religious respectability. Dimas Kanjeng Taat Pribadi, 46, capitalized on this superstition by claiming he could create money out of thin air.
The fifth of six children, Taat Pribadi (his name means ‘obedient person’) was born on April 28, 1970, in the hamlet of Cengkelek in Probolinggo, East Java. His father was a village policeman and his mother was of Middle Eastern descent. Neighbours and friends recall he was a quiet child with a keen interest in Javanese mysticism.
He attended an Islamic boarding school in Mojokerto and would subsequently claim that one of his teachers, Abah Ilyas, rewarded his obedience by teaching him the “secret” of how to double money. In 1994, he married his fellow student Rahma Hidayati. Her family was wealthy enough to give the couple two hectares of land. For a while, Taat Pribadi worked in the family’s fields, but he sometimes travelled in Java, purportedly to learn from mystics.
Obsessed with social status, he began prefacing his name with Dimas Kanjeng (Kanjeng is a form of address for Javanese nobility, meaning ‘his excellency’, while Dimas just means ‘younger brother’). In 2000, he started a quasi-religious foundation and the following year he broadened it into a non-academic “learning institution”, modestly named after himself.
His initial scam was claiming he could attract gold and jewels from the ground by using a “magical holy oil”. His earliest followers were asked to buy such oil. They also had to pay a fee to join his cult.
Dimas then diversified into the “money doubling” scam, telling people he could increase their money by up to 1,000-fold if they entrusted it to him. It was classic Ponzi stuff – money handed over by new followers was used to double the money of earlier followers. Dressed in black or white robes with concealed pockets stuffed with money, he would perch on a throne, put his hands behind his back, extract wads of banknotes and throw them on the floor. People saw this as proof of his great Islamic and Javanese mystical powers.
As his wealth grew, Dimas expanded his institution’s compound and campground to seven hectares. He built himself a palatial residence, some mosques and dormitories for his disciples. His siblings say he was not inclined to share his riches and he rarely visited them.
Over the years, he took two more wives. In 2012, his institution was registered by a decree issued by the minister of justice and human rights. His dream of becoming a king came true in early 2016 when the Indonesian Association Kingdoms and Sultanates bestowed upon him the title “His Majesty Sri Raja Prabu Rajasanagara”.
To maintain a facade of piety, he would donate money to widows, orphans and the poor on Islamic holidays. On Thursday nights, his mosques would provide alms to the poor.
Dimas had about 26,000 followers from various provinces and is reported to have accumulated net personal wealth of anywhere from Rp.500 billion to Rp.1 trillion (US$38 million to US$77 million). Some of his followers were given counterfeit money and fake gold in exchange for their real money. Others received ornately carved boxes, which were padlocked and had to be kept shut for months or years.
One of the men who recruited new followers was Ismail Hidayah, a former labour supplier and garment trader. He started working for Dimas in 2010, collecting money from the gullible. He also persuaded adherents to hand over any valuable amulets, such keris daggers and rings, which were then sold to collectors.
Depending on whom you believe, Ismail either embezzled some of the cash for himself, or he grew concerned over the unstable Ponzi scheme and urged Dimas to repay people’s money. After becoming openly critical of the institution’s treatment of its followers, he was abducted outside his shop-house in early February 2015. His body was later discovered in a forest outside Probolinggo and was identified only a few months ago.
Abdul Gani, who served as chairman of the foundation, was also reported to have been troubled by the money doubling scam. On the evening of April 11, 2016, he was lured to a meeting at the compound on the pretext of receiving a payment of Rp.130 million (US$10,000). He was met by the compound’s security men – including active and retired military officers.
One bashed him on the back of the head, while another strangled him with a rope and a third gaffer-taped a blue plastic bag over his head. He was then stripped naked and bent into a plastic storage crate, which was dumped in a reservoir near Wonogiri town. His body was found a day later by a fisherman.
Police have arrested most of Abdul’s alleged assailants, who claimed that Dimas ordered the killing and paid them a total of Rp.320 million (US$24,000) for the hit.
Dimas was arrested on suspicion of murder on September 22 after about 600 police and soldiers raided his compound. He also faces charges of financial fraud and money laundering.
It soon emerged that plenty of high-profile people had been taken in by his scam. Among them was politician Marwah Daud Ibrahim of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), who is chairwoman of the sect. She is also an advisory board member of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association and was until September a member of the Indonesian Ulemas Council, the nation’s top Islamic authority. She remains convinced that Dimas is innocent.
Dimas had sought to augment his credibility by displaying banners and photos of himself with state dignitaries, such as President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, Vice President Jusuf Kalla and Indonesian Military commander General Gatot Nurmantyo.
Cabinet Secretary Pramono Agung denied rumours that Dimas had performed the money-doubling trick for Jokowi or been part of his campaign for the 2014 presidential election. He said the photo with Jokowi could be genuine because the president “will accept anyone” who visits the State Palace. Likewise, the military chief said he is also often photographed with strangers.
When Jokowi came to power two years ago, he called for a mental revolution to make Indonesia a smarter, better country. Yet scammers still thrive because people are not being taught that mystical magic is just trickery.
Worryingly, some recent media reports declared that Dimas really does have the power to create money. A report by Berita Satu claimed that Dimas in early October proved his powers to police by producing ten Rp.50,000 notes and two Rp.100,000 notes from behind his back while wearing only prison clothing.
Until the media and all politicians and all religious leaders come out and denounce those who use magic tricks as proof of mystical powers, Indonesia can expect such scams to continue.