Wrongful Death Verdict Puts Hard Questions to Psychedelic Community

June 5, 2024

We understand you want healing, but you can’t lie to us,” said Christopher Young, founder and owner of the Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth retreat and wellness center. “If you lie, you die.”

Young’s remarks, aired in the Netflix documentary series (Un)Well in August 2020, came after the death of Brandon Begley at his center in Orlando, Florida.

Begley, a 22-year-old Florida native, keen skateboarder and guitar player, fell ill at Soul Quest on April 1, 2018. He suffered convulsions on the ground, which caused cuts, and a prolonged seizure. His sodium levels had dropped after he drank a large quantity of water following a ceremony with kambo, a frog secretion with detoxifying effects. He had previously undergone three ceremonies over two days with ayahuasca, a vision-inducing psychedelic drink, brewed from Amazonian plants which contain DMT.

“Everyone here knew that there was nothing we did wrong,” Young claimed in the documentary. “We found out, shortly thereafter, he had a history of seizures.”

But Begley’s family wasn’t prepared to accept this, maintaining that Begley was healthy before going to Soul Quest. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit in March 2020.

On May 15, 2024, a jury at the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Orange County, Florida, found that negligence from Soul Quest and Young was “a legal cause” of Begley’s death. The organization and Young were ordered to pay a total of $15 million to Begley’s family, in a verdict which assigned 40 percent liability to Soul Quest and 60 percent to Young.

“Young failed to appreciate the obvious and ominous gravity” of Begley’s symptoms, despite his eventual request for an ambulance, William M. Chapman Esq., the Begley family lawyer, said in his initial summary. The court reviewed the autopsy and 911 records, and heard from forensic experts and researchers.

“Justice has spoken. Nobody should trust their lives with these people. Brandon was all about love.”

The damning verdict has rippled through the psychedelic community, heightening focus on implications of the mainstreaming of plant medicines. Ayahuasca and kambo have long histories of use among Indigenous peoples, and a growing list of potential benefits, but are not without their risks.

Begley, who was working as a pizza delivery driver and a golf caddy, was attending his second Soul Quest ayahuasca retreat, for which he’d paid $500. “He thought it was going to be a good thing for him and for it to end up like [this] has been completely devastating,” his father, John Paul Begley, said following his death.

The family argued it should have been clear to staff that Begley’s condition was deteriorating and that he needed medical help—and that Soul Quest’s failure to obtain timely emergency medical care was critical.

“When you see your son in a hospital bed with tubes and wires, and cuts and scrapes all over his body and his face, after going to a church, I had to get down to the facts of what really happened,” John Paul Begley told Filter. “And now, justice has spoken. Nobody should trust their lives with these people. Brandon was all about love.”

He added that he has not received a single condolence from Young. “He still has never apologized to me and been like, ‘All this was so awful. I wish there was something we could have done, but we really tried to help.’ There has been none of that. Every look that was given to me in the courtroom was with disgust.”

Prior to the week-long court case in May, it was established that Begley did not have a history of seizures. He was prescribed the anti-seizure medication levetiracetam for the first time when he was in the hospital after the events at Soul Quest.

“So you were basing your whole conclusion on Brandon lying to you about his medical history on the presence of one medication noted in the autopsy report that was conducted after Brandon died?” Chapman asked Young during depositions in 2022.

“That’s what I base my theory on, yes, because I have nothing else to base it on because I don’t have his true medical report,” Young replied. “When I read in the autopsy report that he had seizure medication, I am led to believe that he had a history of seizures.” (Psychedelics experts recommend that people with epilepsy, among other conditions, should not take ayahuasca.)

“There’s no competent evidence of a prior medical condition or prior medication that [Begley] failed to disclose,” Circuit Judge Eric Netcher wrote in a 2022 partial summary judgment. Soul Quest and Young’s defense failed “to create a genuine dispute of material fact,” he added. Soul Quest and Young did not respond to Filter’s request for comment on this point.

In his deposition, Young acknowledged that he had initially deemed Begley was suffering from a spiritual rather than medical issue.

Central to the negligence ruling was the fact that Young waited three hours after Begley was first found unwell before calling 911.

Young told the court during the deposition he was aware that overconsumption of water following the kambo ritual “could result in lethal complications.” Begley drank too much water after the noon ceremony, Young said. Therefore, he instructed him to stay another night at the center.

By 5 pm, Begley was lying on his side, unresponsive. Staff alerted Young, the only person at Soul Quest with any kind of medical training. Begley was carried out from the retreat center to the backyard, so that the Soul Quest shaman and musician could “ground” him on the grass. Those efforts were unsuccessful, as were attempts to use spiritual tools. The shaman performed reiki, a complementary therapy for stress reduction, the court heard, in an attempt to remove energy from Begley’s head, while praying and singing.

The staff also made him a sugar water tea and administered it from a honey-squeeze bottle, but his condition only worsened. The musician and the shaman both invoked their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination and refused to give evidence in court.

In his deposition, Young acknowledged that he had initially deemed Begley was suffering from a spiritual rather than medical issue, “as many times I’ve seen many, many, many of our members go through very similar situations.”

Since 5 pm, according to Chapman, Begley had been flitting between “lethargy, screaming, yelling and unresponsiveness,” symptoms of severe hyponatremia.

Around 8 pm, Begley suffered a prolonged seizure. Photographs viewed in court showed his convulsions had caused him to tear skin from his arms and face. Begley was given chest compressions by Soul Quest staff.

Young requested emergency medical assistance following the seizure. “We want to take him to the hospital, but currently right now it might just be best for you guys to come here instead of us taking him,” Young told responders in a recorded 911 call. “He’s unresponsive.”

Paramedics soon arrived and Begley was admitted to the hospital comatose, with critically low sodium and potassium levels. He died on April 4, from complications of acute hyponatremia, including anoxic brain injury.

“Soul Quest Church and Christopher Young are deeply disappointed with the outcome … At the end of the day, the Church and Mr. Young believe their interests will be fully vindicated.”

Soul Quest’s defense is understood to have claimed that Begley continued to drink water despite being warned not to overdrink; that he had signed a liability waiver; and that an incident three years prior, in which police attended Begley’s address while he was under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms, suggested he was not fit to take psychedelics.

“You will be advised by me to drink 2-liters of water about 10-20 minutes before I place the kambo on,” says Soul Quest’s kambo manual, which was filed to the court. “It is STRONGLY ADVISED that you do not drink more than 5 liters of water during your treatment, including 2 hours before and after.”

Chapman argued that the three ayahuasca sessions, the absence of breakfast on April 1, and “the recommendation of large water intake prior to the Kambo, and then the Kambo session was, as Mr. Young’s and Soul Quest’s retained nephrology expert, Dr. Steven Bialkin, [said], the ‘perfect storm of disaster’ in terms of severe, acute hyponatremia.” He also questioned the possibility that people could drink as much as 5 liters of water with Soul Quest’s blessing.

“Soul Quest Church and Christopher Young are deeply disappointed with the outcome of the recent trial, as the evidence outlined a clear lack of any fault,” a representative of the center told Filter. “All remaining legal options are being explored, in the hopes of reversing this unjust result. At the end of the day, the Church and Mr. Young believe that their interests will be fully vindicated.”

Some experts see Begley’s death and the subsequent legal battle as symptoms of uncertain boundaries around psychedelic practices. Relatedly, there are differing visions within the psychedelic movement—from a deregulated, decriminalized environment embracing community-led and spiritual use, to a more highly regulated, perhaps medicalized, landscape.

“Amidst the euphoria of the psychedelic renaissance, we will sadly see more inadequate responses to emergencies, more heartbreaking deaths and inevitably more lawsuits in the future,” Daniela Peluso, an anthropologist at the University of Kent, England, who has conducted long-term research on ayahuasca tourism and businesses, told Filter.

“The arena of psychedelics is abundant with well-intended individuals who are not experienced with running a professional organization or practicing foresight thinking,” Dr. Peluso continued. “They tend to be a very limited type of visionary.”

“If the psychedelic community is not able to regulate bottom-up, most likely there will be top-down controls. We need to have a balance.”

“This is incredibly sad for the family and I send them my solidarity,” Bia Labate, founder of the Chacruna Institute, a leading psychedelics organization, told Filter of Begley’s death. “It’s also very sad for those of us who have been advocating for responsible use of sacred plants for a lifetime.”

“There are hundreds of communities engaged in regular ceremonies bringing healing to thousands of people, without a track record of accidents,” she added, noting that kambo is often used in combination with ayahuasca in Indigenous practice.

Kambo has been associated with a small, unspecified number of deaths, while there have been 58 deaths “linked to” ayahuasca, according to a report from the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service; however, “not a single autopsy has attributed the fatalities to acute ayahuasca intoxication,” and “the majority of deaths could have been prevented if the experiences had adhered to the minimum safety standards.”

“If the psychedelic community is not able to regulate bottom-up, most likely there will be top-down controls,” Dr. Labate warned. “We need to have a balance between official regulations and community agreements.”

Pre-trial proceedings had earlier painted a troubling portrait of life at Soul Quest, which formed in 2015. There was conflict among its leaders, and Young was accused of assaulting and threatening board member Dr. Scott Irwin.

According to a police statement given by Irwin to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office on May 20, 2017, and reviewed by Filter: “Chris Young attacked me. Hitting me on the left side of the head with his fist while I had a three-year-old girl on my shoulders at a birthday party. He threatened to kill me. Tried to attack me again and crowd held him back.”

Young admitted to the court that some Soul Quest facilitators had undergone no formal training, though they had to complete a year of volunteer service with existing teams.

Soul Quest has also faced criticism for the large size of ceremonies reportedly conducted in a giant yurt in its suburban yard, and for other adverse events. Kevin Rupchand said that in 2017 he had a seizure and was not given suitable medical care, in a case that was settled out of court. Another woman, featured in the Netflix show, was hospitalized after having a seizure on camera during an ayahuasca ceremony.

In 2023, the Drug Enforcement Administration cited Begley’s death and participants’ hospitalizations when it refused to grant Soul Quest an exemption to the Controlled Substances Act for religious use of ayahuasca.

“A participant in a September 26, 2020 ayahuasca ‘Warrior Quest’ retreat also recently reported to DEA that, after she began experiencing adverse effects from an unknown substance also administered to her during an ayahuasca ceremony, Soul Quest staff members delayed calling 911,” an official wrote to Soul Quest. “She also alleged that hospital emergency room personnel had told her that Soul Quest staff members had repeatedly dropped off customers experiencing adverse reactions.”

Psychedelics advocates may draw differing conclusions from these events, as debates on regulation and self-regulation continue.

In court, people associated with Soul Quest undermined its claim that it is a religious organization which follows “The Ayahuasca Manifesto.”

“It’s scary that they are the easiest USA retreat to find online because that means all the newbies who don’t know any better find them first,” one Reddit user recently wrote. Soul Quest’s popularity has likely sustained itself by funding online visibility. The center has held retreats with up to 100 people, each paying hundreds of dollars, roughly every other week for a number of years.

The center’s wealth is unknown, however, and Chapman believes he will have to fight to secure the awarded funds. Soul Quest and Young have until July 1 to appeal to the Sixth District Court of Appeal.

Psychedelics advocates may draw differing conclusions from these events, as debates on regulation and self-regulation continue. They will agree that a rare example of a psychedelic-involved death, in very specific circumstances, should not be taken out of context. The Begley family’s grief, and their anger that medical help was not sought sooner, should be comprehensible to all.

 


 

Photograph of Brandon Begley courtesy of the Begley family

Mattha Busby

Mattha is a freelance journalist and author who covers drug policy, health and life. He has interviewed the family of Mexican mushroom healer Maria Sabina, biohackers injecting stem cells into their bodies, politicians in the village that banned Coca-Cola, and people who spend time in prolonged darkness meditations. He is based in Vancouver, Canada.

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