9 Investigates

No charges after death investigation at ayahuasca church

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The Orange County Sheriff’s Office has officially closed its death investigation, without making any arrests, following the death of a young man who attended a local ayahuasca retreat at the Soul Quest Church.

Investigative reporter Karla Ray has been covering issues at the Soul Quest Church for more than two years, after learning the church was running without any exemptions from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Ayahuasca tea usually contains DMT, which is considered a Schedule 1 drug.

The finalized death investigation shows that church members tried on their own to help the man for approximately three hours before finally calling for help.  When the young man was picked up by medics, he was unresponsive, and he died in the hospital.

At least an hour of that time was spent making what’s described in the report as ‘sugar water’ tea.

Before coming to the Soul Quest retreat on Easter weekend, paperwork shows the 22-year-old south Florida man had tried the hallucinogenic tea at least five times before with no difficult experiences.

Notes given to investigators by church owner Christopher Young show that the man who later died began to act erratically at around 5 p.m. on Easter Sunday, and was taken outside and held on the ground as he was moving his hands, legs and arms violently; causing burns and bruises from the grass and ground.

The report notes a "shaman directed he be given a Panela tea made of sugar water."  It took 30 to 45 minutes to get the items needed for the tea, and another 30 minutes to make it.  After all that time, once the tea was given, the man went into a seizure.  Only then was 911 called.

“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.  He's unresponsive,” Young told dispatchers during the 911 call.

Since the death, Soul Quest has continued its weekend retreats.  The church’s website notes an increased price to attend a weekend retreat, at $600 per person.

When reached by phone, neither Young nor his attorney would speak on the record about the death, or the facility’s status with the DEA.

Orange County’s investigation shows that the DEA advised that Soul Quest has not obtained a religious exemption allowing for the use of DMT.  However, Young told 9 Investigates during a 2017 interview that by only using the ayahuasca vine, and not the leaves, he wasn’t producing the illegal drug.  So far, no investigations have proved otherwise.

“I wouldn't say it's a loophole.  I'd say we're using ayahuasca, vine-only.  Legally,” Young said in 2017.

The father of the 22-year-old who died has hired an attorney, and is exploring his options to go after Soul Quest civilly.  Records show each person who attended the church retreat signed a liability waiver.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.