ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Two people believed to have witnessed everything leading up to a young man’s death at a local church are using the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions about it.
Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray first uncovered unsanctioned ayahuasca ceremonies at the Soul Quest Church in east Orange County six years ago, and exposed the death of Brandon Begley, 22, after he attended a retreat there in 2018. There is no open criminal case related to the man’s death.
The Fifth Amendment is most commonly used in criminal cases because it protects against self-incrimination, but in this case, witnesses are refusing to give testimony in a civil wrongful death lawsuit. Now, it’ll be up to a judge whether to force those former employees of Soul Quest to talk about what happened.
“It’s exceptionally rare in a civil case,” attorney William Chapman said. He’s representing Begley’s family in a negligence lawsuit against the church.
When Begley went into a seizure at an ayahuasca retreat on Easter weekend in 2018, 9 Investigates exposed a three-hour delay from when he first went into distress and when help was finally called.
Begley consumed a hallucinogenic ayahuasca tea and was given kambo, which is made from the poisonous secretions of tree frogs. An autopsy shows a dangerous drop in sodium levels following the overconsumption of water during the experience led to his death.
“In my 20 years of practice, I have never had a witness claim the Fifth Amendment in a civil case,” Chapman said. “Which, it really does raise the bar, because basically what the witness is telling you is that what took place, if they testify about it, they’re so worried, that it was so bad, that it may subject them to criminal charges.”
An ongoing, separate legal battle is underway between the church and the Drug Enforcement Administration, over whether the ayahuasca retreats are a protected religious freedom, but there is no criminal case related to Begley’s death.
His father wants answers.
“Within hours of me being around my son, and seeing him, it was clear that something happened here that is not normal,” John Paul Begley said.
The attorney representing Soul Quest owner Christopher Young wouldn’t comment on this case, and neither would the attorney retained by the two witnesses. Chapman is hoping a judge will grant a motion to compel testimony from those witnesses at a hearing scheduled in October.
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