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Business operating as church ordered to pay $15M to family of man who died after ayahuasca retreat

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — A judge has ordered an Orange County business operating as a church and its owner to pay $15 million to the family of a young man who died following a retreat there.

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Investigative reporter Karla Ray first reported on the Soul Quest Church of the Mother Earth and its unsanctioned Ayahuasca ceremonies back in 2016, and now the victim’s family hopes this judgment will put the organization out of business for good.

Ayahuasca contains DMT, a psychedelic compound that the Drug Enforcement Administration considers a schedule one illegal drug. Despite an ongoing legal battle with the DEA, and this latest judgement ordering the church and its owner to pay out a combined $15 million to the family of a young man who died there, they continue to host retreats and make money.

Brandon Begley was a healthy 22-year-old when he traveled from South Florida to Orange County for an Easter weekend Ayahuasca retreat at the Soul Quest Church back in 2018. He never made it home.

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Law enforcement records show in the middle of a purge caused by the hallucinogenic tea, and a separate substance called kambo, which is made from the poisonous venom of a tree frog, the young man drank too much water. This caused his sodium levels to plummet and forced him into a seizure. Records show the church owner, Christopher Young, waited hours to call 911 for help.

Now, a judge has ordered Young and his church to pay a combined $15 million after a jury sided with Begley’s father in a wrongful death negligence lawsuit.

“This is justification and vindication that our system does work, and justice is real, and faith is real, and karma is real,” John Paul ‘JP’ Begley said.

Read: ‘Completely devastating’: Family of man who died after hallucinogenic tea ceremony at Orange County church files lawsuit

Despite the death and ongoing battle with the DEA over whether they have religious freedom to even offer the illegal substances they advertise, the church is host to retreats almost every week, charging between $800 and nearly $1400 to attend.

“I wasn’t fighting to put money in my pocket,” JP Begley said. “I was fighting to shut that place down, and to bankrupt these people. And that’s what we set out to do, that’s what I feel like this verdict is going to end up doing.”

The church is vowing to fight, saying in a statement through attorneys that “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. 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 vindicated.”

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Begley believes the jury and judge got this one right.

“Brandon’s legacy will be to love one another. He was going there for help, he was going for love, he wanted to get better and to help people,” Begley said.

Young and Soul Quest have been ordered to disclose their debts and assets as part of the judgment. According to their website, they have an Ayahuasca retreat scheduled for next weekend and several beyond that.

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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.

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