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A story of drugs, darkness and death in the Amazon

ayahuasca2

Late last year, 26-year-old British man Unais Gomes was killed in a Peruvian ayahuasca retreat – still nobody really knows why

“Unais was a good man. We spoke for four or five hours a day about philosophy, health and world politics. I thought we would be lifelong friends. But that night, all I could sense from him was evil. His eyes had an empty rage. He was possessed.”

On Wednesday, December 16, Joshua Stevens, 29, a Canadian from Winnipeg who has been experimenting with psychedelic plants for the last eight years, stabbed to death Unais Gomes, 26, a Cambridge-educated British engineer, in the Peruvian jungle city of Iquitos. He pierced him once in the stomach and once in the heart. Toxicology results now show that only one of them had consumed ayahuasca – Gomes.

Ayahuasca is a plant brew with psychedelic qualities, traditionally consumed by tribesmen for medicine and religious aid, and increasingly, luring Westerners into the Amazon.

As Stevens and other witnesses attest, he and Gomes had met two weeks earlier and fostered a close friendship while at the Phoenix Ayahuasca Retreat, near the Peruvian jungle city of Iquitos.

Sitting in a muggy hotel room, we spoke to Stevens – granted parole by local police – a day after the killing, after two witnesses corroborated his version of self-defence.

The following report is based on the graphic account offered by Joshua Stevens; two key eyewitnesses, Leo Jimenez and Paulino Shapiama, workers at the Phoenix lodge who say they fought with Gomes when he was out of control that night; the co-owner of the Phoenix Ayahuasca retreat, Mark Thornberry, who met both men; master shaman Javier Arevalo; and Unais Gomes’ girlfriend.

We were able to get a hold of a 114-page police report with toxicology results, additional interviews and an order for Stevens’ release.

Stevens is now back home in Canada and still struggles to cope with the ordeal, yet he remains convinced that one day the truth will prevail. He still calls Gomes his brother. But while the prosecutors dropped homicide charges against him, Gomes’ family in London are preparing to reopen the case in the hope of convicting Stevens back in Peru  – or if that fails  –  in Canada.

According to Iquitos chief prosecutor Disney Zamora, Gomes was the sixth foreigner to die in Peru in 2015 associated with alternative medicines. Last September, 24-year-old New Zealander Matthew Dawson-Clarke died due to an adverse reaction to a tobacco purge and witnesses at the Kapitari Lodge near Iquitos say he “screamed louder than they’d heard a human scream.”

The “discovery” of ayahuasca and other psychedelic plants has spurred thousands of westerners on a pilgrimage to the Amazon seeking transformational or mystical experiences, sparking a boom in the jungle with over 30 retreats operating in and around Iquitos; a sort of psychedelic mecca where ancient indigenous principles have been repackaged into spiritual rehab tours. So rare is the lineage of true medicine men that retreats often employ untrained or jaded shamen more interested in cash than healing.

The benefits of the teacher plant ayahuasca are undeniable and unprecedented , said to have brought cures to Iraq war veterans with PTSD, drug addicts, depressives and providing a respite from all sorts of other psycho-emotional issues. For the indigenous people of the Amazon, ayahuasca is a sacred brew that calls on spirits to clean and heal the human body that, once invited in, purge toxic dark energies or “demons”, usually through vomiting. It opens us up to unimaginable realms, an all consuming Russian roulette that not all are prepared for , as may have been the case for Unais Gomes.

“I ran away from the retreat. Bad experience. Crazy here. I don’t like it. It’s just the place I went to doesn’t feel right. I’m going to the mountains”

Gomes was supposedly screened by the Phoenix Ayahuasca Retreat for mental and physical stability prior to his arrival through a standardised questionnaire, which attempts to weed out clients on antidepressants; a deadly combination when mixed with ayahuasca.

Gomes, according to co-owner Mark Thornberry, had been to Peru before on a similar ayahuasca retreat and this time paid $1200 for a ten day intensive plant medicine package, which would include: five ayahuasca sessions; one San Pedro session, (cactus containing mescaline); and one toxic frog poison skin purge known as Sapo or Kambo. Gomes, so Thornberry recounts, had also asked to work with the plant Oje, to treat for parasites and candida, a type of fungus that lives in the intestines.

Gomes’ recent girlfriend told me via email that he had gone to Peru to reconnect with nature   and also with himself. He was nervous about the prospect of launching a clean technology venture in California, having left a comfortable life working in finance in London.

“It was stressful for him to start everything from zero,” she says. “Meditation was his way of relaxing. Unais was never into alcohol, smoking or drugs. He was super healthy. There was absolutely no dark side in all this. He was the sweetest man on Earth.”

Four days before his death, Gomes texted her:

“I ran away from the retreat. Bad experience. Crazy here. I don’t like it. It’s just the place I went to doesn’t feel right. I’m going to the mountains.”

Gomes had also spoken to the owner, Thornberry, a 53-year-old reformed heroin addict, telling him he would cut his visit short. Gomes told him he had been given a warning while on San Pedro.

Thornberry recalls Gomes telling him, “I shouldn’t be here. My guardian spirit is not comfortable me being here.”

Joshua Stevens says that he, Gomes and others, including three other foreigners who have asked not to be named, sensed an inexplicably nasty vibe lurking over the lodge.

A day later, Gomes, now in Lima, was contacted by Joshua Stevens, who told Gomes that a powerful shaman, Javier Arevalo, had come to “clean the place up” and that he should return to continue his treatment. Gomes contacted his girlfriend immediately, telling her he had changed his mind, according to a text she shared.

Going back to that place. Now they have called an amazing shaman to clean up that place. So tomorrow flying back to the jungle :)”

It was the last communication Christelle ever received from Gomes.

Javier Arevalo, the master shaman, says he had sensed a bad omen at the retreat and gave Thornberry a list of ritualistic cleansing plants to buy. It was a task left unfulfilled, as the owner was rushed to hospital with pneumonia on the day of the killing.

That day, Leo Jimenez, 38, prepared the hut in preparation for the evening’s session. Shaman Arevalo says he began making his way back from the city center only to be impeded by a blocked highway, unable to reach the lodge, so leaving Celia  –  an indigenous Shipibo woman serving as in-house shaman  –  in charge of the ceremony.

The Ayahuasca ceremony began at 7:30pm with six people present: four English-speaking foreigners including Gomes, and Celia as shaman and her helper Leo Jimenez. Stevens came and collected his full dose and went to his room where he would wait until 9pm to begin his own private session, he recalled.

There are conflicting statements as to how much Unais Gomes drank. Leo says Gomes took half a cup’s worth,  while Stevens, based on what one of the other foreigners told him, says Gomes had asked for a double dose, a full cup.

Half an hour later, with the ceremony in full swing, the psychedelic properties began taking hold. Celia sang her healing mantras, or icaros. As various interviews testify, Gomes stood up from his corner, abandoned his mattress and purging bucket and walked out of the ceremony hut, towards the dark, past the toilets.

The whole grounds were consumed by darkness and the sounds of the jungle. Cut off from the ceremony hut, on the opposite side of a natural pool, Stevens was alone in his dorm, when he heard, he said, someone shouting at the top of their lungs.

“Yahweh, Yahweh, it’s time to get your demons out Brother. We’re going to get them out together.”

Stevens recounts being shaken and collecting his torch to see what was up. It was Gomes.

“What’s wrong brother?” Stevens says he asked.

But Stevens says Gomes wasn’t acting himself, and now directing his voice towards Stevens, “You are Yahweh, you are God, you are Yahweh.”

Unable to calm the situation, things began spiralling out of control. According to Stevens, Gomes forced himself onto the Canadian, grabbing him by the neck, slowly strangling him, while again repeating, “Brother you are Yahweh, it’s time for your demons to come out.”

“All that was going through my head was my daughter, fiancé and family. If this guy gets this knife, he’s going to kill one of us. That is when I made the decision. It was either kill or be killed”

Gomes then allegedly reached for Stevens’s hair, dragged and pinned him to the ground, reaching at first for his genitals and then placing a finger up his anus. “I tried fighting back,” Stevens recounts. “But it was like he had superhuman strength.”

Unable to subdue Gomes, Joshua began screaming for help, “Unais stop! Think! Think about your parents. Stop!” Leo, the shaman’s assistant, recalled hearing the screams from the other side of the pool. He rushed over to find the two men wrestling in the darkness. Gomes, Stevens says, was forcing his tongue into his mouth.

“Stop, I can’t breathe!” Stevens shouted. “Leo help, water, agua.”

Jiminez says he went to the kitchen to make a concoction of salt, lemon and sugar, in a bid to calm the effects of the ayahuasca gripping Gomes. But he claims that the Brit nonchalantly picked himself up, walked over, threw the drink to the floor, and proceeded to beat him up, too.

“He was too strong, he was like the devil,” says Jiminez. Stevens says he attempted to place Gomes in a chokehold but was brushed aside easily. It was then that he ran to the kitchen looking for a pan, thinking knocking Gomes unconscious the only solution. Gomes chased him in. It was dark; the only light a candle in the adjacent sitting room.

“I needed to find a weapon, he was overpowering both of us,” Stevens recalls. “He was on a rampage.”

Searching for a large pan, Stevens found a small pot. That’s when Gomes picked up a small knife, according to Stevens. “I hit him so hard on the head with the pot. But it didn’t even faze him, Stevens said. “He came at me swiping back with the knife.”

Somehow, according to Stevens, both the pot and the knife broke over the big table at the centre of the kitchen. Stevens says it was then that Gomes picked up a large kitchen knife.

“At this point I thought ‘this man is going to kill me,’” he told us. Gomes, Stevens claims, began pinning him down with the table. Stevens added that he was by now freaking and yelped, “Help! He’s trying to kill me, he’s trying to kill me!”

Jiminez finally intervened, this time assisted by Paulino Shapiama, a startled guard serving only his fourth day at the retreat. Both men testify to this moment of madness, with six hands held onto the knife, while Shapiama attempted to bend Gomes’ arm backwards.

The knife was released, Gomes wrestled himself free, and Joshua picked up the blade.

“All that was going through my head was my daughter, fiancé and family,” Stevens claims. “If this guy gets this knife, he’s going to kill one of us. That is when I made the decision. It was either kill or be killed.”

As to what happened next is still under some dispute. Shapiama recalls that the tussle led to the accidental fatal stabbing, but that he only saw the knife go in once. Jiminez says in his police statement that both he and Shapiama were trying to separate both men and the knife from their hands. Jiminez says Stevens took the knife from Gomes, raised the weapon in the air and stabbed the Brit twice, once in the stomach and then possibly somewhere else (that he only later confirmed was directly in the chest). Jiminez says Gomes moved slightly but then froze.

Stevens’ account is more descriptive.

“I stabbed him once in the stomach. I felt the knife go in. He still was coming after us, still throwing punches, still trying to rob the knife off me. I would have thought that would have stopped him. And then I stabbed him in the heart. He still threw two punches after I directly stabbed into the heart. Then he collapsed. And then I collapsed.”

Jiminez began screaming. Both he and Shapiama, owing to a language barrier, say they were unable to communicate with Stevens. They had to leave the premises to alert the police, up a long winding mud path, as the lodge has no mobile phone reception. Jiminez ran up the hill to the nearby village and called the police at 9:30pm.

The rest of the English-speaking ayahuasca drinkers, who have asked not to be named, believed, as their police statements claim, that there was a murderer on the loose. They abandoned the hut, tip-toeing themselves to a hiding place. Stevens was left alone with Gomes.

“I would intermittently get up and slap Unais’ face, asking him, ‘Unais, Unais why did you do this?’ I lay there for 45 minutes screaming for help. Nobody came.”

The toxicology tests confirm Stevens had not been under the influence of any drugs, nor ayahuasca.

Joshua Stevens was arrested and spent a night being questioned by the Iquitos police. He was given conditional freedom a day later and allowed to leave, owing to his cooperation and the two testimonies in his favour. It was at this moment that I met Joshua Stevens at the police station. He had no money, likely to have been stolen by the police. Looking bedraggled, he sought to clear his story, having heard that the local press was running with a sexed up version of events: that he had killed Gomes because he had visions of him having sex with his wife. (The Daily Mail later picked up this version of events.)

Sitting at his new hotel room, Stevens showed me his battle wounds; mostly wrestle marks, a bruise on his head and a few small gashes. He looked terrible.

“I didn’t murder him. It was self-defence. I’m a peaceful person. I have no violent history from my city. I am a vegetarian because I don’t like killing heartbeats. There was something really fucked that happened that night. His eyes were not his, it didn’t even look like him. I can’t fully explain what happened. But what I know is that ayahuasca has a lot of light power; it also opens the door to darkness. And if someone like Unais, who drank a full cup, who is very inexperienced and opens those doorways to darkness. Well he wasn’t ready for it. ”

Stevens claims Gomes took a double dose of ayahuasca  –  a claim that remains unverified.

“I don’t believe ayahuasca was the catalyst for this,” says Mark Thornberry, the retreat owner. “Something was going with those guys’ egos, quite frankly. I’m not in full liberty to tell you what exactly out of respect for Unais’ family.”

The police report failed to find any conflict between the two men. Stevens told me that he and Gomes spoke often about demons and parasites, and that he had come to the retreat to cure himself of parasites infecting his lungs, and of a rash causing him hair loss. Stevens had a theory that malevolent spirits, or demons, needed to materialize in the natural world in order to take a hold of one’s soul. The more parasites, fungus or disease in the body, the more of a choke the demon would have on one’s mind and soul. Neither Western nor Chinese medicine, he asserted, were able to cure his condition  –  only ayahuasca would find the root causes. For eight years, with over 400 experiences on ayahuasca and magic mushrooms, Stevens said he began expulsing all sorts of parasites while confronting his own dark recesses. It was a purge, he asserted, that even started subsiding homosexual thoughts that had hounded him for years.

Stevens said he entered a deeper understanding of the self while learning of his own healing capabilities. He had, he claimed, what is called a Kundalini awakening, where a lighting bolt shot up from lower spine to his skull. In line with his higher self; he claimed to be unlocking skills to heal. Ones he said he put to practice in Canada, allegedly curing two women of HIV; both of whom he insisted would vouch for him. Stevens claims he showed photographic and audio evidence to Gomes, who in turn, he added, was captivated by his assertions.

What could have caused Gomes to enter a state of psychosis?

Lima based psychoanalyst Dr. Eduardo Gastelumendi says that ayahuasca can bring insight but also powerfully unlock trauma.

“Something unleashed a psychotic state in Gomes; triggered either by the frequency or quantity of the ayahuasca; the relation between these two men; or possibly unknown elements. Not having a psychotic antecedent doesn’t guarantee that it doesn’t exist. Ayahuasqueros, or medicine men, would refer here to diabolical entities, but I don’t feel it necessary. In my judgment these are old fears that powerfully project themselves without the person being aware of them previously.”

We are left with speculation. Was this the emergence of deep-seated trauma? Did ayahuasca unleash a rift that had been brewing between the two men? Was there a form of what psychoanalysts call countertransference, where Stevens’ self-belief and theories disturbed Gomes’ subconscious? Or was it the dark looming energy that hung over the lodge?

Shaman Arevalo said that in his 26 years of practice he had never come across a case like this. He said Stevens had delusions of grandeur and saw, during the only ceremony they would take part in, a dark ominous energy that would not leave him in peace. 

Weeks later, with Stevens now back in Canada, he would confess to me via Facebook his theory regarding Gomes.

“Through what I showed Unais,” he wrote. “Through the pictures of parasites, audio recordings and me speaking with him. Unais was becoming conscious of the demon inside him. But the entity was smarter and more aware. And all its energy and focus was directed at me.”

What if we are to take the notion of possession seriously?

Dr. Jacques Mabit is a French doctor who, in his quest of encompassing Western medicine with ancient teachings founded an Ayahuasca center 23 years ago. From his own clinical experience he is a firm believer of what he calls “spiritual infestations”, and counters Western psychiatry’s denial of the existence of independently acting spirits – which all original cultures make reference to.

“Conventional psychology or psychiatry fails to respond to and is very limited in dealing with various mental health issues such as disassociation, addiction and personality disorders - using straightjackets and drugs instead of healing. Spiritual infestations prey on vulnerable people with psycho-emotional problems – often acting in reciprocating ways – generating mental illness symptoms. The consumption of psychoactive substances has been scientifically proven, using existing methods, to open the body of the subject energetically, making it "porous" to malevolent entities. In the case of Gomes we have a confluence of problems: previous emotional issues, incorrect ritual, lack of protection, guidance and inadequate accompaniment. All would indicate that Gomes was possessed.”

Dr. Mabit says the central problem with ayahuasca tourism today is its incapability of dealing with possessions.

My conversations with ethnobotanists and fellow ayahuasca enthusiasts have led me to believe that this death is a wake up call for the psychedelic spiritual centres (although temporarily closed the Phoenix Ayahuasca Retreat reopens next month), and for better health risk strategies to be enforced such as closing kitchens during ceremonies. How much has Ayahuascaland changed the original indigenous precepts and become just another trail in ‘exotic’ South America?

Perhaps we should we revise our Western view of ayahuasca as a tool for self-exploration and grant it the respect it deserves as a plant medicine. The challenge is for ayahuasca to remain sacred and not add to the general insanity of society that it so powerfully attempts to steer us away from.

Back in London, Unais Gomes’ family is struggling to come to terms with the Iquitos police verdict of self-defence, and Stevens’ subsequent release. They have appointed a solicitor and hope Stevens will appear in the reconstruction of the killing; a duty he has said he will fulfill. It remains to be seen if a bilateral extradition treaty between the two nations will be enforced and the curious case of the killing at the ayahuasca retreat reopened.