Teen’s quest for Amazon ‘medicine’ ends in tragedy

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(CNN) — Americans are flocking to the jungles of Peru to try something called ayahuasca, a potion that is believed to change lives.


Kyle Nolan did his research — his mother made sure of that. She didn’t want her 18-year-old son heading to the Amazon jungle at all — let alone, without learning everything he could about the supposed “medicine” with the bizarre name that he insisted would help him turn his young life around.

“I really tried to discourage him … I kept telling him over and over, there are no easy answers in life,” Ingeborg Oswald said.

But she knew she couldn’t stop him.

Overshadowed by his “overachieving” triplet brother and sister, Oswald said Kyle “was going through this teenage crisis, not knowing what he wanted to do with his life.”

He had dropped out of junior college and was living with his mother, when he somehow discovered ayahuasca, (pronounced “eye-uh-WAHS-kuh”) a psychedelic brew that some believe can help users achieve a higher state of consciousness.

“He went online and started reading all these positive things about ayahuasca, which is something I had never heard of before,” Oswald said. “Apparently there’s a huge, positive movement toward ayahuasca. And he thought that that would help him maybe discover who he was.”

His research led him to the Shimbre Shamanic Center in a remote corner of the Peruvian Amazon region. Oswald said the center’s website made its ayahuasca experience “sound very individualized.”

It wasn’t cheap: Kyle paid more than $2,000 in cash to take part in the ritual.

Despite the promises of the center’s website, a very different experience awaited Kyle Nolan in Peru.

A death, then a cover-up

Kyle arrived in Peru in August 2012, a rare overseas excursion for a young man who was more of a homebody than a world traveler. He journeyed deep into Peru’s Amazon with hopes of experiencing a spiritual transformation.

On the third night of Kyle’s ayahuasca session, he never returned from his hut. Days later, when he didn’t arrive home, Oswald called the Shimbre Shamanic Center and spoke to an interpreter for Shaman Mancoluto, who led the center’s ayahuasca sessions.

“He told me, ‘Oh well (Kyle) just decided he wanted to leave, he took off down the road, and he’s left,'” Oswald said. “And I said, ‘I don’t believe you. My son would never ever do that.'”

So she and her daughter flew down to Peru to help local police search for Kyle. For three to four days, they searched hospitals and bars and talked to taxi drivers, asking if anyone had seen Kyle.

“No one ever saw him,” Oswald said.

So Oswald and her daughter returned home to northern California while the Peruvian police continued their investigation. About a week later, Oswald said she learned from her contact with the Shimbre center that the shaman admitted to police that he had lied about Kyle leaving the center.

They had “found him dead outside, under a bush,” Oswald said. They “panicked and covered him up, and told everyone that he wasn’t feeling well, that he was in his cabin.”

The shaman told authorities that he and two other men had buried Kyle’s body, according to Oswald and Peruvian newspaper El Comercio.

“They said they put him in a wheelbarrow, took him about a mile down the road, dug a pit, buried him, and burned all his belongings,” Oswald said.

She returned to Peru where she had to identify her son’s body. An autopsy in Peru was inconclusive.

The shaman, whose real name is Jose Piñeda, and the two other men were arrested. Piñeda was eventually convicted of homicide and lying to authorities, and sentenced to five years in prison, according to local Peruvian media.

Kyle’s body was eventually brought back to California where Oswald said another autopsy also came up inconclusive, and he was cremated.

According to El Comercio, the shaman told police that Kyle Nolan took too much ayahuasca.

There’s no conclusive evidence of what killed Kyle, Oswald said. “The only thing there is possibly out there is maybe the toxicology (results), but I can’t get that unless I go back to Peru.”

An unregulated drug

It’s still unclear how ayahuasca can kill someone. Very little is known about ayahuasca and its effects and many shamanic centers, including the Shimbre Shamanic Center, require participants to cleanse their bodies for several months before taking ayahuasca — a regiment that Oswald said her son followed very closely.

Ethnobotanical organizations are trying to raise money to study ayahuasca and its medicinal qualities, as well as create a health guide for tourists interested in traveling to shamanic centers in the Amazon.

There’s a growing concern that as more Western tourists head to the Amazon looking for a psychedleic experience, more fly-by-night “shamans” will pop up looking to cash in on the boom. There have been other reported deaths, as well as reports of physical and sexual assaults.

Oswald admits she still struggles with grief and agreed to talk to CNN about her son’s death because she hopes it might help warn young people like her son who are seeking ayahuasca treatment in the Amazon.

“If you’re going to do this, you really really really need to research it and make sure wherever you find is properly supervised and there’s medical supervision there,” she said. “And maybe even staying in the United States if you need to do it.”

She remains suspicious about the whole ayahuasca tourism boom, saying “I just think it’s become a fad, maybe it’s like the LSD of the ’60s.”

But she said she would support some sort of regulation of the ayahuasca tourism industry if it ensured that participants would be monitored by medical professionals.

“I definitely think it needs to be monitored somehow. It’s a hallucinogenic drug. … They call it a medicine, but it is a hallucinogenic drug,” she said. “Obviously there’s side effects to everything. Anyone can have an adverse reaction to something. You don’t leave someone alone with a hallucinogenic drug (in their system).”

Oswald says she’ll probably return to Peru one day when she’s ready. She is not considering any further legal action because, as she said, “I can’t put myself in that position to continue hating someone.”

“I just have to try to get this behind me. I can’t continue to hate the shaman. … I can’t let him ruin my life any more than he already has,” she said. “I need to get beyond it.”

CNN’s Maria Elena Belaunde in Lima, Peru contributed to this report.


  • Mr. Gart

    Why is this story back in the news? I also saw this on CNN. It happened two years ago. Are the media so desperate to find negative stories about ayahuasca that they just choose to rerun them?

    As tragic as the incident surrounding Kyle Nolan’s death was, it was just that; an incident. Every year, tens of thousands of people come to Peru in search of physical, mental en spiritual healing and growth, and many find just that.

    I live in Iquitos, Peru, and I have had to opportunity to help organize and take part in many ayahuasca ceremonies. No one who has ever drunk ayahuasca in the right environment, with a genuine shaman, has ever died from it. There are many people here working day and night to ensure that incidents like this one don’t happen. There are many good places with trustworthy people, whose main goal is to help others heal. People with youth trauma’s, depression, PTSD, victims of sexual and physical abuse, war veterans, people with dibilitating physical illnesses; many have come here for help and have found it.

    Report on that for a change and stop turning ayahuasca into a freak show. Stop scaring people.

  • Seti Gershberg

    The death of Kyle Nolan is a tragedy and my heart goes out to his family.

    That being said there are some major inaccuracies in parts of this report and the editor of the article should be taken to task for the poor journalism.

    First, the article states that “It’s still unclear how ayahuasca can kill someone.” This conclusion is not accurate. Ayahuasca has been used safely for millennia in the Amazon amongst the natives in pre-columbian times and by the indigenous peoples and mestizos since then. In the late 1990’s westerners have been going into the jungle to drink the brew in every increasing numbers and it is only in the past five years that there have been reports of death and they have been few. In most cases the deaths were not related to the beverage ayahuasca, but to other factors. It is known within the ethnobotanical community of academics and other branches of science that ayahuasca itself is not only safe to use, has no known side effects and actually has benefits for the physical body. it adds serotonin to the brain and it cleans and detoxifies the body’s organs. It also kills parasites.

    Second, the article states: “Very little is known about ayahuasca and its effects” This conclusion is not accurate. There are many studies that have been conducted with ayahuasca and there are tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of personal accounts regarding the experience and its effects. Just Google ayahuasca and read some of the thousands of articles, personal accounts and video testimonials found on the web.

    Third “many shamanic centers, including the Shimbre Shamanic Center, require participants to cleanse their bodies for several months before taking ayahuasca” It is true there is a special diet that is encouraged. Basically the diet is to eat bland foods and avoid salts, sugars and spice foods as well as processed foods or foods with chemicals. Typically it is a week of dieting that is encouraged, but many people simply diet for one day.

    Fourth, “Ethnobotanical organizations are trying to raise money to study ayahuasca and its medicinal qualities, as well as create a health guide for tourists interested in traveling to shamanic centers in the Amazon.” The organization is the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council http://www.ethnobotanicalcouncil.org/ and they are raising money for the health guide and the sustainability and fair trade of ayahausca including the enriching of local communities, but they are not involved in the study of ayahuasca for it’s medicinal properties.

    Fifth, “There’s a growing concern that as more Western tourists head to the Amazon looking for a psychedlic experience, more fly-by-night “shamans” will pop up looking to cash in on the boom. There have been other reported deaths, as well as reports of physical and sexual assaults.” This is partially true. There are fake shaman and one needs to be careful before working with anyone. So do your research. And there have been some sexual assaults, so women should always travel in groups and only work with shaman that have a good reputation. However, the number of assaults are low as are the deaths. In Huntsville in 2012 there were 14 murders and 72 rapes per 100,000 people. Compare that to the several reported deaths in the Amazon over the last 5 years that are associated with ayahausca, a far far lower statistic. Reported rapes are also significantly lower.

    Ayahausca is a medicine with great potential to help many people overcome psychological disorders and treat addiction and alcoholism, there are other benefits as well, one only needs to look.

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