‘Elder’ at spiritual retreat told not to send man affected by frog toxin to hospital, NSW inquest hears (2024)

A man who died after taking a co*cktail of alternative “medicines” at a spiritual retreat in northern New South Wales was not taken to hospital because the “energy workers” charged with his care failed to detect the fatal tear in his esophagus, a coroner has heard.

The inquest into the death of Jarrad Antonovich resumed in Byron Bay on Thursday, nine months after it was adjourned to gather more eyewitness accounts of the events of 16 October 2021. It was then that the 46-year-old died at a six-day retreat near Kyogle in the hours after he was administered a frog toxin known as “kambo” and ayahuasca – made from Amazonian plants – by self-styled “medicine” men.

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The inquest heard two lengthy, emotional accounts from the woman who acted as “a bit of a mother hen” after Antonovich participated in a kambo ceremony in the morning, and from a man who tried in vain to administer him CPR after he took ayahuasca that evening.

The first to take the witness box was Dominique Vollaers, a psychotherapist and “guardian” – as those who took care of participants at the Dreaming Arts festival were known.

Vollaers, a South African who has lived in Australia for several decades, did not pay to enter the festival, she told NSW state coroner Teresa O’Sullivan, as she was instead expected to provide services as an “elder”.

At the kambo ceremony on the morning of 16 October, Vollaers was following the ceremonial leader Cameron Kite up the line of participants to “work on their feet, work on their energy, grounding them”, she said.

After some time Vollaers noticed Antonovich was yet to throw up, as is common after the use of kambo, and appeared unwell – while others were “complete with their journey” and were leaving the ceremony.

Vollaers told the inquest she had filled Antonovich’s water bottle several times. Previous medical witnesses, as well as kambo practitioners, have told the inquest about the potential dangers of someone drinking too much water while taking kambo.

“I had no awareness that wasn’t a good thing that he was drinking lots of water,” Vollaers said.

“I thought that it was good that he was drinking.”

Vollaers said she then “tuned into” Antonovich – one of her “gifts” – without touching him, whereupon she “didn’t feel good with his lungs”.

Counsel assisting the crown, Dr Peggy Dwyer, would later read from the statement Vollaers gave to police last September in which she said she “must have touched” Vollaers as it was something she needed to do to tune into him, one of several inconsistencies between the statements.

“I’m sure I checked in, and I would have asked him: ‘is it OK that I touch your feet?’” Vollaers responded on being asked about the inconsistency.

Vollaers said she asked Antonovich whether he had asthma, to which he said yes. Kite, she said, did not know this.

“That disturbed me,” she said. “That no one knew that he had that, or he had not shared that. You always tell the practitioner any of your pre-existing conditions.”

Antonovich also had acquired brain injuries after a car crash in 1997 which his father, Glen, had previously told the inquest left his son “vulnerable”.

At some point that afternoon, as his condition continued to deteriorate, Vollaers said she began to think Antonovich ought to go to hospital – an idea, she said, that he forcefully rejected.

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Vollaers said she then approached an Indigenous man who conducted smoking ceremonies at the retreat, and told him she “did not feel good” about Antonovich’s situation.

“[He] turned around and looked at me and said: ‘No, no hospital’,” she said.

Vollaers said she deferred to the man, despite her misgivings, because she believed he was “au fait” with the world of energy and because Antonovich also felt Indigenous and she “assumed they were of the same culture, of the same land”.

Dwyer told Vollaers she was wrong about Antonovich being Indigenous, confirming it with Antonovich’s family who were in the public gallery.

‘Galling’: family of man who died after frog toxin ceremony criticise alleged comments of retreat organiser at NSW inquestRead more

Several hours later, “exhausted” after being with Antonovich all day, Vollaers entrusted his care to a “very, very beautiful Brazilian man” who came to sit with them by the “gonpa” – or temple – where the ceremonial leader of the festival Soulore “Lore” Solaris was about to preside over an ayahuasca ceremony.

Vollaers went inside to participate in the ceremony and would later hear a loud bang – the sound of Antonovich collapsing.

Solaris remained “holding the whole space” and “holding the music”, the “bulk of the room was still sitting there facing the front” while the “commotion” took place at the back – as an ambulance was called, and CPR attempted.

Eventually, Solaris led most of the group out of the gonpa, Vollaers was the only one to remain praying.

“I was like: no to the CPR, but I felt he left his body straight away, I really did,” she said. “I still do. I still maintain that. So for me, I was just holding the calm and the beauty and being with [Antonovich] leaving.”

Kite and Solaris are due to appear before the coroner next week.

‘Elder’ at spiritual retreat told not to send man affected by frog toxin to hospital, NSW inquest hears (2024)

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