Silent desert retreat leads to death in Arizona cave
A 911 call in April led to a helicopter rescue in the Arizona desert of a thirsty, delirious woman near her dead husband. The couple had been expelled from a nearby Buddhist retreat in which dozens of adherents had pledged to meditate silently for three years, three months and three days. Their spiritual leader was a charismatic monk whom some have accused of running the retreat as a cult.
The New York Times
BOWIE, Ariz. — The rescuers had rappelled from a helicopter, swaying in the brisk April winds as they bore down on a cave 7,000 feet up in a rugged desert mountain on the edge of this rural hamlet. There had been a call for help. Inside, they found a jug with about an inch of water, browned by floating leaves and twigs. They found a woman, Christie McNally, thirsty and delirious. And they found her husband, Ian Thorson, dead.
The puzzle only deepened when the authorities realized that the couple had been expelled from a nearby Buddhist retreat in which dozens of adherents, living in rustic conditions, had pledged to meditate silently for three years, three months and three days. Their spiritual leader was a charismatic, Princeton-educated monk whom some have accused of running the retreat as a cult.
Strange tales come out of the American desert: lost cities of gold, bandit ambushes, mirages and peyote shamans. To that long list can now be added the story of the holy retreat that led to an ugly death.
The retreat — in which adherents communicate only with pen and paper — was designed to allow participants to employ yoga and deep meditation to try to answer some of life's most profound questions. Mostly, though, it has only raised more questions.
Was it a genuine spiritual enclave? What drove McNally and Thorson out of the camp and into the wilderness? And just why, in a quest for enlightenment, did a 38-year-old Stanford graduate end up dead, apparently from exposure and dehydration, in a remote region of rattlesnakes and drug smugglers?
When McNally and Thorson left the retreat Feb. 20, after having participated for one year and one month, she had been its leading teacher. The monk who ran the retreat, Michael Roach, had previously run a diamond business worth tens of millions of dollars and was now promoting Buddhist principles as a path to financial prosperity, raising eyebrows of more traditional Buddhists.
He had described McNally for a time as his "spiritual partner," living with him in platonic contemplation. What the other participants did not know is that before she married Thorson, McNally had been secretly married to Roach, in violation of the Buddhist tradition to which he belongs.
Even the manner in which McNally and Thorson left the retreat adds a fresh turn to an already twisty tale. It came days after she made a startling revelation during one of her lectures: She said that Thorson had been violent toward her, and that she had stabbed him, using a knife they had received as a wedding gift.
The authorities do not suspect foul play in Thorson's death. Still, the events at Diamond Mountain University, as the place that hosts the retreat is known, have pried open the doors of an intensely private community, exposing rifts among some of Roach's most loyal followers and the unorthodoxy of his practices.
In an interview, Michael Remski, a yoga teacher from Toronto who unleashed a storm online after posting a scathing critique of Roach after Thorson's death, described Roach as a "charismatic Buddhist teacher" whom he used to respect until his popularity "turned him into a celebrity" whose inner circle was "impossible to penetrate."
Others spoke of bizarre initiation ceremonies at Diamond Mountain. Sid Johnson, a former volunteer who also served on its board of directors, said his involved "kissing and genital touching." Ekan Thomason, a Buddhist priest who graduated from a six-year program there, said hers included drawing blood from her finger and handling a Samurai sword, handed to her by McNally.
"Should a Buddhist university really be doing such things?" Thomason asked.
Thorson's mother, Kay Thorson, hired two counselors about 10 years ago to pry her son away from Roach, who was trained under the same monastic tradition as the Dalai Lama. She recalled him as "strange," someone who "sometimes connects, sometimes doesn't, but who clearly connected with people who were ready to donate and adulate."
The intervention — the term she used to describe it — offered only temporary relief.
Thorson and McNally, 39, married on Oct. 3, 2010, at Montauk, N.Y., almost three months before they left for the retreat and a month after Roach had filed for divorce. McNally and Roach had an old Dodge Durango, $30,000 in credit-card debt and little else, according to the filing in Yavapai County Superior Court.
In early February 2012, McNally and Thorson received a letter from Roach and the five other members of Diamond Mountain's board of directors, demanding explanations for the violence and stabbing she had discussed in her lesson. There was no reply. In a letter she posted online — which she wrote after their departure from the retreat, though before Thorson's death — McNally described it as an accident by a novice martial-arts practitioner rehearsing her moves.
The board president, Rob Ruisinger, said in an interview that Thorson had been stabbed three times in the torso, and that one of the wounds had been sutured by a medical professional among the retreat participants.
McNally and Thorson were given five days to leave. Instead, they departed without notice.
In her letter, she said they simply were not ready to go back into the world, so they decided to "go camping in the cow-herding land" next to Diamond Mountain "to get our thoughts settled." When people came looking for them, they clambered uphill, she wrote, to the cave where Thorson would die. Some of the retreat participants would leave water for them, knowing they were still around. She told the authorities that at some point, she fell ill, he fell ill and they grew too weak to fetch it, said Sgt. David Noland, the search-and-rescue coordinator for the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.
On April 22 at 6 a.m., McNally sent a distress signal to Diamond Mountain from a transmitter she had been carrying. Three Diamond Mountain caretakers searched for them and failed. Around 8 a.m., the caretakers called 911.
Thorson was cremated in nearby Willcox on April 26. His mother said it was the last time she saw McNally, who could not be reached for comment.
The silent retreat is set to end April 3, 2014. Of its original 39 participants, 34 remain.