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Byron Shire
April 22, 2024

Questions mount at Jarrad Antonovich inquest

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Ballina Courthouse. Photo David Lowe.

Yesterday the coronial inquest into the death of Jarrad Antonovich moved temporarily to Ballina Courthouse, with a toxics expert, two ambulance officers and a neighbour taking the stand. After the power failure in Lismore which caused the move, there were more questions than answers when NSW State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan reopened proceedings.

With the court having already heard that Mr Antonovich had used kambo (a type of poison extracted from Amazonian frogs, used to induce purging), toxicologist and Associate Professor Darren Roberts provided more information about how this substance might have contributed to his death at the Arcoora Arts & Eco Retreat in 2021.

He said descriptions of Mr Antonovich’s seriously swollen neck and facial swelling in the hours before the ambulance was called sounded like a condition called ‘frog face’, caused by a ruptured oesophagus, with air becoming trapped under the skin. Associate Professor Roberts said that while this would not have been diagnosed by people without specific medical training, it should have been clear to anyone that Mr Antonovich was in distress and needed urgent medical attention.

He said the combination of persistent swelling, pain and breathlessness over many hours was ‘very worrying’.

Associate Professor Roberts also said that pathology reports indicated that Mr Antonovich had an extremely high concentration of DMT in his blood post-mortem, which was probably even higher before he died, supporting the theory that the man had ingested large quantities of ayahuasca as well as kambo, with vomiting or retching likely contributing to the oesophagal tearing.

He confirmed the evidence from the day before that ayahuasca was particularly dangerous when combined with SSRI anti-depressants, because of its effects on serotonin levels, but said there were numerous other substances that were also risky in combination, including many common medications, and even foods such as Vegemite and cheese, within a limited time window.

Ayahuasca and kambo are both now illegal in Australia.

Two way radio

The next witness, Robert Jean-Alain Virginie, testified that he had been living in a hut near the hall where Jarrad Antonovich lost his life in 2021. He said he was not involved with the spiritual retreat ceremonies conducted at Arcoora, but had done some handyman work for members of that group from time to time.

This frog is used to extract kambo in the Amazon. Wikipedia CC.

He said he knew what kambo was, and had friends who had used it, but ‘wasn’t interested in poisoning himself like that’, having heard people at retreats vomiting in the past.

Mr Virginie explained that the people living at the top of the hill in the community kept in touch via two way radio, which he kept on at all times, in case someone was trying to contact him.

He said that on 16 October 2021 he heard people from Arcoora on the radio talking about kambo in the morning, then ‘in CPR’, and then organising an ambulance, but he stayed out of the way while the paramedics were there (they didn’t actually arrive until after midnight).

Mr Virginie said he had the impression from what he’d heard that ‘the person was in trouble from 11am.’ After talking to other neighbours, who shared his serious concerns, Mr Virginie went to Kyogle police a week later and made a statement, in the hope that they would investigate further.

‘It was not something I wanted to let pass,’ he said.

Ambos speak

Day 2 closed with testimony from two ambulance officers who attended Jarrad Antonovich in 2021. Philippa Vallard said she had 18 years experience in the job, and was working with Brett Murray that night. They received the callout from the emergency dispatcher at 11.40pm, and then had to drive 51 minutes from Woodenbong.

As she explained, they went ‘lights and sirens’, but it was a long way. She said their only information about the patient was that it was a cardiac arrest. Once at Arcoora, a woman guided them up the long driveway to the place where Mr Antonovich was lying, in the hall at the front of the central buiding.

As Ms Vallard remembered it, there were 30 or more people there, and yoga mats, with some kind of yoga or meditation event in progress. She said they were wearing ‘alternative clothes, nothing too weird’.

Although she was focused on the job at hand, she was struck by the fact that although there were plenty of people nearby, there were only three people actually attending to Mr Antonovich; two men doing CPR and another woman massaging his feet and praying. She didn’t know their names.

Ms Vallard said ‘no one was interested in the CPR out the front of the hall’, before or after the ambulance officers took over from the two men, who said they’d been working on him since calling the ambulance almost an hour ago.

‘How did Mr Antonovich look?’ asked counsel assisting the coroner.

‘He looked dead,’ said Ms Vallard. ‘He was blue. There was no oxygen getting to his organs.’ She said that while they tried to revive the patient for another 20 minutes, she believes he was dead before they arrived.

Ballina Courthouse. Photo David Lowe.

No answers forthcoming

Ms Vallard said no one in the hall told them what had happened to Jarrad Antonovich before their arrival, apart from someone who mentioned his acquired brain injury and someone else who mentioned his severe kidney pain earlier that night, before he’d collapsed.

She said no one present told them how long he’d been unconscious, or if any substances had been consumed. When directly asked if he’d taken any drugs, Ms Vallard was told by those who were present ‘they didn’t know’.

She said it was very frustrating not to be able to get any clear information. ‘We were trying to help, trying to give the best medical care.’

Under questioning from the coroner, Ms Vallard said she had no experience at that time of kambo or ayahuasca.

After police arrived, the ambulance officers assisted them with the death certificate. Regarding the mystery woman who had been working on Mr Antonovich’s feet, Ms Vallard remembers this person saying, ‘can we take our conversation outside, because we’re disrupting Jarrad’s aura.’

Fellow ambulance officer Brett Murray confirmed to counsel that they had not been in touch directly with the people at Arcoora while in transit from Woodenbong, that was not their role. He said that when they arrived, the two men doing CPR (before he and Ms Vallard took over) were going too slowly and not deep enough, as if they were tired or had only received instructions over the phone.

He found it hard to describe what all the other people in the hall were doing while this was happening. ‘Some kind of rhythmic movement – they were doing whatever they were doing, they weren’t interested in what we were doing.’

Weird behaviour

Mr Murray said this behaviour was extremely unusual, with bystanders in this sort of situation usually anxious to help and provide information, but the crowd at the retreat was much more interested in whatever was happening at the front of the hall. ‘We couldn’t establish any information,’ he said. ‘Who is this? What is this? What’s going on? Who’s in charge?’

He said the police were called by the dispatcher, because of the remote location and the cardiac arrest.

Counsel John Weller asked Mr Murray if it was possible that the strange behaviour of the other people at the retreat could be explained by a fight or flight response. Mr Murray completely rejected this theory, emphasising that 99% of the time, bystanders try to be involved and helpful.

By way of example, he said that if the members of the crowd had swapped CPR roles every two minutes, then it would have been much easier to maintain the correct speed and intensity until the ambulance had arrived.

The inquest will resume at Lismore Court House this morning. The Echo will continue to report.


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1 COMMENT

  1. I accept that an individual’s choices are their own, but surely those quacks/fakirs/frauds/charlatans who conduct, oversee, or administer these ‘treatments’ must accept responsibility for making the substance/s available and helping to administer them.

    Jarrad’s case, and that of Natasha Lechner, are extreme, but too common, examples of the dangerous witchcraft practised across the Northern Rivers by those who reject treatments and medicines endorsed by the TGA and medical professionals. Anyone convicted of practising ‘medicine’ without the appropriate training, qualifications, and licensing is penalised heavily. Why aren’t these charlatans similarly prosecuted and penalised?

    Peace, love, and lentils: humbug!

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