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May 23, 2024

Kambo inquest reopens at Byron Bay

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Proceedings reopened in Byron Bay Courthouse yesterday in what is expected to be the final stage of the long-running coronial inquest into the death of Jarrad Antonovich.

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Two of the central figures in the Jarrad Antonovich inquest, Lore Solaris and Cameron Kite, seen here in 2020.

NSW State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan was back in Byron Bay courthouse yesterday, along with the family of Jarrad Antonovich and a number of other interested parties, including legal counsel.

The inquest into Mr Antonovich’s death was last active in the Northern Rivers in May 2023 (including hearings at Byron Bay, Lismore and Ballina), when time ran out to examine the large number of witnesses and return a finding. It appears likely that prosecutions will follow this process when it concludes, possibly next week.

Known to his friends in the Northern Rivers as Ish, Mr Antonovich died from a ruptured oesophagus after taking kambo and ayahuasca at the Dreaming Arts Festival held at Arcoora, north of Kyogle, in October 2021. He was 46.

The Echo covered the previous hearings of the inquest in detail here.

Yesterday the main witness was local counsellor and psychotherapist Dominique Vollaers, who provided an interview to police in September 2023, saying she had 30 years of experience in ‘body work and massage modalities’ but no current first aid certificate. She remembered Mr Antonovich as a ‘very friendly, beautiful man’, and was with him on the day he died, as a fellow attendee at the spiritual retreat organised by Mr Solaris.

While noting that it had made her ‘feel like she wanted to die’ at times, she said her own experience of kambo and ayahuasca had been very positive, helping her overcome Lyme’s disease, as well as depression. ‘It’s been profound for me to see the healing that occurs in one night, compared to years of psychotherapy,’ said Ms Vollaers.

Jarrad Antonovich. Photo supplied.

She said she’d known Mr Solaris for about seven years, and had met Jarrad Antonovich prior to October 2021.

On the day in question, she was assisting at the retreat by rubbing the feet of people taking kambo, including Mr Antonovich, and providing spiritual support.

Ms Vollaers said it was standard practice for people interested in taking kambo and ayahuasca to be extensively questioned about their medical and psychological histories, and then to follow a strict preparatory regimen.

After Mr Antonovich got into breathing difficulties (following the administration of kambo by Cameron Kite), she was shocked to discover that he suffered from asthma. This, and Mr Antonovich’s acquired brain injury, appear to be two of the factors that made kambo and ayahuasca particularly risky for him.

No hospital

Hours before Jarrad Antonovich died, Dominique Vollaers said she became concerned enough about his condition to suggest that he should go to hospital, but Mr Antonovich was ‘adamant’ that he didn’t want to go, even after he started developing severe kidney pain.

She said she then spoke to Aboriginal elder Uncle AJ, who also said ‘no hospital’, and as a result she didn’t press the issue, thinking they were both ‘men of the land’ who knew better than her. (Jarrad Antonovich was not actually Indigenous).

Uncle Andrew Johnston conducting a smoking ceremony at Arcoora. Video grab.

‘I work a lot with energy, and I could see Uncle AJ was au fait with the energy world,’ said Ms Vollaers.

She told counsel assisting the coroner, Dr Dwyer, that she also spoke to kambo practitioner Cameron Kite about her concerns, but was vague about when this happened, and about when/whether Mr Kite and Mr Solaris checked on his condition, although she later said she was ‘sure Cam checked in’.

Counsel pressed her on the fact that no one present appeared to have the appropriate first aid training or expertise to diagnose what was actually going on with Mr Antonovich’s ruptured oesophagus. Ms Vollaers said it was not a known risk at the time, and she ‘wasn’t invading his energy field’, but regretted now that she deferred to the men, and ignored her own gut feelings about Mr Antonovich’s deteriorating health situation.

Later in the evening, she left him in the care of a ‘beautiful Brazilian man’ and others when he was brought up to the gompa to take part in the ayahuasca ceremony, but men and women were separated from that point, and Mr Antonovich was up the back, so she couldn’t see exactly what was happening with him.

Ms Vollaers did remember seeing him collapse to the floor when he was being carried by two men. ‘I feel he left his body when he fell,’ she said. CPR began and an ambulance was called, but she said it was already too late.

She rejected criticism of Lore Solaris’s behaviour at this point, as he had to safely manage a large group of people who had just taken ayahuasca and get them out of the room quietly, without panic. As for her own actions at the time, she said ‘I was trying to hold the calm and the beauty and be with him [Mr Antonovich].’

Ms Vollaers spoke about her ongoing faith in Lore Solaris and his team of helpers, who were called ‘guardians’. Dr Dwyer then asked, ‘do you accept you were misguided in your confidence in those who were running the retreat?’ Ms Vollaers said that was difficult to answer ‘because this was a rare case’.

The coroner then asked about Mr Antonovich’s facial swelling, which other witnesses testified was extreme. Ms Vollaers downplayed this, only saying it was strange because it came on late. She was then asked about COVID protocols, saying she couldn’t remember any (the whole event appears to have been in breach of COVID rules at the time).

Ayahuasca preparation. Wikipedia CC.

Guardian speaks

In the afternoon a new witness was called, Mr Aldo Dezani, who lives in Byron Shire and was near Jarrad Antonovich for much of his final day, as both a participant and one of the Dreaming Arts Festival’s twenty or so ‘guardians’.

Mr Dezani said he’d used ayahuasca medicinally since 2018 and had no negative side effects, ‘apart from traversing an inner world of past trauma’. He said he’d helped other people get through panic attacks and difficulty breathing while taking medicine, and had a background in Sydney as a first aider.

He said he’d known Cameron Kite for 10 years, originally through skateboarding, and had four years experience with kambo.

On the day in question, he remembers Mr Kite saying Mr Antonovich could have nine points of kambo, but Ish wanted more. Mr Dezani said nothing out of the ordinary happened initially, but then Mr Antonovich failed to purge (vomit). He assumed this was a ‘prolonged experience’, something that sometimes happens.

Dr Dwyer asked him to confirm his police statement, in which he said, ‘I remember Cam telling Ish he needed to vomit,’ but Mr Dezani said this actually related to much later on, when Mr Antonovich appeared to be having pains in his kidney region.

‘Everyone was doing their best and doing what they felt was right,’ he said. ‘They were using the best of their skills and knowledge to check he would be okay… it never crossed my mind that he would need an ambulance.’

The coroner pressed him on whether there was anyone with appropriate medical training in case of an emergency. After going in circles, it seems the answer was no. Aldo Dezani was asked if he had an aversion to ringing 000 because of the illegality of what was going on. Mr Dezani denied this, saying he thought the drugs being used were in a legal ‘grey area’.

While he did not see Mr Antonovich being given ayahuasca later, he said he saw Mr Kite carrying the bowl back to where he was at the back of the room, and presumed that was what had happened.

After Mr Antonovich collapsed, Mr Dezani was one of those who administered CPR to him until the ambulance arrived, quite a while later. He said the ambulance officers didn’t seek details, and he didn’t see any police until later, when Lore Solaris asked him to drive to Lismore and deliver the news of Mr Antonovich’s death to his housemates.

Seeing police already there, he panicked and drove back to Arcoora without delivering the news, only speaking to the police formally much later.

Jarrad Antonovich. Photo supplied.

Why was the ambulance delayed?

The coroner and Dr Dwyer pressed Aldo Dezani on whether an ambulance should have been called much earlier, despite Mr Antonovich’s objections.

Is it possible a person in extreme pain and distress is not rational? Aldo Dezani demurred, saying, ‘I would always respect the wishes of the person – unless they were incapable of making a decision.’

He then told the court he didn’t realise (until today) that Mr Antonovich had an acquired brain injury.

Pressed on the lack of a proper protocol for a medical emergency at the retreat, Mr Dezani said everyone in Australia should have first aid training.

Having completed his testimony, he made an emotional statement to Mr Antonovich’s family, saying he was very sorry for what had happened, and reiterating that everyone at the retreat had done their best. ‘I hope that something good can come from this, in some small way,’ he said. ‘I wish circumstances didn’t have to be this way.’

Jarrad Antonovich’s father Glen responded by saying he accepted Mr Dezani’s condolences, but that the horror of the knock on the door at 5 o’clock in the morning to find out what had happened, and then the nine days it took to get Jarrad’s body home to Shepparton ‘so we could say goodbye’ had been something no one outside the family could truly understand.

‘We will never forget what we went through,’ he said.

The inquest continues at Byron Bay Courthouse today at 9.30am.


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5 COMMENTS

  1. Of course, it is blindingly obvious that if “everyone at the retreat had done their best. ” this poor dupe would still be alive.
    Nobody did any sane action to prevent this, and most of them were incompetent due to their intoxication.
    Cheers, G”)

    • “… most of them were incompetent due to their intoxication.”

      Not to mention incompetent owing to the grossly irrational beliefs peddled to them by charlatans. So much humbug!

  2. The level of negligence and blame shifting is quite clear and appalling. Ignorant arrogance presenting as all knowing . They are all complicit in this ill prepared fiasco . I wonder how much he paid for this painful death.

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