Bentinho Massaro's Sedona Experiment: How the search for enlightenment led to a digital cult

A man searching for answers followed a cult-like guru across the country. Hi decisions leave his family and friends wondering why.

The Republic, Arizona/May

By Alden Woods

Sedona — Brent Wilkins stood alone on the ledge, surrounded by red rock and unanswerable questions.

The world fell away just past his leather shoes. Oak Creek glided 200 feet below, washing over smooth stones that glistened in the December sun. Barren trees stretched their limbs toward the sky.

Nobody knew where he was.Old friends had been cut from his life, and almost everybody left was gathered three miles away, sitting at a retreat their guru promised would be life-changing.

But now it was the retreat's sixth day, and the guru's path had led Brent only to the same fears and doubts. 

The anxieties had started in his lower back, spreading a terrible warmth through his body. A lifetime of questions squeezed his chest and filled his mind as he drove over Sedona's narrow northern roads. 

He stopped in a bend south of Midgley Bridge, where no-parking signs rose above the dirt. He ignored them and stepped out. Small stones crackled under his feet as he worked down an unmarked trail, disappearing behind a line of trees. 

Brent had given everything to chase enlightenment, following the guru across three years and thousands of miles, and somehow the search had led him here, to a 12-day retreat from a life that had almost nothing left: A family praying for his return, a suitcase in a home that wasn’t his and a name badge he no longer needed in his front pocket.

The Sedona Experiment II, it read, just above where Brent's name was scrawled. Participant.

A young man looking for peace in the world

Brent never could stay long in one place.

He was the college friend who left parties after 10 minutes, slipping out the back door without saying goodbye. He bailed on cabin weekends and shied from long-term plans. He bought thousand-dollar tickets for flights he never boarded. And he developed a habit of moving across the country, shuttling between Virginia, Colorado and Arizona, leaving his parents with little but prayers and questions: Where was Brent today? What was he looking for? Did he ever find it? 

“Do you know why he was here in Sedona?” they now heard Sedona Police Department Detective Chris Stevens ask over the phone.

“I do,” Gary Wilkins said from Virginia. “I can tell you everything.”

“He’s a member of a cult!” Trish Wilkins interjected, her voice growing louder in a recording of the call made by police. “He joined a cult there. We call it a cult.”

“Let me back up,” Gary said, and he found himself telling a stranger from Sedona about his only son, the "All-American kid" who tore down his life to chase impossible promises.

Brent was raised in a comfortable neighborhood near Richmond, Virginia, where the homes stood in neat rows and the high school split itself into cliques that only he could navigate. It helped that his friends called him “Hot Brent,” a tanned 6-foot-4 with a fishhook smile, who ate handfuls of candy and 7-Eleven hot dogs but never gained a pound. Girls always surrounded him at parties. He never knew what to say.

He was more comfortable on the hot asphalt of a tennis court, where his grind-it-out style earned him a state title and a roster spot at Virginia Tech. The coach lauded the walk-on’s work ethic and “enormous potential.” After graduating with a business degree, he moved near Washington, D.C., and worked his way into a coaching job at one of the area's most exclusive country clubs.

But he found no peace.

He felt life's unanswerable questions just outside his reach. Unable to live with the doubts, he swung from one doctrine to the next, throwing himself into whatever felt right. He was in, or he was out. Every pursuit demanded his full attention. 

In college he explored his family’s Christian roots, cutting out parties and alcohol, but his faith faltered when he couldn't be certain if God was real. He turned to spiritual teachers, tearing through books by Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. They encouraged him to live in the moment, to enjoy every one of life’s miracles, and soon Brent’s friends found him sitting alone in the park, trying to calm his fraying mind. 

He became another seeker in a world filled with them, throwing his hopes and cash toward the gurus that filled internet playlists. Together they created a $10 billion industry that was impossible to regulate, where the lessons didn't have to be true. They just had to feel right. 

“He was trying to figure out what life meant, what he believed in, all this kind of stuff," Gary continued as the detective took notes. "And he got involved with this guy, Bentinho Massaro.”

Massaro attacks his kitten

When Bentinho Massaro was a young boy, his parents brought home a kitten. The tiny animal was scared by strange people and new surroundings, so Bentinho clipped a leash to the kitten’s neck and led her around their Amsterdam home. He showed the kitten that her world was safe, that he could be trusted.

Massaro told the story in at least two videos: He and the animal  eased into each other. The kitten didn’t care about the twitches and outbursts that ensnared the young boy. She led where he followed. 

One day, as they sat in the backyard after another journey, young Bentinho felt an evil force take control of his body. He watched his hand pull tight on the leash and felt his arm swing the kitten into the air, throwing her into a prickly bush. Needles dragged across the kitten’s body as she squealed and squirmed away. Bentinho yanked again and again, swinging her back into the bush. Again. Again. He heard the kitten cry, felt the tears on his cheeks and fought against his body, trying to end his friend’s pain, but the spirits inside wouldn’t let go.

Sedona detectives ask questions about Brent

Bentinho Massaro opened the door after the 13th knock. It was just after 8 a.m., seven days into the Sedona Experiment II, and he looked as if the police had awakened him. 

Massaro, who turned 30 in March, showed Stevens and his partner inside his tidy home. He assumed they wanted to talk to him about an article published on the blogging site Medium the week before. An activist writer named Be Scofield described Massaro as “Steve Jobs meets Jim Jones” and warned of his “Cult 2.0.” Massaro told the officers that almost all of the article’s claims were false, but admitted they had turned away some of his massive following.

“We do have concerns,” Stevens said, settling onto a couch as an audio recorder ran. Even before the article was published, Sedona residents who feared another cult in town had sent a string of emails to the police chief, warning of the strange new group. The chief assigned both of his detectives to investigate.

They found a digital enlightenment empire. Stevens and his partner scrolled through a Facebook page with 300,000 followers and an Instagram account with 20,000 more. They read the motivational quotes and posts announcing events that drew hundreds of seekers, and right below them saw photos of Massaro’s lavish lifestyle: Luxury international resorts, fine cigars and a pair of girlfriends.

“Ben, sorry to wake you up,” Detective Stevens said, using Massaro’s nickname because he still wasn’t sure how to pronounce his first name. “Something came up and we want to talk to you about it, immediately.”

The detectives watched Massaro's endless feed of YouTube videos, both on his official channel and one that leaked clips of his ever-wilder claims. They watched as Massaro morphed from a 22-year-old with floppy hair and a thick Dutch accent into a self-described “wanderer,” an upper-density spirit who descended onto this lower-density planet to upgrade civilization. 

On earth, Massaro was born in Amsterdam and raised with a sense that his spirit was somehow brighter than those around him. When his parents started exploring self-help and personal development, 10-year-old Bentinho tore through the books and meditation tutorials they passed along. He became obsessed with the search for enlightenment, and ignored the Zen tradition of waiting for permission to teach. 

By his 25th birthday, Massaro had moved to America and become one of the internet's most prominent young teachers, joining a generation of gurus who had embraced social media. They broadcast themselves to a limitless audience, hooking into binge-friendly algorithms to suck in thousands of seekers. 

Massaro sanded down his accent and built a slick web presence. His website pushed seekers toward his profiles on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. He launched Bentinho Massaro TV and Trinfinity Academy, a full-fledged online course where the main subject was Bentinho Massaro. 

As he grew in fame and followers, Massaro layered his standard-issue teachings with wild conspiracy theories and boasts of divine powers. He was from a “different vibrational domain,” he wrote on Facebook. He later told a follower that he identified with many different civilizations, including aliens. He claimed the ability to change the weather, levitate and move mountains, and began teaching that the physical world was an illusion, that nothing was real. Death was never the end. 

“You can’t die unless you want to,” he taught in 2016. He repeatedly said he was unafraid of his own death, and proved it by free-diving and climbing mountains without ropes. On his blog, he wrote that “looking forward to death makes you truly come alive.”

But Stevens focused the investigation on a single 51-second video from an earlier retreat. The leaked clip showed Massaro sitting cross-legged on a stage. He looked around the room and sat up straight. A ringed right hand punctuated each word.

“Wake up to something important,” Massaro said. “Otherwise, kill yourself.”

'Telll me about Brent'

In his living room, Massaro assured the officers that no student of his had ever considered suicide. Stevens pulled a notebook from his pocket. 

“You have suggested it,” Stevens said, raising his voice to cut off the guru’s objections. He read aloud Massaro’s suicidal suggestion. “Those are your words.”

“I don’t remember, but I can totally see myself saying that,” Massaro replied. “So, you’ve watched the video?”

“We’ve watched a lot of videos of you.”

Massaro protested that the videos leaked online were often taken out of context. He explained that he uses “shock and awe” to snap his students’ attention. Exaggeration for effect. Just a few days earlier, he had told his students that he was intentionally reckless, because predictability wasn’t challenging.

“Well,” Stevens started, “you use those—”

“It’s more of an expression,” Massaro said, cutting him off. “I’ve never seriously suggested people actually do it.”

“Well, I understand,” Stevens said. “But when you do say something like that, somebody that may be close to following you may take that as a suggestion, or an alternative to their life.”

“Fair enough,” Massaro said, and they moved on.

The officers asked about Massaro’s favorite system of fasting, which involves weeks-long stretches sustained by only grape juice. If weakened students tried to hike, Stevens told him, they could overexert themselves in the Arizona desert. Massaro said he would warn them. They talked about the retreat, about where the participants were staying and how Massaro’s team was keeping track of them. Stevens said the department had received tips about Massaro, that people across town were concerned.

Then Stevens switched subjects.

“Tell me about Brent,” Stevens said a few minutes later.

“About Brent?” Massaro asked, the surprise in his voice clear on the tape of the conversation. He stuttered. “He’s a little unclear as to what he wants to do in his life. I think he should just cruise along and not try to force himself to do anything specific.”

No, Massaro said, he couldn’t remember Brent having a girlfriend. Yes, he was attending the retreat. No, he wasn’t on the grape-juice fast. He offered to find Brent's cell-phone number, so Stevens could call him directly. 

“Has he ever mentioned to you that he wanted to commit suicide?” Stevens asked.

“No, I don’t think so.”

The detective turned to one of Massaro’s two girlfriends, who had joined them on the couches. Jocelyn Daher considered the same question. She gave the same answer, and Massaro explained that Brent experienced "freak moments," scrambling to solve his life again each night.

“I want to go back to your words,” Stevens said, facing the guru again. He read from his notebook. “‘Wake up and do something important. Otherwise, just kill yourself.’”

“Right,” Massaro said.                                                                        

“He’s confused, right?” Stevens asked. His voice hardened. “He’s trying to figure out his life?”

Massaro murmured his agreement.

“And he’s not doing anything? What do you think might be the outcome?”

“Um, not that. But I understand. I understand.”

Stevens didn’t hesitate.

“Well, yesterday, he did kill himself.”


“No,” Massaro murmured.

Stevens flashed the name badge the police had found in Brent’s pocket. “We found that with him.”

“Are you messing?”

“I am not joking,” Stevens said. “So that’s why we wanted to come talk to you about your words. Because we wanted to make sure that your words did not encourage him to kill himself.”

“I’ve done nothing but encourage him in his personal life,” Massaro said. His voice fell to a whisper. Jocelyn sobbed softly. Massaro folded his hands over his heart and closed his eyes, as if in prayer.

Brent's phase that wouldn't end

Brent thought he found the answers in Flat Rock.

His parents had begged him not to go. Brent had only seen Massaro speak once, at a public speech near Washington, D.C., but already his parents had watched him change. Gary drove across the state to his son's apartment, desperate to keep him from the retreat in North Carolina.

"Dad, I'm going," Brent told him, and in March 2014 he drove to North Carolina to spend eight days with Bentinho Massaro. 

As he sat in the crowd, listening to a man he barely knew, Brent felt the world fall into place. He raised his hand and rushed to the front of the room, breaking through his shyness to declare his newfound freedom.

“To say that retreat was life-changing would be the understatement of the century,” Brent said in a video interview with fellow Massaro devotee Mark Geenen. The video was published sometime in late 2016, but has since been taken down. “I fell in love with everything and everybody. Life started coming through me.”

Before the retreat ended, Brent’s one-track mind locked onto Massaro. He returned home with a wide-eyed stare that his friends and family didn’t recognize. Long hugs punctuated his conversations, which were often sprinkled with references to enlightenment and changing reality.

Determined to strip away anything that didn’t excite his soul, Brent quit his coaching job and spent hours meditating in the park. He stopped going out and pulled back from lifelong friends, telling one that their relationship didn’t resonate with him. Then he stopped calling. 

“He came back, and it was just completely different,” said MJ Hurley, Brent’s best friend and roommate since their freshman year at Virginia Tech. “There was something missing. It was Brent, but it wasn’t Brent.”

Hurley, who was so close to Brent that people called them “common-law spouses,” assumed it was another one of Brent’s phases, like his college Christianity or the six months he spent playing squash instead of tennis. But this phase had no end.

“He was the guy that was all-in or all-out, and he was so in,” Hurley said. “He believed it to the core of his being.”

Every day he gave a little more of himself to Massaro, trading pieces of his old life for another chance at enlightenment. And though Massaro’s teachings often confused him, Brent trusted they were true. “I don’t get all this, but I love Bentinho,” he told a friend, and in one summer he became one of the guru’s most devoted students. 

Massaro laid the path, and Brent followed. A few months after the Flat Rock retreat, Brent crammed into his Toyota and moved to Colorado, where Massaro had begun to build his enlightenment empire. 

“I wanted to take the jump,” Brent said in the video interview. “That was my first jump, and my first attempt to fly.”

Brent moves home...for a while

His parents tried to pull him back, to convince their son he had searched his way into the darkness. No man could have all those answers, they told him. No mortal could solve all that pain. They hired a cult-extraction specialist to pry him away from Bentinho Massaro.

Brent refused to meet with him.

For two years Gary and Trish Wilkins prayed and worried and waited, all the while asking themselves what had made their only son so devoted to this online guru, until Brent finally called home.

He had spent those years in frantic search of the peace he found in Flat Rock. The tiny remains of his life fell away: A summer fling spurned him and moved back to Denmark. A wrist injury cut short his attempted return to the tennis court. His roommates in Boulder moved to Sedona, and Brent stayed behind. He fell into and out of Massaro’s inner circle, and friends traded gossip about an undefined argument between teacher and student.

"It got to the point where I needed some help," he said in the video interview. "Man. I took a deep swing." 

He flew home almost exactly two years after the retreat in Flat Rock, landing in an unseasonably cool March in Virginia. Gary and Trish made a bed and met him at the airport. They brought him home and waited almost a week, trying their best to fix the anxiety they had never seen before.

But their son’s turmoil was unending, Gary later told a detective. They brought him to a psychiatrist and sat as a family while Brent explained how he felt unsafe and uncertain, terrified of sending his life in the wrong direction. Fear froze him.

Have you had any thoughts of harming yourself? the doctor asked.


How would you have done it?

Brent told the doctor he wanted to jump off a bridge.

A second doctor recommended Brent check into a mental-health facility. He agreed, and spent a week in a local psych ward, with nothing to do but manage his blossoming panic. Peace returned gradually. When he checked out, he agreed to stay in Virginia. His parents thought they finally had him back.

But part of him was stranded back in Boulder. He never told friends from home that he had returned. Instead he spent much of his stay texting friends out west, begging for details on how “epic” it was, clinging to the bursts of excitement that Massaro brought to his life.

Six months later, he moved back to Boulder.

The lure of Sedona for gurus

Boulder couldn’t contain Massaro’s vision. He needed somewhere to root his expanding empire, a place where his students could come and go, where enlightenment had seeped into the earth and plans to upgrade civilization wouldn’t draw attention.

It had been four years since Massaro first saw the red rocks, wandering the narrow streets on a solo meditation retreat, and already he had followed that with a half-dozen retreats there. Something about the place felt right. 

"I just knew," Massaro said in an interview with The Republic. "A sensation, a feeling, an intuition, a knowing." 

And he found a blend of mystique, wealth and isolation that had made Sedona one of the world's top destinations for cult-like gurus.

It had carried a mythical aura for three decades, ever since a psychic named Page Bryant claimed to discover "energy vortexes" scattered around the city. People in search of peace and healing assembled. Money flowed freely across town. Annual tourist counts climbed over 3 million. Event centers boasted of their crowded schedules. Yoga studios and crystal shops lined the narrow streets, and even the city's official website listed a map of the vortexes. 

Sedona seemed to trade its tranquility for fame and tourism. No longer was it only the desert city that valued its pristine views enough to ban certain colors on road signs. Now it was the place where Gabriel of Urantia convinced his followers that he was Jesus Christ. Where a student of Dahn Yoga died in the scalding desert.

And where self-help icon James Arthur Ray's "Spirit Warrior" sweat-lodge ceremony killed three of his students, drawing unprecedented attention and the world's prying glare.

But the gurus never left.

He found it all in Sedona. 

“I would imagine there’s people doing some strange things up here that we don’t know about,” Sedona police chief David McGill said. “I would not be surprised if we had cult-like activities going on that I didn’t know about.” 

It took McGill months to learn that Massaro had moved his empire to Sedona sometime in 2017. The guru's followers spread across the city, renting single-story houses and sitting in weekly seminars. A dozen of his most devoted students were invited to attend the Sedona Experiment I. One follower called it Massaro's "masterpiece." 

With each successful retreat, Massaro's visions for Sedona grew grander. Soon, he told his followers, they would turn Sedona into something unrecognizable. They would transform the city's spirit before anybody knew what had happened. It would be the center of their enlightened world.

“Imagine a pristinely, profoundly awake Sedona community,” Massaro said in a leaked video. “I’m starting to plant seeds right now, and you guys can all plant seeds of your own. This could be a place on earth the world has never seen or anticipated.”

'If you want to call it a cult, go ahead'

On the first day of the Sedona Experiment II, Massaro sat on a wooden stage, crossed his legs and addressed the accusations that swarmed over the city: Cult 2.0. Digital cult. Cult leader. 

Massaro told the story of the kitten again, explaining it wasn't as brutal as it seemed. Then he said he wasn't offended by the cult-leader label.

“It has no context for me,” he said in a video posted on his official channel. “It feels so empty and meaningless. Like, OK, great. Yeah. We’re a cult. It doesn’t change what we are.”

Instead, he told the 150 students seated at his feet, they should be called a “social memory complex,” a group of people destined to grow so close that the electromagnetic fields of their consciousnesses blended together. They would become one, bound by the bliss of enlightenment. Then they would penetrate into the Absolute.

“If you want to call that a cult, go ahead,” he said. “It doesn’t change what we are. And what we are is free of abuse, it’s free of manipulation and it’s free of anyone’s free will being taken away at any point.”

But throughout his rise into spirituality’s elite, Massaro straddled the thin, blurry line between a guru and a cult leader.  

He grew more erratic, loading himself with world-saving expectations and contorting his teachings to meet them. No longer did the videos show merely a humble teacher. Now he was a spirit sent to save humanity, a “wanderer” who possessed divine knowledge and power.

Videos had circulated of him mocking and berating students, then grinning as they grew flustered. He lashed out at critics online, filling the comments below their Facebook posts. “Your mind is full of s---,” he wrote to one student with a question, “and I hope you get well soon.”

He paid the critics that appeared online, he once said, to ensure he didn’t look too perfect. That would be boring.

His ego grew, filling the space once reserved for dissension and doubt. Only weak followers expressed skepticism, he said. He was the path to enlightenment. Follow him. Break away from non-believing friends and family. They only hold back the truth. 

“If your family thinks you’re nuts when you express the truth of your being, it’s not your family, and you should be excited to find a new family,” he once told his students. “If they don’t wish to be open to this whatsoever, they won’t have a place in the world 10 years from now, anyway.”

They had to hurry, he urged. Soon the world would transform, the ship would take off, and only the enlightened could come along. They had to save the planet, awakening all humanity, upgrade the civilization. All by 2035. 

He called it New Earth.

By 2035, Massaro planned, his Trinfinity Corporation would link the world’s enlightened spirits. The Trinfinity Academy would guide billions of people through his courses. Trinfinity Films and Trinfinity TV would blast his message across the planet. The Trinfinity Tech Lab would finally create devices the government had long been hiding, allowing humans to connect with alien civilizations and travel outside of their bodies.

And then they would come together to build Trinfinity City, the planet’s most harmonious community, built entirely around Massaro’s teachings.

“And as with everything,” he once said of the city, “I will succeed.”

Is it all a hoax? Does Massaro believe any of it?

But those outside his grip saw a man who had lost control of himself. Cult expert Cathleen Mann added Massaro to a list of potential dangers she was following. McGill, the police chief who believed Massaro only wanted his followers’ money, later called him “a Jim Jones type.” The host of a popular interview channel warned Massaro that he was scaring people away. Massaro shrugged him off, and the host pulled down the interviews.

Multiple spirituality-themed YouTube channels churned out content exposing what they saw as Massaro’s manipulations, spending hours debating a question only he could answer: Did he believe any of it? 

In an interview with the Republic, Massaro explained that his knowledge came from “different sources, but I don’t feel they’re relevant.” While he had never actually levitated or moved a mountain, he admitted in an interview, he knew he could.

“It’s not that interesting,” he said.

And it didn’t matter. Students had rarely questioned him. His base never stopped growing, even after he raised the price of retreats and moved them to luxurious tropical resorts. The people kept coming, fueling Massaro’s lavish lifestyle. Over 150 people had signed up for the Sedona Experiment II, and now Massaro spent the retreat’s first hours making sure the people still believed.

“Will you address the savior-complex accusation?” a woman asked him.

“I can address this right now,” Massaro replied,leaning forward.

A great pressure to save the planet had strained him since childhood, he explained. Not because of his ego, but because of the powerful force that filled him. The pressure built and built and threw his system out of balance. So sometimes he used the simple language of humanity, but his true intentions were lost in the spiritual translation.

“Do I currently feel like I am the one to save this world?” Massaro continued. “No. I don’t.”

The woman didn’t respond, and silence swirled in the air. He smiled and scanned the room. Students stared back with expectant eyes.

“I might still do it,” he added, and then everybody laughed.

Brent's diverging paths

When Massaro announced the Sedona Experiment II, promising potential participants that they wouldn't recognize themselves after the 12-day retreat, Brent couldn’t decide if he was ready. 

“Should I do this?” he asked Cory Katuna, a friend and another of Massaro’s most devoted students. “I’ve just been so confused.”

She encouraged him to come to Sedona. How many times, she wondered, had he told her about that life-changing Flat Rock retreat? Maybe he could rediscover that relief in Sedona.

Over the phone, Katuna heard Brent relax. He loaded a suitcase into his  Toyota and rushed to Sedona, picking up a speeding ticket along the way.

But a foreboding joy surrounded Brent as he pulled into town. A thin layer of hope barely masked the dread inside. Surrounded once again by people who knew the answers, he retreated into his panic. “LOWER CHAKRAS,” he wrote on a health questionnaire after arriving in Sedona. “FEEL CONSTRICTED ….. GENERAL EMOTIONAL DISTRESS.”

He had lost weight and felt his sex drive disappear. His chest pulsed with pain. Anxiety gripped his body and wouldn’t let go, spreading from his lower back. 

So a few days before the retreat, before the article online sent Sedona into hysterics and threatened to derail everything, Brent went to see his guru. 

Panic churned behind his eyes,  Massaro recalled, as they talked during a party at his house. Teacher and student started down the same conversation they’d had dozens of times before: Brent saw the paths split before him, and couldn’t decide which way to turn. Massaro told him to relax, to let the emotions slide off.

Katuna understood. She and Brent had always felt like old friends, two souls connected from the moment they met at a party in Boulder. She had seen the doubts break apart his moments of peace, but had also watched him cling to their guru’s words.

And then Brent smiled, and held Massaro against his chest.

They never spoke again.

When the retreat began, Brent sat among the students. He listened as Massaro answered the crowd’s questions, easing them away from suspicion and into his experiment. He watched as the guru he had followed across the country closed his eyes and led them in silent meditation, trying to connect with the same source of bliss that he had found all those retreats and miles ago. Nobody spoke.

Outside, another Sedona day passed by. Brent crossed his legs and sat still, trying to somehow calm his mind. To find himself. To reach enlightenment.

When the session ended, Brent stood up and walked out. He never said a word.

The remants of a life

A hiker found his body in the cool waters of Oak Creek.

Brent lay on his back, his unblinking eyes staring at the cliffs above. Scrapes of dirt and blood scarred his gray sweatshirt. Police stood on slick rocks and turned out his pockets, pulling out a small black wallet, his Sedona Experiment II name badge and the key to a Toyota 4Runner parked 225 feet above him.

A detective tugged open the unlocked front door, taking in the result of 34 years of life: An unused tennis bag and a $45 check for a cell phone. A dirty pair of white Nikes. A plastic crate of paperwork, a resume with a yearlong gap and a note, scribbled in capital letters on the back of a McDonald’s receipt.


'Continue to have faith'

“I’m not clouded by the events that has happened surrounding my own environment, the circumstances,” Massaro said in his first video posted after Brent’s death. The camera shook in the guru’s hand. He looked like he hadn’t slept: A blond beard stretched across his chin and deep creases underlined his eyes.

“The way it's been feeling for me,” he said, holding the camera close, “is like this constant pressure in the air.”

He made no mention of Brent. In the weeks after his death, Massaro had flipped between empathy and distance. He called Brent "Angelic," then claimed in an interview with the Republic that they were never close. First Brent was a "dear friend." Then he was never a regular follower. 

"We didn’t always feel as connected in that way," Massaro said in the interview. "He never told us about suicide being on his mind at all."

The Sedona Police Department listed Massaro as its “investigative lead" in Brent's death, but detectives later decided no charges could be filed. "We're not prepared and will not tie it to Ben," McGill later said in an interview. 

But Brent’s friends and family blamed Massaro for his death. So did some of Massaro’s closest followers. Angry eyes followed him across Sedona. Subscribers fled, and his empire teetered. 

So in the days after the experiment ended, as his students scattered his message across the country and Brent’s family held a funeral, Bentinho Massaro ran.

Claiming to fear for his girlfriends’ lives, he fled Sedona and announced that his next two retreats would be his last. But the message couldn’t stop. Instead, he would focus on his newest online program, hand-selecting 133 elite students to become “Civilization Upgraders.” For $1,200 month, he would show them how to usher in a New Earth.

Now he held his eyes wide and spoke quickly, trying to make his followers understand that he was under attack, that this wasn’t his fault, that he was still the path to enlightenment. “Continue to have faith,” he urged them. The camera shook in his hand. An energetic detox was underway, he explained. The universe was simply purging its negative vibrations, finally preparing to shift into the fourth density. They were so close. 

“I don’t think you realize how quickly you’ll be gone,” he wrote on Facebook the next day. “I’m inside your heart. I hope you know.”

This story is based on more than 30 interviews conducted in person, over the phone and through online messages. The Arizona Republic also reviewed hundreds of Facebook posts and videos posted to YouTube on both official and unofficial Massaro channels.

The reporter interviewed friends of Brent Wilkins, current and former students of Bentinho Massaro, cult and spirituality experts and officers within the Sedona Police Department.

Massaro himself was interviewed in February, speaking over Skype from a location he would not disclose. 

The Wilkins family declined multiple requests for an interview.

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