On Monday mornings at 9 a.m. at the Rythmia Life Advancement Center, an ayahuasca retreat in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, the founder, Gerard Powell, tells the story of how he received his miracle. The talk, which he calls “About Your Miracle,” is a version of the story he tells in his 2018 book Sh*t the Moon Said: A Story of Sex, Drugs, and Ayahuasca. “I was an asshole beyond compare,” Powell told one audience. “I was a stone cold drunk. I was a drug addict. I loved cocaine. I was using injectable Demerol, five sticks a day.”
Then he discovered plant medicine. Powell, 58, wrote in his book that with a shaman guiding him through his first experience—which he later confirmed was with iboga, a plant native to central west Africa used to make the psychedelic ibogaine—he flew to the moon. Mrs. Moon, as Powell addressed her, directed him to retrieve his soul. In doing so, he saw his grandfather molesting him as a boy. Powell couldn’t recall the abuse, but he called for his dead father, who appeared in the vision and confirmed the sexual abuse. Finally, after envisioning a confrontation with his grandfather in the hospital, Powell asked Mrs. Moon for a new heart. She gave him one that was “bright red and beating,” to replace his old black heart “like a pumice stone.” Powell had received his miracle and the idea to embark “on a mission” and open Rythmia, in 2016. “Everyone’s miracle is unique,” he wrote. “And virtually everyone who visits me and my team in Costa Rica finds the miracle that is unique to them.”
At Rythmia, an upscale center frequented by celebrities and influencers, Powell sells miracles. Guests often go there to treat substance abuse, mental illness, or past traumas by drinking ayahuasca, a hallucinogen brewed from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and chacruna plant leaves. Kourtney Kardashian’s former partner, Scott Disick, checked into Rythmia for rehab in March 2015. “It helped me dramatically to see some of the things that have troubled me in the past,” Disick told People magazine of his week-long stay there.
Flattering testimonials about Rythmia proliferate online from recognized—albeit sometimes controversial and fringe—personalities. In a marketing video for Powell’s book, Terrence Howard called Rythmia a “very special place” where he got his “joy back.” Australian celebrity chef and former reality television star Pete Evans shared his Rythmia experience, during which he broke down and cried after doing breathwork, on social media in 2019. (Evans, a conspiracy theorist who has promoted unfounded medical and COVID-19 advice, including selling what the Guardian describes as a device with “magical coronavirus eradication properties,” was dropped by his network in 2020 after posting a cartoon featuring a Make America Great Again hat and a sonnenrad, an ancient symbol appropriated by Nazis, on Instagram. Evans says he does not align with Nazism or white supremacy.) Then there’s Joseph Mercola, a prominent opponent of vaccination who appears in Rythmia testimonials on YouTube. In one video, Mercola praises the resort for its lack of chemtrails, noting that Rythmia is free of what he calls “dirty electricity.” Rythmia’s board members include Toni Ko, the founder of NYX Cosmetics; surfing champion Kelly Slater; and Martin Luther King III. The writer Graham Hancock, whose best-selling 1995 book Fingerprint of the Gods argued that an advanced prehistoric civilization existed on Earth prior to a cataclysmic global flood, attended and spoke at Rythmia, and appeared in promotional material.
Rythmia is idyllic, as expensive retreats tend to be. The property is equipped with white hammocks, bikes to ride to the nearby Playa Avellana, and a helicopter pad. A week-long stay costs about $4,800 per person and includes services from a colonic cleanse and yoga to talks by revered figures in the spiritual world, as well as massages, meals, lodging, and breathwork classes. More than 10,000 guests have stayed at Rythmia. Powell said the plant fees cost an additional $460, up from $299 last year, and must be paid for in cash. The ceremonies, facilitated by Rythmia’s employees, are where guests can have their “miracles.” According to Powell, the current miracle rate—meaning how many guests say they received their miracle—is 97.23 percent. Yet despite Rythmia’s promises and its association with celebrities, millionaires, and influencers, some former employees consider the center to be a get-rich-quick scheme where guest and staff safety is compromised.
Stacy Kozlowski, a ceremony facilitator who left in 2019, said she witnessed a guest bite his tongue during a ceremony and didn’t know how to properly help. She also said she saw guests try to climb the barbed-wire fence. Amy Wharton and Jennifer Peters, who both worked there in 2017 (Powell says Wharton was a volunteer; she says she was a paid employee), claim they felt overwhelmed by the number of guests in ceremonies and were unable to keep track of people. Samantha Slewinski, another facilitator who went by Samantha Claire, said she witnessed people having emotional breakdowns. (Powell said he was aware of the “tongue biting incident,” but had no record of guests trying to climb the fence. He said he wasn’t aware of employees feeling overwhelmed and that these incidents are alleged to have happened “years ago.”)
One guest, Jenna Williams, said Jeff McNairy, Rythmia’s chief medical officer and Powell’s life coach, whose job at Rythmia is to oversee operations and maintain protocols and policies, diagnosed her with psychosis after she started having fears of dying and screamed in front of other guests by the pool. (McNairy, who goes by “Dr. Jeff” and has a Psy.D., is not a licensed psychologist and does not practice psychology in Costa Rica. In an email, he said, “I don’t diagnose people.”) Williams, who said her memory went in and out but that she clearly remembers this incident, said she was locked in the medical area against her will for a week and that two male employees forced a syringe in her mouth. Her mother flew down to retrieve her. “I went to this place that I thought I could trust,” she said, “and then I was just being abused and tossed out.”
Jordan Diaz-Gold, a guest consultant in Rythmia’s Malibu office who left in 2020, answered calls and read from a script. “For years I had been lying to people that there was a licensed psychologist there,” she said. “We had to. It was in our script.”
(Powell denied this claim and initially responded to requests for comment about past guests, including Williams, but subsequently retracted his statements, citing concerns about patient privacy. He explained in an email that “no one will suffer any long-term damage from ayahuasca” if they’re properly screened and “normalized for allergic reactions.” He compared ayahuasca’s safety to acetaminophen using numbers that seem to be from a 2004 review examining unintentional overdoses and suicide attempts. The pain reliever, he said, is “the leading cause for calls to the Poison Control Center’s with over 100,000 calls per year and accounts for more than 56,000 emergency room visits and 2600 hospitalizations. Also, an estimated 458 deaths per year. But, in normal conversation, if asked if acetaminophen is safe the answer would be yes. I think one has to apply just a tad of common sense. But again merely my opinion.”)
In addition to allegations related to guest safety, former employees and guests described an atmosphere of misogyny and abuse led and perpetrated by Powell. Slewinski called Powell dangerous and controlling. Candice-Marie Fox, a former employee, said, “It starts at the top and certain people are objectifying women all over the place.” These also include allegations of abuse by Powell’s ex-girlfriend, Zinlynn Somerville—a former Rythmia client. Powell, she alleges, verbally and physically abused and manipulated her, forcing her to stay at Rythmia. This is an example of how Powell’s personal life and private relationships bleed over into his work at the center, where Powell is in charge of serving psychedelics to guests who are often struggling with addiction and mental illness. In both contexts, people allege, he exploits his perceived authority over women.
In a statement sent through Instagram, Ko, the NYX Cosmetics founder, said she didn’t wish to comment but that “I can assure you those allegations are without merits if there was any.” She said she had not heard of any concerns about Rythmia and added, “advisory boards do not make any business decisions.” Hancock, Slater, and King did not respond to requests for comment.
Through another Rythmia advisory board member, Reverend Michael Beckwith, Powell initially did not directly respond to any of the allegations. Instead, Beckwith, founder of the Agape International Spiritual Center, who was featured in the movie The Secret and Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, intimated that some of the former employees interviewed for this piece (Beckwith did not specify which particular former employees he was referring to) were motivated by racism because Powell, who says he is Irish and Italian, has “worked tirelessly to bridge the plant medicine community to the black community and other minority communities throughout the United States.”
In a follow-up email last July, Powell said a “ring of racism” involving the reporter of this story had been operating for four years and that he had recently received “nine documented cyber-attacks from members of the ring.” It is unclear what he was talking about, but Powell—who wrote in his book that there is less racism in America today compared to a hundred years ago—said he was “moving forward with the Costa Rican case against the defendants,” which included, vaguely, me; three former Rythmia employees; an attorney; a news organization and its founder; two other reporters; a past workshop host; and “your group” (presumably referring to Motherboard), should it proceed with publication. He laid out five different scenarios in which he would sue, including one in which I wrote back and asked more questions.
Misspelling my last name, he wrote, “Ms. Lotking and her ring members have been harassing guests, past and current employees, board members and shareholders all aimed at disrupting the business operations of Rythmia.” He said he believes that as part of the ring, my affiliates and I “caused tortious interference with the business of Rythmia” that was motivated by racism. In a private Vimeo he attached with the password “Racisminthemedia2021!!!” he alleged that former employees I spoke with made racist comments about limiting the number of Black people in a ceremony and that Black people were not “designed to chemically handle ayahuasca.”
In response to a number of highly specific questions, including ones intended to clarify the ring of racism and who made the racist comments he referred to, Powell told Motherboard he would answer by a very specific deadline that he and his lawyer refused to budge on. His lawyer ultimately referred Motherboard to an interview Powell did with Rolling Out magazine titled “White privilege in American media: A reason for closer examination.” In the piece, Powell says that 42.86 percent of Rythmia’s board of directors are minority, 40 percent of shareholders are Black or minority, and 40 percent of management is LGBTQ.
Fox, the former employee, said Rythmia retained a cult-like mentality, where staff couldn’t raise concerns to management without risking an internal backlash. “It becomes either you’re in or you’re out,” she said. Fox was asked to take a mandatory six-month leave in 2019 for what Powell described as being “mentally distraught.” She acknowledged she was asked to take a leave, but believes it was because she “poked certain egos” by raising concerns about how Rythmia operated. Slewinski, Kozlowski, and Diaz-Gold echoed Fox’s sentiment. Jessica Leffler, a former guest, wrote on her blog that Rythmia “was almost like a cult vibe.”
Many of the women I spoke with feared retribution from Powell, who is litigious and has sued former female guests and staff. In 2020, Rythmia Group Incorporated sued Leffler for intentional interference with prospective economic advantage and defamation for writing “false statements of fact” about Rythmia on her personal blog, according to documents filed in the Superior Court of California. Among other allegations, Rythmia alleged that Leffler’s post falsely said people died at the resort, that guests had psychotic breaks, that a guest was tied down by staff, that the ayahuasca medicine was improperly stored, that demons reside at the resort, that hypnosis and black magic are used at the resort, that female employees “quit in droves,” that staff were making out during a ceremony, and that celebrities were being bribed to speak favorably of Rythmia.
As part of the same lawsuit, Rythmia also sued Kozlowski, one of the former facilitators, for sharing Leffler’s blog post on Facebook and for commenting that female employees were treated as “second class citizens” and verbally abused, and that the resort had “‘unchecked’ sexual energy.” Kozlowski filed an answer that denied every allegation in the complaint. Her case was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice and Leffler settled, agreeing to take down the blog post and to not publish anything similar again. Rythmia dismissed the claims with prejudice after she took the post down. Many of those I spoke with viewed Powell’s lawsuits or threats as a tactic to silence anyone who speaks unfavorably, either in public or private, about Rythmia or Powell’s character.
In the hour-long Vimeo video Powell sent, he said, “Not only do we not talk about anyone publicly in a bad way, it is our board, our friends of the board, and our mission to be a peaceful and beneficial presence on the planet.” In the video, he also characterized some former female employees and guests interviewed for this story as crazy, liars, and emotionally and mentally unstable. Powell suggested that if the story went to press, “it’s going to get awfully uncomfortable.”
Zinlynn Somerville first heard Powell’s “About Your Miracle” talk in November 2018. She had come to Rythmia at the suggestion of her therapist to deal with abandonment and trust issues. While there, Somerville briefly met Powell in Rythmia’s open-air dining area, called Roots, which serves organic fare beside the pool. Her first impression of Powell was underwhelming. “He told me he had a dream about me the night before I arrived,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘OK, whatever’ and then I left.”
Shortly after Somerville returned to her home in Vancouver, Canada, she and Powell began messaging on Facebook. Chatting up former guests wasn’t unusual for Powell. In a screenshot shared by Leffler before her settlement, he messaged her saying, “Hi beautiful, you look gorgeous as a blonde.” (In an email, Powell asked to see the message, including the ones before and after. When Motherboard said that wasn’t necessary in order to respond, Powell said, “Well your [sic] wrong, I think anyone would need to see the comments before and after.”) In the Rolling Out article, Powell said that during this period he was actively looking for a companion. Somerville returned to Rythmia the following May and started visiting Powell in Costa Rica monthly until she moved in with him full time in December 2019. Powell bought her a gold necklace for her birthday and a helicopter ride to a volcano. They soon moved into a gated house he built beside the Rythmia property. According to Somerville, they slept in the same bed, but she was given her own room to meditate or wind down after ayahuasca ceremonies, which take place in an airy maloca—a communal house used by indigenous people, typically in Brazil or Colombia—with rows of white mattresses. “It was like a villa,” she said of the house. He purchased a Citroën to lend her so she could get around town. “I felt like somebody,” said Somerville. Then, in March 2020, Rythmia shut down because of COVID-19, sending Powell and Somerville into quarantine. “That’s when I started seeing things were off,” she said.
In a statement she later sent to an officer in the Vancouver Police Department, she wrote that Powell’s nicknames for her included chubby, China, and panda. (Somerville was born in Burma; screenshots provided by Powell show her calling him chubby and panda, but Somerville did not recall this.) “He would tease me and said that if I [weighed] more than 103 pounds, he would get another girlfriend,” she wrote in the statement. The officer, Constable Greig Vandenberg, emailed Somerville to say that the information she provided him, which also included Whatsapp screenshots and voicemails, did not indicate criminal threats. “I understand that he had threatened to kill you on occasion during your fights but that in itself is not a criminal threat,” he wrote. (Powell did not recall threatening to kill Somerville or teasing her about weighing more than 103 pounds.) Somerville also alleged that Powell forbade her from wearing baggy clothes. In a contract they signed, he forbade her from eating sugar and from testing new diets without his consent. When she grocery shopped for the two of them for their ketogenic diet, she said she used cash to buy herself a Kit Kat bar and ate it on the drive home before throwing away the wrapper. She said Powell wanted her to wear red and orange because those colors complemented her skin tone. He wanted her to get acrylic nails. In the Vimeo, Powell said he likes the colors red and orange but said, “all the clothes I bought for her were baggy.”
Powell said in the Vimeo that around this time, Somerville started showing “possessions” that were “unnerving” to him. He sent a cellphone video of them discussing what to do when the devil pervades her. The footage, he said, was supposed to be used as “training videos for others who are afflicted with her same disorder.” In it, Powell explained that a few ways to end the episodes included slapping someone and tying them up. He said Somerville slapped him and asked him to slap her during one of her episodes. “I raised my left hand and lightly brushed it against her face,” he said. (Later, Powell referred to this incident as a “left-handed slap.”)
“When he hit me, that’s when he started saying I had some sort of possession,” said Somerville. “To me, that was total manipulation on his part to justify his physical abuse.” During several interviews, she expressed concern that Powell would release videos that portrayed her as crazy. “Whenever I’d try to talk to him about something, he'd tell me that I have issues, I need to go drink medicine to get better, I need to see my therapist—just gaslighting,” she said. “I actually thought I was the one with the issues.” (Powell sent numerous text screenshots that showed Somerville talking about how borderline personality disorder had affected her actions. When asked, Somerville said that she once believed she had BPD—something with which she has not been diagnosed—but now thinks that she has PTSD and anxiety, for the former of which she sought counseling.)
On April 25, Powell presented Somerville with an agreement. Among other stipulations, the contract said that if Somerville “goes without episodes” until July 1, then she will receive $2,000, in addition to the $5,000 for agreeing to the terms. There was a “zero-policy tolerance on episodes at Rythmia.” Powell defined an “episode” as including complaints to employees and enlisting “them to her benefit,” as well as screaming, throwing things, damaging personal items or the house, punching, and poking. Somerville did briefly return to Canada—where, Powell said on the Vimeo, he wanted her to undergo an exorcism—and returned a few months later. (Somerville said the exorcism consisted of taking psychedelic mushrooms.)
She said that Powell began drinking heavily. One night in October, she became concerned about Powell’s substance intake and messaged Rythmia’s medical director, Arturo Castro Urbina, about a possible overdose of Dormicum, a sleeping pill. Castro replied, “It is better that he is acting crazy than out.” She told Castro that Powell had taken “3 vodka, 1 Nyquil, 1 muscle relaxant, 10 mg of sedation, 1 liquid Ibprofin [sic] in like 15 minutes.” In a statement sent by Powell, Arturo said he didn’t believe Somerville and that he “simply placated her” because she was “trying to create drama.” Powell said that he is proud that his alcoholism, drug addiction, and physical abuse have not been a part of his life since 20 years prior, when he hit his ex-wife, something he’s discussed publicly.
Somerville says that when she told Powell the next morning about her messages with Arturo, he called her a liar and accused her of ruining his reputation. Powell said Somerville “had a problem with lying” and sent a Whatsapp message in which Somerville admitted to blaming others or lying to get out of situations. (When asked about the message, Somerville said her life coach made her write it and that she didn’t struggle with lying.) After she confronted Powell, she alleges that he smashed her phone and showed her a gun in his safe, a gesture she took as a threat. Powell admitted he threw her phone and broke it but said he only keeps a starter pistol in the house. During one argument with Powell, Somerville went into the bathroom and started recording. In the recording, Powell says, “I’m not mad at you, but holy fuck do I dislike you” and calls her a “stupid cunt.” When she asks him to stop calling her names, he replies, “Don’t tell me what the f—.” It seems Powell then slaps her while Somerville screams. “We’re all good,” Powell says after the altercation. “Thank you, sweetie. I love you.”
When asked about the recording, Powell said, “You also say you heard an audio where you think I slap her, well you’re wrong.” He didn’t recall calling Somerville a “stupid cunt.”
On November 1, 2020, Somerville attended an ayahuasca ceremony and told some of the employees what was happening. She says they put her in one of the hotel rooms—she doesn’t know whether they acted at the request of Powell—where she stayed the next few days. She claims it was so Rythmia’s guests wouldn’t see or hear her speaking out (the center reopened after initially closing during the pandemic). During this time, Powell left her a string of voicemails, accusing her of tarnishing Rythmia’s reputation. “The only reason I wanted you to stay was for you. And we had this all worked out for you and you’re still in a fucking psychologically disordered way and that’s why you’re acting this way,” he said in one of the voicemails, shared by Somerville. “So just settle the fuck down and let us do what we came to do for you.” In another voicemail he said, “This whole place rejected you, you fuck.” In yet another, he called her a “lying sack of shit.” In response to a request for comment on the voicemails he left during this period, Powell admitted to this last voicemail, calling it a “poor choice of words.” He didn’t comment on calling her “psychologically disordered.”
Even if she left the hotel room, Somerville said, she believed that she wouldn’t be able to get past security at the two gates that surround Rythmia and Hacienda Pinilla, the gated community it’s inside. “I felt all alone,” she said. (A friend of Somerville’s, who wasn’t there, said she saw evidence that Somerville was able to leave, but wouldn’t share the evidence upon which her claims are based).
That week, Powell presented her with another agreement, this one titled “Couple’s Agreement.” The contract said that if she managed to leave Rythmia without breaching the contract, she would receive a settlement of $41,681.76 (Canadian). Somerville was not allowed to display “extreme behaviors” which included jealousy for past love affairs and drinking ayahuasca in a group setting at Rythmia without Powell’s consent. She couldn’t speak to former employees about her relationship with Powell, share her opinion about Powell, or post on social media about Rythmia. Powell, for his part, promised that he would “not be aggressive with his words” as there would be “no name-calling.” The statement outlined an “agreed-upon and truthful backstory as to why the relationship was ended. Zin, [sic] missed her children and decided she could not be this far away from them on a continuous basis.” Motherboard reviewed the agreement and Powell acknowledged its validity.
“Basically they forced me to sign it,” she said. “‘You gotta sign this or you can’t go home’ kind of thing.” Powell said Somerville was “never forced to sign anything” except the agreement where “she would no longer physically attack me,” presumably referring to the April agreement.
By the time Somerville first arrived at Rythmia, in 2018, several female employees had left or been fired. “The day I arrived I could already feel something was off,” said Jennifer Peters, who worked there in 2017 before she was fired for, as she claims, refusing to administer a healing modality to guests akin to hypnosis. (Powell said he fired her because guests complained that she spoke to them through a monkey puppet.) “My stuff was still on the steps,” Peters said of that first day, and “I wanted to leave.”
Miracles are big business at Rythmia, which markets itself as the only retreat in the world that has a medical license to serve ayahuasca, and Powell promotes the center by touting its success rate. (A spokesperson for the Institute on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, or IAFA, an agency attached to the Ministry of Health, said Rythmia did not have accreditation, which means compliance with “several laws of our country.” Powell said that the IAFA license was “relinquished” and replaced with a “Plant Medicine Center License.” A sanitary operating permit from 2015, modified in 2018, shows that Rythmia can use any plant legal in Costa Rica and includes Banisteriopsis caapi and Chacruna, two plant ingredients used to make ayahuasca, in its list, but it does not specifically say the center will serve ayahuasca. In response to a request to see any license that Rythmia uses to sell or administer ayahuasca, Powell wrote in an email, “Please further explain Britta you’re using the term Ayahuasca when that is not the medical name. No one in the world has a license that uses that name. I think you’re getting caught up here, like in a liquor license, it does not list every drink you can mix. Do you understand this?”) The rate has increased over the years from 94.27 to 97.5 percent and is based on how many guests out of 100 said they received their miracle. “It’s a real, verified, electronically-reported statistic,” Powell once said in an interview. On YouTube, Rythmia uploads “I Got My Miracle” testimonials conducted, usually, between Powell and a guest. In testimonies on the YouTube channel, guests confirm that they received their miracles.
Slewinski, who worked at Rythmia in July 2018 (Powell said he didn’t have an employee record of anyone by this name; she went by Samantha Claire), said the miracle rate put pressure on employees to force miracles on guests. During Wednesday staff meetings, Powell would pull photos of the guests and go through, one-by-one, asking if each person had had a miracle. “‘You’ve got to make sure that at 3 o’clock on Wednesday, she has a breakthrough,’” Slewinski remembered Powell saying. “I thought, ‘This can’t be happening.’”
Powell upsells the Rythmia experience with add-ons like a “homeopathic” tincture and 12 months of aftercare for $999. “The bottom line was basically money,” said Amy Wharton, who facilitated there in 2017 and said she was abruptly asked to leave despite what she describes as positive feedback from staff and guests. Powell has also asked guests after their stay to give money to Rythmia, once framing the request as an appeal to assist with the financial burdens of the center, according to a private Facebook post shared with Motherboard. (Powell denied he or employees ask guests to give money, but asked for a time frame to better answer the question.) It’s a strategy where “they pressure people to sign up for another retreat when they’re in this vulnerable state,” Wharton said.
Slewinski, Wharton, Kozlowski, and Peters all described ayahuasca ceremonies as hectic or exhausting, sometimes packed with up to 80 bodies. “You’ve got like five people throwing up, one person freaking out, one person screaming,” Slewinski said. “It’s a crazy circus.” Peters said that during her time there, one person went missing and was later found elsewhere on the property. Powell said he wasn’t aware of this incident, but did say the “peak miracle rate happens at 86 people” and that ceremonies sometimes draw 100 guests. “In the Colombia tradition, they do as many as 200 at a time,” he said in the Vimeo. “They’ve been doing that for 5,000 years.”
In a 2019 interview with Face the Current magazine, Powell emphasized Rythmia’s serene safety. “Of all the emergencies we’ve ever had, the biggest one was a woman fell at a flea market,” Powell told the magazine. “That was our biggest emergency because the medicine is not going to hurt anybody.” Sophie Whitney, an intern at Rythmia in 2016, said she didn’t witness any emergencies and that she respected the program. Powell, in Rolling Out, said an attending EMT is in every ceremony and that Rythmia has doctors and nurses on call—a fact he didn’t mention in response to questions from Motherboard. Somerville said that during her time there, a paramedic walked around outside, but was not in the ceremony.
Kozlowski, whom Rythmia sued for posting on Facebook, worked at Rythmia for more than two years. According to court documents, she sued Rythmia in a Costa Rica labor court for $27,000 in unpaid salary and alleged that on several occasions, participants in the ceremonies physically attacked her and that one guest tried to rape her in the bathroom while she helped him vomit and then grabbed her vagina. She alleged in the document that this was communicated to Powell who “did not give the slightest importance.” In an interview, she said the guest who bit his tongue needed to go to the hospital and a facilitator wrestled a naked male guest and broke his toe. Powell said he had no record of the latter incident, but said he remembered the guest who bit his tongue. “I had to quit working ceremonies because they had become so dark and scary for me,” she said. Powell said the case settled, but couldn't give any information per the agreement.
Powell is a longtime entrepreneur. His first business, in the ‘90s, was a development company that Powell calls YRENT in his book, but news articles refer to as Why Rent. A 2004 New York Times investigation reported allegations of deceptive business practices by Powell’s business partner, Gene P. Percudani, including predatory lending to minority homeowners that led to foreclosures. Percudani settled the claims without admitting wrongdoing, according to the Pocono Record. Percudani and Powell had a bitter dispute over the company. “After fighting over a $2 million settlement to dissolve their partnership in 1996, they took their Virginia operations into bankruptcy,” the Times article read. A 1998 story in the Pocono Record puts the fight more bluntly: “A $1.2 million out-of-court settlement has ended one of the most bitter business 'divorces' in the Poconos.”
Around the same time, Powell was starting and operating several LLCs, plastic surgery websites, health companies, and real estate ventures. He started thatlook.com, in 1995, which advertised “cosmetic surgery for little money down and low monthly payments”; a similar plastic surgery website, looksforless.com, was started in 2001, offering breast augmentation for $1,999 (the link now reroutes to doctorssayyes.com). “By choosing to undergo cosmetic surgery, you will take an important step toward enhancing your appearance and boosting your self-esteem forever,” the site read in 2008. He also owned a nutrition program called Rythmia Practice Solutions, LLC (“an exclusive formulation of over 70 high-density nutrients'') and Rythmia Domain Company, LLC (“Our high quality domain names are easier to brand, easier to remember and it's hard to misspell”). He was also an investor in Sir Richard’s Condom Company.
These early businesses “wound up,” as Powell put it, went into bankruptcy, or became wrapped up in litigation. In 2004, he sold another marketing company for plastic surgeons, My Choice Medical, for $33 million with up to $56 million in contingent payments. Several years later, he and two other plaintiffs sued the company. Powell claimed he was owed over $3.8 million in bonuses. At the time, Powell was earning almost a quarter million a year from My Choice Medical, according to court documents. In a 2008 complaint filed in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, Powell alleged that he was, essentially, cheated out of the bonus. The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice. Motherboard asked Powell on what grounds the suit was dismissed, but he didn’t know.
All of this occurred, in Powell’s telling, at the height of his transgressions. In Sh*t the Moon Said, Powell describes his wife of about 20 years catching him having an affair in a motel room. “Besides my wife, I was having sex with an average of about two different women a day,” he writes.
Powell’s personal narrative that he was a millionaire—according to court documents, net assets with his ex-wife totaled $35 million—and yet still deeply troubled and unhappy factors heavily into Rythmia’s marketing. His redemption story seems to attract guests who, in YouTube testimonials, talk about how they came to Rythmia at their most vulnerable and hopeless. Some were stricken with grief following a father’s death from cancer, while others were burnt out from work. Nichole Sylvester, a spiritual life coach with a podcast called Miracle Minded, talked about how she had post-traumatic stress from being kidnapped as a child and refused to sleep with the window open. “When I came home [from Rythmia], I noticed that I was seeing life so much differently,” she said.
Some see Rythmia and its promises as a work of fiction. “He’d be speaking in his class how he used to be a wife beater, sex addict, a bunch of things. And he claims he’s no longer that person,” said Somerville of Powell. “But to me, he’s still that same person.” She said that Rythmia didn’t offer any aftercare, a selling point for the center. Diaz-Gold, Luke Sellars, a former guest speaker at Rythmia and professional ice hockey player, and Leffler, on her blog, reported nonexistent aftercare. Powell denied this allegation and in the defamation suit against Leffler, Rythmia argued her post “falsely” made this claim.
Brad Floyd, a guest, said the lack of aftercare—he called it “integration”—at Rythmia led to his breakdown. He had come to plant medicine after watching a film called The Reality of Truth, which appears on Rythmia’s YouTube page. The short film features Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Fast and Furious actor Michelle Rodriguez (none responded to emails). It begins with the narrator’s quest to understand what “manna from heaven,” a phrase used in the Old Testament, means, but quickly turns into a quasi-documentary about Powell and Rythmia. “They really presented [ayahuasca] like a magic pill,” said Floyd. “It’s going to cure everything from addiction to depression to anxiety to trauma.”
Floyd, who was taking 50 milligrams of Pristiq every day, a prescription drug used to treat depression, stayed at Rythmia in 2018. During an ayahuasca ceremony, he said, he saw visions of death and became so anxious that he left the retreat early. He said neither Powell nor any other employee seemed concerned. Whitney, the former intern, said she helped with mental health intakes on site to make sure no one was on an SSRI, which can interfere with ayahuasca, and to go over medication history. “There are some contraindications for medications,” she said. “Even herbal supplements.” When Floyd returned home, he began having suicidal thoughts and lost 42 pounds. He suffered a heart attack and checked into a mental health facility. Rythmia is a “a very, very, very dangerous place for someone to be that’s having mental trouble,” he said. Powell declined to comment, citing patient privacy concerns.
That same year, Concepcion Garcia, a 37-year-old mother from Montana, went to Rythmia to find her miracle. While there, in January 2018, she kept in touch with her cousin, Connie Palmer, through Whatsapp. “I must be really fucked up,” she wrote to Palmer, in reference to her lack of “miracle.” Palmer said no and suggested maybe this was God’s plan. “Idk but to see how others have changed is amazing,” Garcia replied. “I want that too.” She said she didn’t “feel worthy of a miracle.” When Palmer picked up Garcia from the airport after her return, she noticed Garcia was thin and pale. Two weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, Garcia went missing. Palmer’s last Whatsapp message said, “Damn it Cep call me.”
The police found Garcia dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. “She went and bought a charcoal grill and put it in the back of her black Escalade and lighted it up,” Palmer told me. Her suicide was first reported on an episode of the Oh No, Ross and Carrie! podcast after the hosts, Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy, attended Rythmia with Garcia. (Rythmia sued the show and hosts, alleging Rythmia paid $10,000 for their all-inclusive stay in exchange for a “positive marketing piece” that never aired. Matthew Struger, Blocher and Poppy’s lawyer, said no such agreement existed, though the center did pay for the hosts’ stay. After publication, Poppy reached out to clarify that Rythmia didn’t cover airfare, but comped their room and board. Their case was voluntarily dismissed after an anti-SLAPP motion.) In an email to Palmer and other family members after Garcia’s death, Powell said Garcia gave Rythmia 4.8 out of 5 stars and wrote in the exit survey that she would return.
“We have over 2468 prior guests who rave about their life-changing stay with us and we have never had a past guest commit suicide,” he wrote, “up until your daughter.”
Powell denied he tried to dissuade the family from seeking legal action but said instead that he was showing Palmer “the facts” about how much a lawsuit in Costa Rica costs.
Powell signed off from the Vimeo with the hope that “the situation we believe is happening, we hope it’s not happening for the reason it looks like it’s happening.”
“Cheers,” he said.
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