Christie McNally and Michael Roach, Famed Buddhist Teachers, in Tale of Death in Arizona Desert; Ian Thorson, McNally's Husband, Found Dead in Cave
Christie McNally, noted Buddhist teacher, and Ian Thorson pose for a book-promo shot. Thorson died after the couple spent two months in a desert cave in southeastern Arizona following their eviction from a Buddhist retreat.
Roach and McNally, who were said in a 2008 New York Times story to have a "growing following," co-wrote several books and also opened the Diamond Mountain University in a rural area near Bowie, Arizona. The place is Buddhist retreat where people embark on three-year silent retreats to find their inner selves.
After a scandalous relationship between Roach and McNally ended, McNally paired up with one of the Buddhist students, Ian Thorson of New York City. The two also wrote a book on yoga together, which Roach endorsed.
In February, the two were banished from the facility because of concerns about suspected domestic violence. They hiked to a shallow cave on federal land several miles southwest of Diamond Mountain's 960-acre property, taking jugs of water, a plastic tub full of food, and a cell phone.
On the morning of April 22, Diamond Mountain staff called authorities to report that the couple were in distress. A short while later, McNally called 911, saying Thorson was struggling to breathe.
After apparently spending more than two months in the cave with McNally, Thorson died before a rescue helicopter arrived.
Rescuers found five one-gallon jugs -- empty, though one had some water with leaves and branches in it. "It did not appear to be clean for drinking water," says Carol Capas, spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.
No cooking materials were found, Capas says, even though much of the food included dried beans and rice.
The couple kept the food container at the bottom of a 60-foot embankment, to which they had to scramble and slide down. McNally told rescuers that she and Thorson became so weak that they made a "conscious decision," at some point, to stop trying to get food because they were worried they might not be able to climb back up the embankment, Capas says.
McNally was found in a weakened state and flown out with Thorson's body.
Capas says deputies had gone out to the Diamond Mountain University two months earlier following a February 13 call from the retreat's property manager, Robert Ruisinger.
A rescue helicopter arrived too late to save Thorson.
Image: Cochise County Sheriff's Office
Ruisinger told the Sheriff's Office he wanted to report a possible domestic violence incident that had happened about a year ago, though no victim would be coming forward. He'd learned of a speech that McNally had given at the retreat on February 4 in which she'd "made comments about possibly cutting her partner, Ian Thorson, with a large knife."
Capas says the deputies didn't interview McNally, but did talk to a woman "who had sutured Ian's wound." She explained she'd been told the couple had been "goofing off."
Three days before their rescue, a 31-page screed written by McNally was uploaded to the Internet. In it, she complained about being booted from a retreat home she founded nine years ago. She downplayed the "knife incident" as a mishap during martial arts training with a "rather large samurai sword."
But she also described "physical aggression" and "outbursts" by Thorson:
We agreed on various remedial actions, and had a lot of debates! But I could not reject him. I took a vow to join with him "in sickness and in health." So if he had a problem, we both did. I am on this path, and needed to know what desperate fears and desires were in his heart,driving him.
Retreat officials, acting on a vote from the retreat's board of directors, came to the cabin of Thorson and McNally and gave them five days to leave, McNally wrote. At the time, she was the leader of the retreat, which started in 2010 and was to last three years, three months and three days.
We had a run-down broken tent, a coleman stove, a sleeping bag that fit two-what more did we need? So we went out to the forest and made our camp. And the very first night, we saw these flashlights wandering through the dark. And I said to Ian, "I think that's people looking for us!" And he said, "Why?"
She described avoiding the people who appeared on another night, who she assumed were from Diamond Mountain.
Roach wrote a long statement about the incident and posted it on the Diamond Mountain Web site, saying he'd been in Argentina during McNally's rescue.
Roach said that Diamond Mountain's board of directors had received information not only about the knife wounds, which he described as "three separate wounds to the torso, one of which was deep enough to threaten vital organs," but had also received word of "assault of students and staff by Ian."
In a "heart-rending" vote, the board decided to evict the couple from the property for one year, Roach wrote. After they left, their cabin was locked to keep out "illegal immigrants," who had broken in previously.
Roach denied that anyone from Diamond Mountain had been out to look for the couple, but he acknowledged that some people at the retreat knew where they were:
On February 22, we were informed by email from their assistant that they had left the land at 5 am on Monday, February 20, and that he had driven to a public road to pick them up...
We were subsequently presented with hotel receipts and asked to pay for them. The location of the hotels on the receipts were blacked out. Because of this, we could not reimburse these receipts, but receiving them led us to believe that the couple had safely left the area.
When "Lama Christie's" father called the retreat on March 26, asking if his daughter had left the property, "we confirmed this and referred him to her assistant's email and phone number so that he could hear the story from her directly."
The staff saw the document McNally uploaded on April 19, but "we don't know from where or how she posted this."
A few days later, Roach received word of the rescue. And then he found out that two university volunteers were aware the couple had been in the area for some time.
"These individuals may have been supplying the couple with food and water, apparently along with a charged cell phone," he wrote. "I had spent the entire day on Sunday, April 1, in a University meeting in Phoenix with one of these individuals, and they never mentioned anything at all about the couple. The individuals are now with Lama Christie helping her, and we have asked that they give us some information about their role once some healing has occurred."
McNally is also "healing" and has requested that Diamond Mountain officials leave her alone, according to Roach.
A call to Diamond Mountain wasn't immediately returned on Tuesday.
Capas says the Sheriff's Office is awaiting a report from the county medical examiner's office before closing the case.
For the three dozen people still trying to carry out their multi-year adventure into silence, the last few weeks must have presented supreme temptation.
UPDATE: A reader pointed out that McNally's two personal "caretakers" posted a letter on the Internet on April 24. They give more details about why the couple landed in such dire straits:
Almost 10 days ago, Lama Christie fell sick and could not leave the cave for several days. Ein stayed by her side to take care of her, because he did not want to leave her alone. In a few days she began to recover but Ein began to exhibit similar symptoms. In the delirium of their sickness they lost track of the passage of days. Their stock of water ran low and they were too weak to go down from 6,000-7,000 feet to retrieve water. Unfortunately, they were unaware of the lethal consequences of dehydration.
On the morning of Sunday, April 22, she awoke before dawn to find Ein unconscious and unsure if he was breathing. She called for help...
This raises more questions, such as why she didn't call for help sooner. McNally was delirious, sick and had lost track of time for "days" before the rescue -- but managed to upload her diatribe to the Internet on April 19.
We'll let you know if we find out anything else.
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