Blurred Vision: Men’s Journal

IN THE GRAINY CELL PHONE VIDEO, Sebastian Woodroffe is struggling to stand. Dressed in jean shorts and a black sweatshirt, he’s lying in a puddle, clearly in pain, moaning and gurgling in the blood and the dirt. If he has not embraced his fate, he has at least acknowledged it. Around him, on a soggy, green clearing in a jungle settlement, a crowd has formed. The villagers, maybe 25 in all, mostly men, scream and shriek. “Why did you kill her, you son of a bitch?!” one bellows in an indigenous tongue. Others stand under the thatched awning of a shack, saying nothing; schoolchildren mill around.

A man in a baseball hat then tries to loop a seat belt around Woodroffe’s neck. He throws it off. The man tries again and gets the noose tight around Woodroffe’s throat. Someone shouts, “Pull, pull!” and the man does. He and a partner drag Woodroffe into the grass. Woodroffe is lying facedown now, arms at his side, no longer struggling. The man holding the end of the noose drops it. Then Woodroffe lifts his head, and the man snatches the noose and pulls it tight again and again. Then the video cuts off.

Authorities examining Sebastian Woodroffe's body.
Authorities examining Sebastian Woodroffe’s bodySebastian Castaneda

ON APRIL 21, 2018, THE FOOTAGE WAS posted to the Facebook page of a Peruvian news outlet. When local authorities saw it, they knew immediately who the white man was. For the past 48 hours, they’d been searching for Woodroffe—ever since an 81-year-old shaman named Olivia Arévalo Lomas had been shot and killed in Victoria Gracia, a village of indigenous Shipibo-Conibo people, in the remote Ucayali region of northeastern Peru. Police had found her lifeless body beneath a coconut tree, with two bullet holes in her chest and three spent .380 ACP cartridges a few yards away. The villagers had been emphatic that the killer was the “gringo.” But Woodroffe was nowhere to be found.

After viewing the clip, officers returned to Victoria Gracia, where they discovered Woodroffe’s body about 700 yards from the village. Wrapped in a blue sheet, he had been buried hastily in a two-foot grave. His face was swollen. His body was purple with bruises. His clothes were coated in dirt and dried blood.

Woodroffe, 41, was a handsome, free-spirited father of a 9-year-old son who had, a few years before, developed an affinity for the drug ayahuasca—a sludgy, hallucinogenic brew made from Banisteriopsis caapi vines and chacruna leaves. The concoction has been consumed in the Amazon basin for centuries, and now each year, thousands of foreigners—mostly from North America and Europe—travel to the region to indulge in its psychedelic properties. In trekking to Peru, Woodroffe had intended, ostensibly, to study under local shamans, to “fix [his] mind,” as he wrote on Facebook.

Shaman Olivia Arevalo Lomas.
Shaman Olivia Arevalo Lomas.Sebastian Castaneda

Olivia Arévalo, meanwhile, was not only a grandmother figure to the villagers of Victoria Gracia but also a spiritual matriarch to the Shipibo-Conibo people—one of the largest tribes in the Peruvian Amazon, with 20,000 members, concentrated around the Ucayali River. The descendant of a long line of healers, she knew some 500 herbal remedies and was, to the younger villagers, one of the last links to their dying tribal culture. “She had the power to calm storms and strong winds,” villager Nestor Castro later told me.

In the following days, the seemingly senseless murder of Olivia Arévalo and Woodroffe’s brutal execution became international news. CNNThe GuardianThe Washington Post, and Vice all picked up the story. The Peruvian newspaper La República wrote that Arévalo’s murder was the death of Shipibo culture incarnate. And in Woodroffe’s native Canada, the papers focused on his friends’ and family’s disbelief. “It is absolutely not something he is capable of in any way,” a friend named Alison Jones told Global News.

Before an ayahuasca ceremony, shaman César Coquinche Hoyos searches for Banisteriopsis caapi vines, an essential part in making the hallucinogenic brew.Sebastian Castaneda

The murders also sparked intense debate among a burgeoning community of ayahuasca users. On Web forums, like DMT Nexus, commenters seemed split. Many condemned the tribe for taking justice into its own hands. But others laid the blame squarely on Woodroffe. “There is rampant racism, xenophobia, and misogyny in the community (which is overwhelmingly made up of young, white Euromerican men and boys),” one user wrote. These men, the commenter continued, “appropriate things they have no honest knowledge or understanding of.” An expat blogger responded similarly, accusing Woodroffe of being woefully naive about the realities of tribal life in Latin America.

Ricardo Jimenez, the lead prosecutor in the Ucayali region, told me that once Woodroffe’s body was found, forensic experts quickly pieced together that he had indeed killed Olivia Arévalo, as the villagers alleged. Officers discovered his silver Taurus handgun buried in a nearby cemetery, and forensic experts matched empty cartridges found near Olivia Arévalo’s body with the gun. Gunshot residue was also discovered on the sleeves of Woodroffe’s sweatshirt. But what remained uncertain was how Woodroffe had become so lost and descended into such darkness, and whether ayahuasca had played a part…


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