As the sun began to rise over the desert mountains of southern Arizona on April 22, Christie McNally desperately activated an emergency beacon outside a cave where her husband lay. More than five hours later rescuers from a search helicopter rappelled down to the cave, in which they found camping equipment and food, but only a bit of dirty water in a jug-and a frantic McNally. “Christie was delirious,” says Sgt. David Noland of the Cochise County, Ariz., sheriff’s office. McNally believed her husband was very ill; in fact, Ian Thorson, 38, was dead. A coroner’s report determined the cause: dehydration. “This was a couple who thought they could live off the land,” says Noland. “Obviously they made a terrible mistake.”
That mistake closed the book on the police case but opened a window onto Diamond Mountain, a seemingly serene and intensely private Buddhist university in Bowie, Ariz., that McNally cofounded with Michael Roach, a Princeton-educated Buddhist monk. Shaken by Thorson’s death, the retreat has also been rocked by a taboo marriage, allegations of unorthodox initiation rites and excessive devotion to the institution’s charismatic leaders. Thorson’s mom, Kay, branded the enclave a cult and accused Roach of dangling promises of “enlightenment” in exchange for her son’s “total dedication.”
Started in 2004, the retreat is described as a place where participants can find answers through yoga, meditation and three years of practicing silence. But what many students did not know was that Roach, 59, had secretly married McNally, 39, in 1998, in violation of his monastic vows. Publicly the couple touted their “spiritual union,” which they claimed involved never being more than 15 ft. apart while remaining celibate. In 2010, Roach filed for divorce from McNally-a source of some amusement to locals skeptical of Roach and his followers. “There’s nothing less enlightening than an enlightened couple splitting up,” says sculptor Ted Dickinson.
Just one month after the filing, McNally, a California native, married Thorson, a former surfer and Roach devotee. Last February, another shocker: McNally made an apparent admission to students that she had stabbed Thorson with a knife after he repeatedly abused her. Horrified, retreat officials investigated. Roach later claimed that after a medical staffer at Diamond Mountain described “three separate wounds to [Thorson’s] torso,” officials, seeking to preserve the community’s nonviolent ways, expelled the couple, providing money and a car. The pair took off and were not heard from until three days before Thorson’s death, when McNally, in an online missive to her students, described the knife incident as an accident and declared she was a victim of a “hostile takeover.”
It’s uncertain how this tension sits with followers, who revere McNally and Roach. Sid Johnson, 44, a former student, says Roach called McNally a “holy angel,” an image reinforced by her flowing gowns. Now a staunch critic, Johnson describes a bizarre initiation ritual that included “kissing and genital touching.” Roach, who denies such rites ever happened or that he’s running a cult, says, “Rather than being controlling, I try to empower people.” For now, McNally is in hiding, and the retreat remains. Says Douglas Smith, a former student: “Despite this tragedy, those remaining are devout and likely won’t be swayed to leave.”