Fatal Trek

The mysterious desert death of a Brooklyn yoga devotee

Robert casts the hikers as a group so in thrall to Dahn and the desire to become masters that they lost the ability to act rationally. He says that their leaders at the retreat center told them in no uncertain terms that if they didn't finish the hike, they would fail to become masters.

In the last hours of her life, Julia was no longer outgoing, ambitious, or even nervous�she was unconscious. As Robert tells it, Master Charlie picked her up and carried her to a tree, under which he estimates the group spent three hours. He had the impression that the master was "waiting for Julia to wake up so we could continue." Once Julia began shaking, the group panicked. Master Charlie used a stick to manipulate pressure points on her hands and feet and tried to revive her before one hiker started to administer CPR. She shouted that Julia was wearing a necklace with a medal of the Virgin Mary. The group began to pray out loud.

Julia Silverls and Dr. Ilchi Lee the day before her death.
photo: Courtesy of Terry Brostowin
Julia Silverls and Dr. Ilchi Lee the day before her death.


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Julia Silverls in Arizona in her ceremonial robe having completed her course in Dahn Yoga at the Ilchi Meditation Center in Sedona just before her death.
photo: Courtesy of Veronica Dunham
In November 2004, prompted by Veronica Siverls-Dunham�who was looking for closure and wanted to contact the hikers herself�Detective McDormett called Robert. What Robert said on the phone that day and later wrote in an affidavit led the sheriff's office to reopen its investigation in June 2005. He told McDormett that the key to the mystery of Julia's death was the hikers' backpacks: Instead of containing appropriate provisions (he said the hikers were given only four 10- to 16-ounce bottles of water and two pieces of fruit to share), their bags were filled with rocks. Master Charlie instructed the trainees to gather 40 pounds each from the retreat center grounds and weigh them on a scale. By the time police and paramedics arrived, the rocks were gone from the packs, emptied by Master Charlie and another hiker, according to Robert.

Robert says that he was "coached" by Dahn employees at the meditation center to tell the police that they carried enough food and water with them on the trip. As for the rocks, "We were told not to bring [them] up, that I know for sure," he says. "It was not only implied, it was stated very clearly." But if there was a cover-up, the sheriff's office and the D.A. found insufficient evidence of it. They also could not rule out the possibility that the methadone in her system came from a prescription painkiller and closed the second criminal investigation last fall.

Dahn spokesperson Charlotte Connors disputes many elements of Robert's story. She says the hike is "not very arduous" and maintains that all the Dahn yoga training she has done is less strenuous than her college field hockey training. In an e-mail, she writes, "the Coconino Forest Service reports that the Casner Mountain Trail is 2.5 miles long." (The U.S. Forest Service website, in its Coconino National Forest section, states that the trail is seven miles.) Furthermore, based on what the hikers originally told investigators, "it is a fact" that they had water. And, she writes, there is no requirement to carry rocks.

Former and current masters alike are familiar with the hike and the rocks in question. Rose, a current master who was a close friend of Julia, likens carrying the rocks to "praying for a person, and the amount depends on how many people you're making a sacrifice for." She won't reveal how many she carried on her own hike to become a master, late in 2003. As for the provisions she carried on her own hike, Rose offers an unusual response: "It's not really a wise thing to bring food. . . . The food will make you heavy. Even water�when you see the marathon, they don't encourage anyone to drink water, because the water also will slow you down, slow your metabolism. It's just like any other sports training."

Gladys Wesley-Kennedy, a former master, who earned her stripes in Sedona in 2002, is not surprised that a masters' training session would come to tragic end. Not long before Julia's death, Dahn began mass- producing masters, she says, targeting certain American members with "good energy" and hurrying them through the intense training process.

A Family unites over the death of Julia Silverls. Brothers Alfonso Siverls (far left) and Ronald Siverls (far right) sit with their sister Veronica Dunham (at back) who is joined by her daughter Katherine Dunham (center) at Veronicas home in Upstate New York.
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe
At the root of this push for masters, according to Wesley-Kennedy and other former Dahn members, is money. In their civil complaint, the Siverls family cites a labyrinth of 12 for-profit and nonprofit corporate entities that they allege are "secretly link[ed] . . . to disguise the size of the organization and shelter the Dahn Hak Cult's income and assets," as well as Dahn's founder, Ilchi Lee. Critics of Dahn claim that Ilchi Lee is purveying faux enlightenment for very real profit. According to the Siverlses' complaint, Dahn lures members with free classes and then pressures them to spend big on retreats, workshops, and healing sessions, an allegation based at least in part on the more than $15,000 Julia paid out to Dahn. An annual membership in New York City runs almost $2,000; in its Brooklyn Heights center, Dahn charges $29 for an initial consultation. The hour is capped by an aggressive sales pitch to become a member, complete with instructions to "feel" the decision to join, rather than think about it, and a warning that choosing the gym over Dahn will lead to the buildup of toxins in the body. The session ends with a hug.
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