The Shaman Will See You Now

New York's most radical rehab counselor is still standing after a duel with the DEA

There are no animal hides or grass mats in the hotel room this time around, and Mugianis looks less like a shaman and more like a regular guy wearing jeans, a button-down shirt, and a gray flat cap. It smells as though somebody recently smoked a celebratory bowl of weed. Mugianis is in the suite's kitchen sending a text message when he lets out a howl of laughter.

"I sent a text to Gabon: 'Basse! We won!'" he tells the room. "'They sent a text back from the jungle. They said, 'We already know. We were praying for you all night.'"

Their nganga in Gabon was among 74 people who wrote letters to the court on behalf of Mugianis and his associates. He informed the judge that the men are "the American messengers" of Bwiti and that Mugianis "has compassion for every down-trodden person." Similar messages were delivered from friends, family members, harm-reduction activists, academics, and former addicts who swear by the kindness and support Mugianis provided while helping them to get clean.

Dimitri "Mobengo" Mugianis practices Bwiti, an African religion that involves elaborate rituals and ibogaine, a potent hallucinogen that some say helps cure opiate addiction.
Willie Davis
Dimitri "Mobengo" Mugianis practices Bwiti, an African religion that involves elaborate rituals and ibogaine, a potent hallucinogen that some say helps cure opiate addiction.
Mugianis and his assistant, Michael "Kombi" McKenna, perform a ceremony that makes offerings to "the mother of the forest" (represented by the tree).
Willie Davis
Mugianis and his assistant, Michael "Kombi" McKenna, perform a ceremony that makes offerings to "the mother of the forest" (represented by the tree).

"I do not understand Bwiti," the judge told the court during sentencing. "It's not important that I understand Bwiti. What is important is that the defendants understand Bwiti. And it is a strong component in their lives and has been something that has been actually directing their activities for what I think everybody would say would be the common good as a general proposition."

Rogoff stands by the DEA investigation and says the judge handed down an appropriate penalty. "They were charged for what they did, and they were sentenced based on who they are," the prosecutor says. "I think the system worked exactly how it should in this case."

The woman who worked nearly a year as an informant doesn't see it quite that way.

"It was really sad to me to know that the three of them got off on nothing," Dinesen says during a 20-minute phone conversation. "I'm not afraid of these people anymore, but, I mean, they most certainly changed my life. My marriage has ended. I'm not the same person anymore after all that stuff."

Dinesen says she's writing a book about her experience and would "like people to know what happened," yet she declined to answer questions about her relationship with Sharp and Breakspear, or about whether the DEA paid her to work as an informant.

Dinesen says she is under a "gag order" after filing a malpractice lawsuit against Sharp and Breakspear (Washington court records show the case was dismissed with prejudice on March 19), and ends the interview by saying she needs permission from her attorney to speak further. Neither Dinesen nor her attorney responded to several subsequent calls and messages.

Breakspear spoke briefly when reached by phone at her office. She confirms that Dinesen was her client and says she felt "guilty until proven innocent" in her dealings with the Washington State Department of Health. (Records show her license is in good standing with the agency.) Breakspear declined to answer questions on the record, saying "quite frankly, the DEA scares me," before ending the call.

Sharp also declined a request for an interview, saying a DEA agent involved with the case "has complete regulatory control over my license." Sharp's office was audited by the DEA in 2010 and records show he was later sanctioned by the state health department, which charged him with unprofessional conduct and importation of controlled substances. He did not face criminal charges.

Since their sentencing, Payne and McKenna have continued living in New York and working with Mugianis to help recovering drug addicts. They also operate the Yippie! Museum and Café, a performance space and community center (now closed) at 9 Bleecker Street in Noho handed down from the 1960s counter- culture movement.

Mugianis's primary causes are developing sustainable iboga production in Gabon — "the plant is becoming endangered," he says — and working with New York Harm Reduction Educators in East Harlem and the Bronx, where he preaches sobriety and Bwiti to recovering addicts. There's no iboga involved, but Mugianis incorporates animal furs and all the other ceremonial trappings into his sermons. "If you go to 125th and Lexington, you'll find junkies with Bwiti paintings on their faces," he boasts.

"Once a week we take a trip to the forest," he adds. "We do a ceremony with active drug users, sex workers, people recently incarcerated. We go take a bunch of hardened criminals and hug trees."

Mugianis has been courting fame since his encounter with the feds. He was profiled by the New York Times earlier this year for his harm-reduction work and featured on an episode of HBO's Vice, performing an ibogaine ceremony with a heroin addict in Tijuana. He says he's working on a variety of media projects and shopping an idea for a reality show that features him as "the Anthony Bourdain of the spiritual world."

The shaman says the intervention by the DEA prompted reflection — "My magic powder was taken away. It stopped me in my tracks. I was able to find my bearings" — but he maintains he did nothing wrong.

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