Quest for inner peace led Lani to a cruel death

Belief in a diet of nothing but air cost a mother of nine her life, Geoffrey Newman reports

The Australian, November 20, 1999

NO ONE will ever know the suffering Lani Morris must have endured as she lay alone in a caravan, paralysed down her right side, delirious and coughing black liquid.

Certainly not Jim or Eugenia Pesnak.

They were convinced Morris, 53, was suffering a spiritual crisis, not a medical one, after going seven days without food or water as part of a 21-day initiation into the new-age cult of breatharianism.

The Pesnaks were yesterday found guilty in the Brisbane Supreme Court of the manslaughter of Morris, a mother of nine. The jury had rejected their defence that they "honestly and reasonably" believed Morris was not sick until 11 days into the process.

Like the Pesnaks, Morris was a deeply spiritual woman. After reading the book Living on Light by Brisbane breatharian-guru Jasmuheen, Morris became convinced the initiation process was for her.

So it was that she came to be at Brisbane airport on June 13 last year, being greeted by the couple.

Both recently initiated breatharians, they drove her to their home in the bayside suburb of Ormiston.

The Pesnaks had supervised about 30 people through the process, although Eugenia Pesnak had protested initially, fearing an accident. But her husband would have his way. They put Morris in a caravan in the yard - isolation was essential - and left her alone.

According to the rules set out in a statutory declaration Jim Pesnak had sent to Morris's home in Victoria a month before, she was allowed orange juice after seven days and nothing else for the next two weeks. It also purported to free the Pesnaks of any liability if anything went wrong. Six days in, Jim Pesnak was in the garden when he heard a thud in the caravan. He found Morris on all fours on the floor after falling out of bed.

"Stupid me," she said.

According to her diary, she had been dreaming of cakes and tea. She could taste something like bile but indicated she believed in the process, accusing her mind of betraying her body, noting: "Breasts smaller, wish it was my stomach."

As the three of them toasted her first drink the following Saturday night, they thought the worst was over.

But Morris did not respond. She progressively lost the use of her right arm and leg, became incontinent and stopped talking. The last entry in her diary was a spiral.

Jim Pesnak began consulting a doctor, William Moulton, who had been through the process. Dr Moulton later denied he had been giving Jim Pesnak medical advice but Pesnak satisfied himself Morris had not had a stroke and the black liquid she was vomiting was a mixture of all the spiritual and physical pollutants the process was designed to evacuate.

As Jim Pesnak's interviews with police demonstrated, he was convinced Morris had a spiritual blockage, created by her "childish" refusal to let go of her "emotional burdens".

The Pesnaks claimed later traditional medicine would not have understood what was going on and drugs would have stopped her spiritual journey. "As far as the process is concerned sometimes a doctor's intervention can be fatal," Eugenia Pesnak said without a hint of irony.

But Wednesday would force Jim Pesnak's hand. The black substance had begun collecting in pools and Morris began to choke. When she spat out a crude tube he had stuck in her mouth to help her breathe he called the ambulance, but not before he made a final call to Dr Moulton's voicemail.

"Bill . . . I'm having problems, real problems," he said. "Should I call the ambulance and what should I tell them?"

Lani Morris died on July 1, suffering from pneumonia, severe dehydration, kidney failure and the effects of a severe stroke.

Prosecutor Charlie Clark asked Justice Margaret Wilson to impose a sentence of six to seven years' jail for Jim Pesnak and two to three years' jail for his wife, saying they had shown no remorse.

The couple will be sentenced next Friday.


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