Opening statements set in Arizona sweat lodge case

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) March 2011

Minutes before motivational speaker James Arthur Ray led dozens of people in a sweat lodge ceremony, he told them, “You will feel as if you’re going to die. I guarantee that.

“You will feel like your skin is going to fall off. When you emerge you’ll be a new person, like you’ve looked death in the eyes and overcome it.”

His predictions that participants would purge toxins and enter altered states of mind proved true. Whether his conduct before and during the sweat lodge caused the deaths of three people will be up to a jury to decide.

Opening statements in Ray’s manslaughter trial began this week in the central Arizona town of Camp Verde.

Ray has pleaded not guilty to the charges, stemming from the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn.

A conviction on all three counts could send Ray to prison for more than 35 years.

Eighteen others were injured in the Oct. 8, 2009 incident during Ray’s five-day “Spiritual Warrior” event, with some of the participants emerging with no major problems.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment ahead of opening statements, citing a gag order the judge imposed on the case shortly after Ray’s arrest to limit pre-trial publicity.

Prosecutors contend that Ray conditioned the victims to trust him, and set aside their personal beliefs and common sense to reach enlightenment in the sweat lodge. About 50 participants had endured five strenuous days of fasting, sleep-deprivation and mind-altering breathing exercises before the ceremony began.

“But for the defendant’s conduct, the result in question (death) would not have occurred,” prosecutors wrote in court documents.

Defense attorneys said no one, including Ray, could have predicted the day’s tragic events. Participants were fully aware of the health risks and chose to take part, they said.

They’ve argued that criminal charges weren’t warranted because conducting a sweat lodge ceremony isn’t inherently dangerous. Defense attorneys hinted early on that the materials used to build the sweat lodge could be to blame and are expected to call a medical examiner to testify that he couldn’t rule out poisoning, according to court documents.

Among the anticipated witnesses are participants of the 2009 event, law enforcement, a cult expert, a corporate risk management expert, coroners and other doctors. The testimony of some of them is being challenged.

A key piece of evidence for prosecutors will be an audio recording of the more than $9,000 “Spiritual Warrior” event that includes Ray’s own words and those of two of the victims. Defense attorneys are seeking to have it excluded from trial, contending it includes conversations that were meant to be private.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow had set aside 65 days for the trial, but that time will be shortened with a ruling that keeps prosecutors from introducing any evidence from previous ceremonies Ray conducted at the same retreat center since 2003. Prosecutors have asked Darrow to reconsider, saying it’s relevant to the mental state of Ray and the participants.

Darrow ruled earlier this month that even if Ray was aware of problems with pre-2009 participants, that didn’t constitute notice that he was subjecting others to a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death.

Ray rented the Angel Valley Retreat Center, nestled in the scrub forest outside of Sedona for the event in which he used death as a metaphor to overcoming life’s challenges. The sweat lodge – typically used by American Indians to rid the body of toxins – was meant as the highlight of the event.

Ray likened it to the Taj Mahal or the Vatican and himself to a priest, according to a partial transcript of the audio recording. He told participants to tuck in closely as they entered the 415-square foot structure representative of a mother’s womb.

Many participants have said Ray ignored pleas for help once they were inside and chided them for wanting to leave, even as people were vomiting, getting burned by hot rocks in the center and lying unconscious on the ground.

“I had a hard time believing that he would voluntarily and willingly put us in harm’s way,” Nancy Ogilvie, a witness for the prosecution, told authorities. “I guess I couldn’t see that.”

Others told authorities that they felt no pressure from Ray to stay inside during any of the eight 15- to 20-minute rounds in which he poured a 5-gallon bucket of water over the heated rocks.

“I trust someone, but I also pay attention to myself,” Gabriela Casineanu, one of the defense witnesses, told authorities. “So I wouldn’t put trust 100 percent in someone and not pay attention to how much I can handle it.”