Nurse gives emotional sweat building trial testimony

By Felicia Fonseca
Camp Verde, Arizona (AP) April 2011

A Tucson nurse who was pulled out of an Arizona sweat building ceremony testified that she surrendered to the possibility of death moments before she lost consciousness believing that it would be an “honorable” way to die.

Death was a theme of James Arthur Ray’s weeklong “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona, but his attorneys and participants have said it wasn’t meant literally. Linda Andresano said she didn’t care either way while inside the heated structure and “sort of surrendered."

“I didn’t feel like fighting to not die,” she said.

Andresano was one of dozens of people who participated in the October 2009 ceremony led by self-help author James Arthur Ray. Andresano said Ray appeared shocked afterward and that he briefly hugged her with tears in his eyes.

In court, Andresano breathed deeply, sighed and wiped away tears as she recounted the event near Sedona that led to the deaths of three people.

Ray is on trial for the deaths that his attorneys say were a tragic accident. He has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges.

Prosecutors contend that Ray recklessly caused the deaths and conditioned participants to trust him and disregard signs of danger.

Defense attorney Luis Li suggested that even if Andresano didn’t feel she was in the right state of mind during the ceremony, that doesn’t carry over to the victims.

“You have no idea what any of those people were thinking, frankly, ever in their lives?” he asked Andresano during cross examination.

One of the participants, Scott Barratt, testified earlier that he helped remove Andresano from the sweat building, but she had no recollection of how she got out.

As she lay on the dirt outside the structure, she said she looked at her hands that appeared to be vibrating and listened to seemingly distant voices. Then she snapped back into reality, telling herself “wake up, get it together,” she said.

Andresano said she would have left the 2009 ceremony if she had been conscious and in her “nurse mode.” She told jurors that she took part in at least a dozen other sweat lodge ceremonies that American Indians traditionally use to rid the body of toxins. None was as hot as the one Ray led or had as many people inside, she said.

Before she took part in “Spiritual Warrior” she said she called Ray’s company, James Ray International, to ask whether a recent shoulder surgery and medication she was taking might prevent her from participating. She also wanted more explanation of a waiver she ultimately signed that cited a risk of harm.

“Because they said, ‘James will never do anything to hurt you,’ I believed what he said,” she testified.

Defense attorney Li said her medical condition should not have been a question posed to one of Ray’s employees. “Aren’t your medical conditions pretty much your responsibility?” he asked, to which she agreed.

Barratt, like Andresano, said he was fortunate to be among the survivors. Eighteen people were hospitalized yet others emerged with no major problems.

Barratt, a general contractor from Spokane, Wash., said he was concerned about the intense heat and probably should not have returned once he left. But the former military pilot said he wasn’t completely coherent.

Ray briefed participants for about 45 minutes before he led them into the sweat building, telling them that the sweat building would be “hellacious” hot and that they would feel like their skin was falling off, but he also offered safety tips.

Under questioning by the prosecution, Barratt said Ray made no mention that loss of consciousness, convulsions or shock could occur.

“I didn’t think it was a very positive experience,” Barratt said, while also acknowledging that he exercised free choice during the event.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said the defense opened the door to questions about prior sweat building ceremonies that Ray led when it asked Barratt whether the briefing was a fair warning.

She asked the judge out of the jury’s presence whether she could pursue a line of questioning that would show Ray had a pattern of recklessness over several years and that he “buries the problems.”

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow held firm to an earlier ruling that even if Ray was aware of pre-2009 participants in mental or physical distress, that didn’t mean he subjected dozens of people to a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death.

The defense clearly was agitated by Polk’s request and suggested the state’s case was “unraveling.” Polk said leaving out the evidence would present a false picture to the jury that nothing ever went wrong in Ray’s sweat building ceremonies.