In opening statements of the trial of self-help guru and author James Ray, prosecutor Sheila Polk played tapes of Ray discussing with participants the sweat lodge they were about to encounter—some for the first time. This is not a “weenie-ass lodge,” Ray was heard to say on the tapes, a statement he apparently held fast to as one participant passed out and fell and burned his arm on the red-hot stones. Ray asked him to come back into the lodge to finish the sweat.
The trial finished its first week on Friday in Arizona’s Yavapai County. Ray is facing three counts of manslaughter and more than thirty years in prison for allegedly causing the deaths of Kirby Brown, James Shore, and Liz Neuman in an October 2009 “Spiritual Warrior Retreat” near Sedona, Arizona.
Participants in the retreat paid more than ten thousand dollars each to fast, sweat, listen to lectures and watch films under Ray’s guidance. In the days leading up to the sweat lodge, more than fifty people were set out in remote locations to fast for thirty-six hours with no food or water.
Then, on the afternoon of October 8, 2009, Ray gathered all the people at the Angel Valley Retreat for a Warrior Sweat which was scheduled to last for two or more hours. More than fifty “grandfather stones” were brought into the sweat lodge and by the end of the ordeal two were dead, one more would die without recovering consciousness, and fifteen were reported to be suffering ill effects.
In spite of the number of people who experienced difficulties during each of the eight fifteen-minute rounds, Ray contends he did not know that there were problems. In fact, Ray is accused of ignoring the pleas of those who wanted out; in one case an individual went out through the side of the sweat lodge to escape the heat.
The prosecution played tapes of Ray before the sweat saying, “It’s not a question of whether you’re going to die. You are. The question is: How did you live?” But Ray’s counsel, Los Angeles attorney Luis Li, noted in his opening statements that all the participants signed waivers and were free to leave at any time. He then suggested that toxic chemicals in the wood used to heat the rocks, or rat poison which was stored in the same location as the tarps used to cover the lodge, might be responsible for the deaths and illness of the people inside.
Prosecutor Polk noted that the three who died suffered from heat related illnesses and organ failure due both to the extreme temperature and Ray’s failure to respond to those who became concerned about those who had passed out or were suffering obvious stress.
Just after the tragedy Melinda Martin, a former employee of Ray’s, told ABC news that the scene was so chaotic that EMT’s thought at first they had arrived at a more ominous event. “There was vomiting, you know, moaning and crying, and it looked like a mass suicide. It looked like people were on their way out. It was crazy.”
Soon after the incident, Lakota spiritual leaders filed suit against the United States, the US Attorney’s office, Angel Resorts, and the state of Arizona contending that the sweat lodge at Angel Resort is a violation of the treaty of 1868. The treaty states in part that:
“if bad men among the whites or other people subject to the authority of the United States shall commit any wrong upon the person or the property of the Indians, the United States will (…) proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States.”