Print Angel Valley employee testifies at Ray trial
Written by Mark Lineberger   
Wednesday, 06 April 2011 00:00

Testimony entered a fifth week last week in the manslaughter trial of motivational speaker and self-help author James Arthur Ray at the Yavapai County Superior Courthouse in Camp Verde.

James Arthur Ray, right, is on trial for three counts of manslaughter in the October 2009 deaths of three people following a sweat lodge ceremony at Angel Valley Retreat Center southwest of Sedona.Ray, who runs California-based James Ray International, was charged with three counts of manslaughter after deaths that took place at a special sweat lodge ceremony at Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona. The October 2009 event was part of weekend seminar session called “Spiritual Warrior” that cost nearly $10,000 a head to participate.

Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Michigan, Kirby Brown, 38, of New York and James Shore, 40, of Wisconsin, died after exposure to conditions inside the sweat lodge, medical examiners ruled. Several others were injured.

Brown and Shore were pronounced dead that day. Neuman never regained consciousness and was taken off life support several days later.

Neuman wasn’t a regular paying participant; she had attended several Ray events in the past and was a member of the “dream team” that helped encourage and support the others.

Earlier in the week, medical personnel testified they believed the victims died from heatstroke, but couldn’t absolutely rule out the possibility of toxins playing a role. One also testified that he didn’t look for the possibility of toxins at the time of examination, but believed heatstroke was the cause of death due to the information he was given about the circumstances surrounding the deaths.

As far back as the defense’s opening arguments, Ray’s attorneys have made efforts to plant a seed of reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury that other factors besides the intense heat of the sweat lodge could have played a role in the deaths. Defense attorney Luis Li brought up the fact that the man tending the fire that heated the rocks used inside the sweat lodge was concerned that treated lumber used as fuel may have been a factor in the incident. The possibility of some sort of pesticide playing a role was also raised; several of the tarps used in the construction of a sweat lodge were stored in a shed where Li said such poisons were also stored. Li also said that several of the victims didn’t show classic symptoms of heatstroke.

Fawn Foster, an employee of Angel Valley since April 2008, took the stand Friday to talk about her recollections of the sweat lodge incident.

At the time, Foster’s job was to bring some fresh fruit and water down to the area near the sweat lodge. After helping to extinguish some burning papers that were blowing around after the participants burned their journal writings from the week, Foster said she decided to stay and watch the sweat lodge ceremony, even though she wasn’t required to do so.

“Because my gut told me to,” Foster said. “To sit there and watch.”

Foster said she watched as a woman left the sweat lodge early. She said she was concerned when two “dream team” members attempted to push her back inside. Their efforts were stopped by Debbie Mercer, a woman who was helping maintain the fire to heat the stones.

Foster said she also went to get a bucket of ice water to help Lou Caci, a participant who fell into the stone pit earlier in the ceremony and burned his arm.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk attempted to rule out other possible causes of illness in the victims before Foster’s cross-examination by the defense.

Foster testified she ate the fruit, drank the water and inhaled a bit of smoke from one of the fires and suffered no ill effects.

Polk also asked about weed killers and pesticides. Foster, who has worked in the maintenance department since summer 2010, said the resort only uses salt water to kill weeds and the only poisons used were placed in crawl spaces in structures at the resort.

On cross-examination by defense attorney and Prescott lawyer Thomas Kelly, Foster said there was ant poison stored in the shed where the sweat lodge tarps were stored.

She also said she had no direct knowledge of how maintenance was conducted at the resort prior to the summer of 2010. Kelly also hit on a defense point that neither the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office nor the county attorney’s office looked into other possible causes for the deaths besides heatstroke. Foster said she had never been asked about poisons or pesticides until she took the stand that day.

Kelly also questioned Foster about differences in her testimony Friday and her statements to detectives shortly after the sweat lodge incident in 2009. Foster never mentioned to detectives at the time, for instance, the story of the two “dream team” members trying to push a woman back into the lodge.

Foster said she was in shock at the time, and suggested investigators simply hadn’t asked her the same questions as the attorneys did last week.

Foster also said Mercer went to the hospital herself shortly after the sweat lodge incident because she was feeling “ill” and “nauseous.”

The jury was also informed Foster is a convicted felon after going to prison earlier in the decade for giving a false report to law enforcement officers.

Judge Warren Darrow allowed the information into the record because it was relatively recent and dealt with issues of honesty.

An earlier 1997 conviction for DUI was not allowed to be mentioned to the jury as Darrow felt it was old and had little relevance to the current proceedings.

Once Darrow said the felony conviction would be allowed to be brought up for the defense to cast doubt on the witnesses’ reliability, the prosecution went ahead and questioned Foster about it in front of the jury.

Testimony resumed Tuesday morning, April 5.