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Survivors of sweat lodge take stand
Written by Mark Lineberger   
Wednesday, 30 March 2011 00:00

Testimony continued last week in the manslaughter trial of self-help author and motivational speaker James Arthur Ray in Yavapai County Superior Court in Camp Verde.

Friday, March 25, was day 22 in the trial; Ray stands accused of being responsible for the deaths of three people following an October 2009 event at the Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona.

Melinda Martin, a former employee of James Arthur Ray, testified Thursday, March 24. Martin left Sedona and her job after the sweat lodge incident at Angel Valley Retreat Center in October 2009.Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Michigan, Kirby Brown, 38, of New York and James Shore, 40, of Wisconsin, died during the $10,000-a-head “Spiritual Warrior” weekend event after exposure to conditions inside what has been referred to as a “sweat lodge,” a large tentlike structure that was heated to extreme temperatures. Brown and Shore were pronounced dead the night of the event. Neuman died a few days later after she was taken off life support.

Ray’s defense team has been arguing the deaths were a tragic accident, but Ray should not be held criminally responsible.

The state continued last week to call witnesses to the stand who participated in the sweat lodge ceremony. The prosecution tried to get into the mind-set of the participants and paint a picture that people stayed in the sweat lodge against their better judgment because of the influence Ray exerted. The defense continued to argue everyone who did anything during the entire week of the retreat did so of their own free will.

Melinda Martin, a former employee of James Ray International who performed CPR on Brown following the sweat lodge ceremony, was on the stand Thursday.

The incident caused Martin to leave her job.

“I didn’t want to go back there; it was too upsetting,” Martin said. “I wanted to devise a new plan for my life. I was at a crossroads.”

Martin said she was a little angry she never heard from Ray after she left Sedona.

“I thought I had gone way beyond the scope of duty of any job,” Martin said. “I was upset he didn’t call and just threw me aside.”

Martin was followed by Washington resident and former Army medevac pilot Scott Barratt, who helped the defense by assuring the jury everything he did that week, he did of his own accord.

Barratt said while there was a sense of peer pressure to “play full on” during the week’s events, he knew there was some risk involved in what the group was doing. In fact, Barratt pointed out not everyone decided to participate in all of the week’s activities.

Barratt said while he didn’t read his pre-event release form very carefully, it did spell out what would be involved during the week.

“Mr. Ray gave a very good description of what was going to happen,” Barratt said. “There’s no doubt about this, the whole event was my free choice.”

Inside the sweat lodge, Barratt helped pull another woman, later identified as Linda Andresano, to safety.

After the sweat lodge, Barratt said he went outside the tent and started going in and out of consciousness.

“It was like the worst hangover I ever had in college,” Barratt said.

Andresano, a nurse, said she wasn’t in her right mind during the later stages of the sweat lodge ceremony.

Andresano said she had participated in a dozen or so sweat lodge events prior to this one, but never had she been in one with so many people or heated to such a degree.

Right before Andresano lost consciousness, she told the court she thought about death.

“I was holding on to the frame of the lodge, and I remember saying to myself, ‘It’s a good day to die,” Andresano said. “And that’s the last thing I remember.”

Andresano said had she been more clearheaded, she would have told herself to get out of the tent.

The prosecution has focused on how death was a major theme of the weeklong retreat, and while that stuck with Andresano, she said she felt the point of the retreat was to look at how you embrace life in the here and now, not the nature of death.

Testimony is expected to continue this week in Judge Warren Darrow’s courtroom.

 

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