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Volunteer relives deadly scene during Ray trial
Written by Mark Lineberger   
Thursday, 14 April 2011 00:00

Testimony continued for a sixth week in the manslaughter trial of James Arthur Ray, the 53-year-old best-selling self-help author and motivational speaker prosecutors want to hold accountable for three deaths in an October 2009 event near Sedona.

Testimony continued for a sixth week in the manslaughter trial of James Arthur Ray, the 53-year-old best-selling self-help author and motivational speaker prosecutors want to hold accountable for three deaths in an October 2009 event near Sedona.Ray turned himself in to the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office in February 2010 after he was indicted on three counts of manslaughter stemming from an October 2009 incident at the Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona that left Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Michigan, Kirby Brown, 38, of New York and James Shore, 40, of Wisconsin, dead after sitting in the so-called sweat lodge during a $10,000-a-head weekend session organized by Ray.

Ray pleaded not guilty.

The week saw witnesses talk about prior sweat lodge ceremonies conducted by Ray’s organization as well as the 2009 event, after Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow overruled objections from the defense regarding prior events being discussed in front of the jury.

Debbie Mercer, a former volunteer at Angel Valley, was on the stand Friday.

Mercer said she had been present for around eight to 10 sweat lodge ceremonies at the retreat center, around three of those hosted by James Ray International.

Mercer discussed a Ray-led ceremony in 2007 and how a woman exited the lodge and fell on her face, chipping a tooth. Mercer told the court she wiped some blood off the woman’s face and other fluids from her mouth and nose.

Mercer said she helped another man complaining about a heart condition to the nearby creek to cool down.

“A lot of people were crying,” Mercer said. She testified other people were vomiting.

During the 2009 ceremony, Mercer stood by the door of the sweat lodge, opening the door between “rounds,” periods when more rocks heated in a fire were brought inside the tent. Mercer said the rocks were put in a central pit where Ray would pour water over them.

In previous sweat lodge ceremonies Mercer had seen, she testified the person in charge would use a ladle to pour water over the stones from a single bucket. During the 2009 ceremony, Mercer said she refilled the three buckets of water used “at least twice.”

Mercer also testified some people came in and out between rounds, an important point for the defense’s argument Ray wasn’t exerting some sort of “brainwashing” or “mind control” over participants.

The ceremony was different in other ways, Mercer said, because people didn’t leave if they had to go to the bathroom. Mercer said Ray told one participant to use the bathroom inside the tent, where even at previous Ray-sponsored ceremonies people had left to find a bathroom.

One woman who left the tent didn’t want to go back in, Mercer said, but two “dream team” members working to help other participants tried to make her go back in. Mercer said she told the dream team members to leave the woman alone, since she obviously didn’t want to go back in.

The woman was upset, however, Mercer said, because she was concerned about disappointing Ray by not going back in.

Mercer also occasionally helped pull people from the lodge who were dragged to the entrance by others inside, several who were passed out.

Ray continued to encourage participants by telling them to stay tough, Mercer said.

One man who left the tent started screaming he felt he was having a heart attack and was going to die, Mercer said.

Ray yelled to the man that it was “a good day to die,” Mercer said, a theme that had come up several times during the week. Ray also told the man he’d be OK, Mercer said.

When a man inside the tent fell into the central pit and burned his arm, Mercer said she provided him with a bucket of ice water. That man also went back inside the lodge later on, Mercer said.

When all was said and done, Mercer said she probably dragged out around 10 unconscious participants and assisted around 25 others.

Testimony resumed this week at the Yavapai County Courthouse in Camp Verde.


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