Testimony continued last week in the manslaughter trial of self-help author and motivational speaker James Arthur Ray, with witnesses describing what it was like inside the sweat lodge ceremony that led to three deaths and several injuries.
Ray, 53, turned himself in to the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office in February 2010 after he was indicted on three counts of manslaughter.
The charges stem from an October 2009 incident at the Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona that left three people dead after participating in a sweat lodge ceremony.
Brown and Shore were pronounced dead that day; Neuman never regained consciousness and died after she was taken off life support days later. Around 20 others were injured.
The week closed out Friday, March 11, at the Yavapai County Superior Courthouse in Camp Verde with testimony from Beverley Bunn, an orthodontist from Texas who was a participant in the week’s “Spiritual Warrior” event. Bunn was also one of Brown’s roommates at the retreat center.
Bunn described the scene inside the sweat lodge, telling the court that some people were crying out for help for others who were becoming unresponsive.
The ceremony was divided up into eight “rounds” when new heated rocks would be brought into the tent to have water poured over them.
“Round six is when everything kind of went pretty crazy,” Bunn said.
Bunn said people were yelling about people falling unconscious.
Throughout the latter half of the ceremony, Bunn said Ray, who was sitting by the entrance to the tent, never tried to help anyone or to check on their status. Inside the tent, Bunn said she could hear people vomiting as the ceremony progressed.
In fact, Bunn said that Ray told everyone to be quiet and that, over the course of the week, she had learned that Ray was not to be questioned. Otherwise, Bunn said, a participant could expect to be called out by Ray in front of the rest of the participants.
“You learn through the course of the week that you don’t question Mr. Ray on anything,” Bunn said. “You learn there’s consequences or reprimands.”
When the ceremony ended after a couple of hours, Bunn said she had to help push an unconscious woman outside. Along the way, she saw Brown lying down, seemingly unconscious.
Bunn went on to describe a chaotic scene outside the sweat lodge as people were being doused with cold water and placed on tarps.
The woman Bunn had helped push outside remained unconscious, Bunn said, making gurgling noises as mucus was coming out of her nose and mouth.
Another man was responsive but didn’t speak; Bunn said the blood vessels in his eyes had burst.
Another unconscious woman had to be helped onto her back. Bunn said that woman was collapsed in the dirt on top of her arm, cutting off circulation as the arm turned blue.
Bunn said she approached one of Ray’s employees.
“I had to ask him, ‘Is this normal?’” Bunn said. “Because this is crazy.”
On the other side of the tent, Bunn said she saw Shore and Brown unresponsive as people attempted CPR. Bunn said she tried to go get help but was prevented from doing so by another Ray employee.
Bunn said that while she had concerns about staying exposed to the heat inside the sweat lodge for such a long period of time, she believed that Ray had a successful track record of running such events and indicated Ray said he had studied with “many of the native Indians.”
Bunn’s cross-examination was started by defense attorney Thomas Kelly, who focused on the idea that participants were acting of their own free will throughout the week.
The defense has argued that the deaths were a tragic accident, not a crime, and that the prosecution has overblown the influence Ray had on peoples’ actions.
Kelly pointed out that several participants chose not to participate in all of the week’s events, and that all of them had signed a waiver that described the week’s events.
Testimony is expected to resume this week.
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