Family of woman killed at Sedona sweat lodge speaks out

ABC 15 News, Phoenix/October 12, 2009

Sedona, Arizona - The cousin of a New York woman who died at spiritual guru and best-selling author James Ray's Sedona retreat, is speaking out about her death for the first time.

"We were lucky to have known her," said Brown's cousin, Tom McFeeley. "We need to understand what happened, and from this, we're going to figure out in some way how to avoid it happening again."

Brown and 40-year-old James Shore of of Milwaukee died Thursday night after being overcome in a sweat lodge during a spiritual cleansing ceremony.

Nineteen others were taken to area hospitals, but most were soon released.

Starla Addair with the Flagstaff Medical Center said one person remains in critical condition Sunday, but that three others were either in fair or good condition Sunday night.

The man who hosted the Arizona retreat is a well-known author and TV personality.

James Ray is a New York Times best selling author who has made appearances on Oprah and Larry King Live.

He hosted at least 60 people for the Sedona-area retreat at the Angel Valley Retreat Center, according to Dwight D'Evelyn with the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office. Some of his participants have attended in years past, and the sweat lodge has been part of the ceremony before.

Attendees told detectives they paid between $9,000 and $10,000 for their stay and participation in the program, which including a three-day fast and various spiritual exercises before the sweat lodge culmination.

Investigators said the goal of the sweat lodge cleanse was to achieve "an out of body experience."

The plan was for participants to sweat for eight 15 to 30 minute rounds.

Deputies said 50 to 60 people were crammed in the make-shift tent, which was only 30 inches on the sides and 53 inches in the center.

They said Ray's staff made the sweat lodge from plastic tarps, blankets, wood and other materials.

Sedona resident Anna Lisa Brown said she sees people constantly shuttling in to town for similar retreats.

"I was surprised that people would put themselves in that situation, but not surprised, because people are looking for things to fulfill themselves to give them purpose," said Brown.

Although some Sedona residents called the Angel Valley community "a cult," Brown's cousin said Brown should not be called a "follower" of Ray.

"The one thing we don't want, is for this to be represented as some kind of cult," said McFeeley.

Brown's best friend, Sarah Holst, said Brown's life was full of positive choices, and that she was trying to use Ray's "Vision Quest" to reflect on which ones were best for her life.

"She had set some new goals for herself, and from the way she spoke about this retreat, I got the impression that she was going on this retreat to figure out what path to take to get to those goals," said Holst.

Sedona Fire Department Spokesperson Gary Johnson said crews first responded to a call at the center around 5 p.m. Thursday, when multiple people collapsed after exiting a sweat lodge on the property.

Angel Valley is located 6 1/2 miles from West Sedona and about 125 miles north of Phoenix.

Johnson said Sedona Fire, Verde Valley Fire, and Yavapai County Sheriff's department all responded to the call.

D'Evelyn said sheriff's deputies at the scene learned those injured had been part of a larger group housed in a "sweatbox" type structure on the property.

The structure is reportedly framed in a dome like shape and covered with tarps and blankets. Hot rocks are used with water to create steam in the enclosed environment.

Detectives have learned that there were 64 people inside the "sweat dome" when several fell ill, according to YCSO.

Approximately 19 retreat participants were reportedly transported by air and ambulance to area hospitals including the Verde Valley and Flagstaff Medical Center.

Thursday night, two of those transported to the Verde Valley Medical Center were pronounced dead shortly after arrival, according to D'Evelyn.

Sheriff's deputies say autopsies were conducted on the deceased man and woman Friday, but the toxicology results could take weeks to come in.

Three others were in critical condition, according to Sheriff's deputies. One remained in critical condition on Saturday.

Host James Ray was reportedly inside the dome when the medical emergencies occurred.

A spokesperson for him said Ray is too distraught to talk, but sends his deepest condolences to those involved. A written statement said he is spending time "in thought and prayer."

"Everybody has a right to believe and practice the way they wish to, but when it endangers the lives of others, or when you have to pay for it, that's not a spiritual belief," said Mario Black Wolf, an Indian who has his own sweat lodge.

A sweat lodge is a small shelter where water is poured over hot rocks, emitting steam and warming the inside. They are used in traditional Indian ceremonies to cleanse the mind, body and soul.

"It also represents the womb of the mother earth for many tribes, and once you put a price on that, we call it prostitution," said Black Wolf.

Usually sweat lodges are made from organic wood, but Sheriff's deputies said the one at Angel Valley was made of plastic and blankets, although they haven't determined that was what caused the victims to fall ill.

"If you have bad materials, plastics, things like that, that causes toxic fumes," said Black Wolf. "That's why we don't use plastic in our lodge."

Detectives will be consulting with medical examiners and other health officials as the investigation moves forward. Sheriff's deputies said they were executing a search warrant on the private property Friday evening.

They collected samples of the rocks and other materials from the sweat lodge that were used during the ceremony.

Detectives are attempting to determine if there are any criminal actions that may have been a factor in the injuries and deaths, but said they have to wait for the toxicology results first.

Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said everyone involved was helpful during questioning, except Ray, who would not cooperate with investigators, and left the state the next day.

"We attempted to interview Mr. Ray at the scene," said Waugh. "He refused to talk to us. We will at some point in time schedule another interview with him."

Some Sedona residents said there is too much emphasis placed on Ray as the person who put his followers lives in danger.

"Everybody should take responsibility back and do what their body tells them," said local crystal worker Dhee Koeing. "If you're body is thirsty, you drink some water. If you're tired, you sleep. It's easy to point to someone else and say because he told me to, this is why I did it, and it went wrong, so he is responsible."

One of Ray's fan's Greg Anderson, said it was perfectly fine that Ray raked in almost half a million dollars from the retreat, which he holds at the Sedona property every year.

"That's one of the things that we're taught more and more in this society, that money is evil, and it really isn't," said Anderson. "It just provides wonderful things. If you have the ability, you can help many, many people."

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