First lawsuits filed in Ariz. sweat lodge tragedy

Associated Press/October 31, 2009

Phoenix - The first two lawsuits in what could be a flurry of legal actions stemming from a deadly sweat lodge ceremony led by author and motivational speaker James Arthur Ray were filed Friday in Arizona.

One wrongful death suit came from the family of one of the three people who died after the Oct. 8 ceremony. A southern Arizona woman who was badly hurt also filed suit.

Ray is accused of negligence, fraud and other actions along with the owners of the Angel Valley Retreat Center, where his event was held, and other defendants.

A call seeking comment from Ray's attorney Brad Brian wasn't immediately returned.

Amayra Hamilton, who owns Angel Valley with her husband, said there was nothing wrong with the lodge itself. and her center had no part in how Ray ran the ceremony.

The three deaths and hospitalization of 18 other participants came at the end of a five-day Ray-led "Spiritual Warrior" program.

"This was a bizarre tragedy that could have easily been prevented if (Ray) and his staff had used just an ounce of common sense," said attorney Ted Schmidt, who represents survivor Sidney Spencer.

The 59-year-old Spencer, who runs a cattle ranch outside Patagonia, Ariz., was hospitalized for days with kidney and liver failure and respiratory arrest following the ceremony.

"I believe he tricked these people, he coerced these people into this death trap, all for his financial gain," said Schmidt, who filed the lawsuit for Spencer.

Amayra Hamilton, speaking publicly for the first time since the event, told The Associated Press she was shocked to learn the 50-plus participants in Ray's program had gone two days without water during solitary "Vision Quests" in the hills around the center before the sweat lodge ceremony.

Going without water badly dehydrated them before entering the sweat lodge, she said.

"The condition that the people were in before they were in the sweat lodge was not good," Hamilton said, adding Ray has been doing the same event at her center since 2005.

"All those years I thought they had water with them, and I didn't know they didn't," she said.

Authorities in Yavapai County, Ariz., are continuing a criminal investigation into the incident at the retreat outside Sedona. Search warrants have been served at the headquarters of Ray's company, Carlsbad, Calif.-based James Ray International, and detectives have interviewed many of the people who were inside the lodge.

No charges have been filed.

Interviews with participants and law enforcement officials paint a picture of a two-hour ceremony inside the sauna-like lodge heated with hot rocks that degenerated into chaos as people became sick but were encouraged to remain inside for the entire time by Ray.

Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died at a hospital the night of the incident. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., died more than a week later. Each paid more than $9,000 to attend.

Neuman's family filed the suit in a Flagstaff, Ariz. court. Spencer's suit was also filed in Flagstaff.

Brown's family has hired a lawyer, Robert Magnanini, who also represents a survivor. Magnanini said he is gathering information and hasn't decided if a suit will be filed.

Following the tragedy, Ray vowed to continue holding the events and appeared at seminars in Los Angeles, San Diego and Colorado. But after he was criticized by survivors and his publisher postponed two book releases this week, he announced on Thursday that he was canceling his appearances.

Schmidt said the primary job of anyone leading such a ceremony is to monitor the participants, and in total darkness Ray couldn't do that.

"He used way too many rocks, way too much heat, way too long, for the dimensions of this death trap and the number of people in there," Schmidt said. "And when finally it become apparent that this is a catastrophe, he runs away, which is probably the best evidence that he is a snake oil salesman."

Ray initially refused to speak with authorities at the scene and soon left the state.

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