2009 In Review: #6 Self-help guru's retreat culminates in grueling sweat lodge ritual and 3 deaths

The Daily Courier, Arizona/December 26, 2009

Yavapai Superior Court Judge Michael Bluff rescinded Wednesday his earlier order to seal search warrants and crime scene photos of the sweat lodge site at Angel Valley Retreat where three people died and 18 were injured on Oct. 8.

The sweat lodge ceremony led by author and motivational speaker James Arthur Ray culminated his five-day Spiritual Warrior Retreat that participants paid as much as $9,000 to attend at the resort south of Sedona.

On Oct. 15, Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said the deaths - of Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Michigan, Kirby Brown, 38, of New York, and James Shore, 40, of Wisconsin - are homicides, and Ray remains the primary focus of their investigation.

Outside the courtroom Wednesday, David Bodney, an attorney representing KPNX-TV, told the Verde Independent, "We believe that the public has the right to inspect these search warrant records.

"They are fundamental documents pertaining to homicides that occurred more than two months ago, the circumstances of which are generally known, and there is no legal justification for keeping them under seal until the county attorney feels she has interviewed every last witness and locked down all their statements," Bodney said.

Waugh said at a press conference on Oct. 15 that "because of information that we have obtained from interviews from participants in this most recent Spiritual Warrior seminar and from other past participants in them, we have elevated the investigation from an accidental death investigation to a homicide investigation."

Ray refused to talk with investigators and left the state, Waugh said. According to Associated Press reports, Ray hired his own team of investigators. Attempts by The Daily Courier to contact Ray were unsuccessful.

The family of one of the victims, Lizbeth Neuman, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Flagstaff on Oct. 30. Sidney Spencer, 59, who runs a cattle ranch outside Patagonia, Ariz., also filed a lawsuit after she was hospitalized for days with kidney and liver failure and respiratory arrest following the sweat lodge ceremony. The lawsuits accuse Ray, along with the owners of the Angel Valley Retreat and other defendants, of negligence, fraud and other actions.

The incident first came to authorities' attention with a 911 call at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8, that reported two people at the sweat lodge had no pulse. When deputies responded at 5:42 p.m., they found people in medical distress, complaining of illness, and two unresponsive and in critical condition.

Investigators interviewed 65 of the 71 people onsite from the time they arrived until 3 a.m. the next day, Waugh said.

Participants and law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that the two-hour sweat lodge ceremony degenerated into chaos as people became sick, but were encouraged by Ray to stay inside for the entire time.

Ray's staff built the sweat lodge with a frame of juniper and oak and covered it with many layers of blankets, comforters and tarps. The lodge is 415 square feet, just 53 inches high in the center, and 30 inches high on the edges.

"So literally no one could stand up in the lodge," Waugh said.

"We're estimating 50 to 65 people in an area 415 square feet - that is very tight quarters," Rhodes said. "The only ventilation was the door, the one entrance, when it was open."

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