Sweat-lodge documents reveal chaotic scene

The Arizona Republic/January 13, 2010

Hundreds of documents released Tuesday give the most complete picture yet of the events that took place at a sweat lodge outside Sedona that left three people dead and a spiritual guru's empire on shaky ground.

The interview transcripts also provide insight into the task investigators face in putting together a case against James Arthur Ray more than three months after the sweat-lodge ceremony.

The accounts from participants and observers give conflicting versions of what took place at the Angel Valley Retreat Center on Oct. 8, including key points of whether Ray adequately prepared participants or discouraged people from leaving the sweltering structure as temperatures inside increased.

Yavapai County investigators are still trying to determine what responsibility Ray might have for the events that left three people dead and more than a dozen hospitalized, but a detective's interview with a survivor in late October hints at the possibilities:

Detective Shonna Willingham told Stephen Ray (no relation to James Ray) that Arizona law enforcement can look at four culpable mental states for homicide: intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently, all of which are based on what a reasonable person would do.

"But we are looking at a lot of avenues, but you hit the nail on the head that this isn't intentionally or knowingly, it's not a first and second degree," Willingham is quoted as saying in October. "We are going to be fortunate to get either reckless or negligent."

The investigation is ongoing, and James Ray has not been charged with any crime.

Throughout the interviews, patterns emerge in detectives' questions, with detectives repeatedly focusing on three areas:

  • Were the participants adequately prepared for what awaited them in the sweat lodge? Many participants told detectives that Ray and his staff members told them to hydrate before the sweat-lodge ceremony, after spending 36 hours fasting in the woods. Ray also told participants they would be extremely hot inside the 415-square-foot sweat lodge.

  • Was Ray's team adequately prepared for a medical emergency that might arise from the sweat lodge? Participants say Ray discouraged someone from calling an ambulance for a man who required medical care at a 2005 sweat-lodge event in Sedona. This year, most of those interviewed described a chaotic scene where participants were helping one another but adequate professional medical care wasn't available until ambulances arrived about 15 minutes after someone called 911.

  • Did Ray tell participants he was adequately trained to perform such a ceremony? For many people detectives interviewed, Ray's sweat lodge was their first experience with the Native American purification rite. It wasn't until after the fatal ceremony that participants learned a traditional sweat lodge might have up to 12 people inside. Ray's event involved between 50 and 60 people for more than two hours. The participants said Ray told them his experience with shamans and spiritual leaders taught him how to properly perform the ritual.

Ray touted his sweat lodges as hotter than most, according to participants.

Representatives for Ray say he has worked with Arizona investigators since late October to determine what led to the deaths.

Ray subsequently postponed his remaining 2009 events, though his Web site shows events begin again in February, including another Spiritual Warrior retreat scheduled for Sedona in September.

The documents released Tuesday include interviews with former members of Ray's staff, including Tere Gingerella, who said the 2005 incident should have offered some warning about the dangers in Ray's sweat lodge.

Daniel Pfankuch was taken to a hospital after the incident. Doctors there told him he suffered from heat stroke and severe dehydration.

"I mean, in my opinion, that was huge," Gingerella told a detective in early November. "When I heard about what happened . . . a couple weeks ago, I, was I shocked? Not really, because my last experience at the sweat lodge was not a good one."

Luis Li, a Ray attorney, said the statements about the 2005 incident, which multiple witnesses recounted, were "neither accurate or credible."

"We've checked the records and Mr. Pfankuch signed up for, and attended, three additional James Ray International events after attending the 2005 sweat lodge," Li said.

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