New details from Sedona sweat lodge deaths

ABC TV News 15/January 17, 2010

Prescott, Arizona - People who took part in an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony that turned deadly said after the event that the man leading it should have done more to ensure their safety, according to dozens of interviews released Tuesday.

Many of the participants initially attributed the three deaths and numerous illnesses to extreme heat inside the cramped structure and a lack of ventilation.

But as authorities followed up with them in later interviews, several of them said self-help guru James Arthur Ray let his ego get in the way, failed to provide proper medical care, was intimidating, reckless and controlling -- and they vowed never to take part in another of his sweat lodges. Others participants said every one was responsible for his or her own body and should have listened to their instincts.

The interview transcripts released Tuesday offer the most complete picture from authorities of what occurred during the Oct. 8 ceremony that was the culminating event of Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat near Sedona. Yavapai County sheriff's authorities have focused a homicide investigation on Ray, though no charges have been filed.

More than 50 people were inside the sweat lodge, and for many it was their first time in such a ceremony. Ray told participants the heat would be extreme and highly encouraged them to stay inside as a way to break through whatever was holding them back in life, according to the documents. Some reported having no problems, but others passed out inside, vomited or collapsed and reported being in altered states of mind.

Weeks after the ceremony, some participants told authorities they still hadn't recovered.

Ray's representatives have said he and the staff on site took all necessary safety precautions and acted immediately when participants became seriously ill. As he was sitting in a police car that night, Ray declined to speak with authorities, saying his lawyers had advised against it, the documents state.

Sheriff's officials have said they found nothing to explain how the three people died, other than the extreme heat inside the pitch-black, 415 square-foot sweat lodge that was covered with tarps and blankets and heated with hot rocks.

They are looking into the construction of the sweat lodge, the time it took for medical care to be summoned and Ray's past events at which people were injured.

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