Employees of sweat lodge leader granted immunity

The Associated Press/February 6, 2010

Prescott, Arizona - Two employees of a motivational speaker facing manslaughter charges told authorities they had no reason to be alarmed when participants in a deadly Arizona sweat lodge ceremony began vomiting and passing out, because their boss told them such responses were to be expected, according to documents released Friday.

Megan and Josh Fredrickson participated in the October sweat lodge ceremony near Sedona, which authorities say led to the deaths of three people. The event was led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray.

Authorities in central Arizona's Yavapai County interviewed the Fredricksons in mid-January on the condition that nothing they said would be used against them.

The couple said staff members at the sweat lodge ceremony provided water to participants and took some other precautions, but few had formal training in dealing with heat stroke and other health problems.

Ray was arrested earlier this week and pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter. He is being held in a Yavapai County jail on a $5 million bond.

The Fredricksons went to work for Ray in 2005 at his Carlsbad, Calif.-based company, James Ray International. Megan Fredrickson most recently was the company's director of operations, and Josh Fredrickson worked in technology.

Documents in the case released Friday showed the Fredricksons were granted immunity.

In lengthy interviews with investigators, they said they couldn't recall many of the details that participants did when asked what happened in the sweat lodge ceremony at Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat. Authorities said they expected Megan Fredrickson would remember more because she was seated close to the opening of the sweat lodge and those were the people who stayed in the longest and had a better recollection of the event.

Prosecutors contend Ray recklessly crammed participants into a 400-square-foot sweat lodge and chided them for wanting to leave, even as people were vomiting, getting burned by hot rocks, and lying lifeless on the ground. Public records show a pattern of illnesses at Ray-led events that he largely ignored.

His attorneys have said the deaths were a tragic accident, not a criminal act.

Megan Fredrickson said people who were vomiting, unresponsive and unconscious raised no red flags with her because Ray had explained those responses were possibilities. She told authorities that her experience with sweat lodges was limited to the ones led by Ray, and she never took it upon herself to research them or find out why people would pass out.

"James is my boss, so I listened to what he says and I listened to what he told participants," she said in the documents.

After emergency responders were summoned following Ray's 2005 ceremony at the same retreat, Angel Valley, his attorneys said he took extra precautions. Those included having an employee trained in CPR, setting up a recovery station and stationing a volunteer outside the sweat lodge who happened to be a nurse.

"Ultimately the plan is we never really had a plan for the extent of what happened," said Josh Fredrickson. "Call paramedics, I think is the plan." The staff never was instructed to call 911, he said, but Ray appreciated that someone had done so.

Megan Fredrickson, who was seated next to Ray during the ceremony, said three people who were part of Ray's "Dream Team" were instructed to help passed-out people leave the sweat lodge. They included Josh Fredrickson and Liz Neuman, a Prior Lake, Minn., woman who was among the deceased, she said.

Another person who was part of Ray's "Dream Team", Aaron Bennett, said he personally aided some people but couldn't tell the difference at times between people who were passed out and those who were simply lying close to the ground as Ray instructed them to do if they were having trouble.

Josh Fredrickson said the staff was not trained to deal with heat stroke or hypothermia, conditions that some of the 18 participants who were hospitalized suffered from.

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