James Arthur Ray trial: Sweat lodge survivor shares her tale

The Daily Courier, Arizona/March 2, 2011

Camp Verde - "Hot. Baked. Tired."

That was the way Melissa Phillips felt midway through the sweat lodge ceremony at Angel Valley Retreat on Oct. 8, 2009. Three people died from trauma they received during the event, leading to manslaughter charges against self-help author and speaker James Arthur Ray.

Phillips, 43, of Toronto was the first witness that Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk called to the stand. Phillips said she first encountered Ray in the self-help movie "The Secret," then read some of his writings and signed up for several seminars.

The Spiritual Warrior event in Sedona was to be yet another step on her path to enlightenment. At a previous seminar, she said, Ray had told her it would be a life-altering experience.

"I was expecting to walk away with a great learning experience - a wonderful experience for myself," Phillips said.

Responding to Polk's questioning, Phillips said she was aware that James Ray International, Ray's company, did not disclose the Spiritual Warrior schedule or roster of events, although she had learned some of it from people she'd met at other seminars.

"You're supposed to show up not as prepared in order to have your breakthrough," she said.

Thus, Phillips was more prepared than most of the other 50-odd participants who entered the sweat lodge just hours after a vision quest that featured an enforced 36-hour fast.

"I understood it was a rebirthing," she said. "I understood it was a spiritual journey."

She did not understand that three people - Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman - would die.

Phillips' enthusiasm began to wane during the Samurai Game, which took place two days before the sweat lodge. After admitting she had inadvertently broken the code of silence Ray had imposed in the afternoon, Ray, playing the role of "God" in the game, pronounced her dead.

She then had to lie motionless on a hard floor for several hours, missing dinner, until volunteers had her get ready for the vision quest.

"I felt like I'd been hit in the head with a two-by-four and my hands and feet were numb," she said.

That experience served her in the sweat lodge. Not comfortable with heat, Phillips said she left after the third round.

"After my experience lying on the floor," she said, "I took an attitude of looking out for myself."

But she returned, unwilling to be a source of disappointment.

"I respected (Ray) highly," she said. "I didn't want to disappoint him, the dream team or myself."

Back in the sweat lodge, she recounted, chaos was erupting. She saw Kirby Brown and heard her labored breathing, and she heard a "blood-curdling scream" when Lou Caci fell into the pit of hot rocks and burned his arm. At one point, she was near Liz Neuman.

She said she called out five or six times that people needed help, only to be rebuked by some of those same people. Ray, she said, did not respond to her cries.

Outside, after the ceremony, Phillips said she was shaky but recovered after getting sprayed off and drinking some water. She said she saw Ray sitting in a chair, drinking water and looking for the volunteer nurse to help the stricken.

Polk's examination of Phillips should continue today, possibly followed by a defense cross-examination.

State gains traction in evidentiary hearing

CAMP VERDE - Even before defense attorney Luis Li had finished his opening statements on Tuesday, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk had found an opening with which to successfully gain ground on what evidence the state can introduce in the manslaughter trial of James Ray.

The state has long wished to introduce evidence pertaining to prior sweat lodge ceremonies that Ray conducted at Angel Valley. Until now, Judge Warren Darrow has disallowed that evidence, citing it as prejudicial and largely without foundation because many of the potential witnesses lack proper standing as to education or experience.

Li's opening statement was interrupted at the close of business Tuesday, but during it he offered photographs of sweat lodges that, according to Polk, were not taken at the October 2009 Spiritual Warrior retreat.

Saying that Li "opened the door" by using the photos, Polk argued that past sweat lodges should be eligible for discussion. She cited a "very thorough, very lengthy investigation" into those activities which, she said, "revealed a pattern" crucial to the state's contention that Ray knowingly disregarded the danger of his ever-hotter sweat lodge ceremonies.

According to Polk, Ray began conducting annual sweats in 2003 at Angel Valley. Each time, she said, he would make them hotter.

In 2005, she said, people got sick after the ceremony. At that point, Polk said, he cooled them down for a couple of years until 2007, when he again began to "ratchet up the heat."

Polk alluded to a 2008 incident in which one participant was hurt, and of course to 2009, when three people died.

The pattern of increasing heat, she said, was critical to the state's decision to charge Ray with manslaughter. In fact, she said it was "ultimately why Mr. Ray was charged."

Judge Warren Darrow agreed, despite Li's argument that allowing the evidence would lead to a "mini-trial within the trial" about the qualifications of the witnesses the state might call. He did note, however, that the state would be required to provide adequate foundation for the relevance of the testimony to the case at hand and that witnesses must testify only to what they saw without additional speculation.

Li appeared content with the ruling, noting that "more than 200 people had attended the prior sweat lodges" with just one minor injury. He added that the man injured actually returned to the seminar after receiving first aid.

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