James Arthur Ray Trial: State's witness was in close contact with one victim

The Courier, Arizona/March 4, 2011

Camp Verde - In keeping with the seminar theme of "everybody needs to have their own experience," Laura Tucker's account of her time in James Arthur Ray's October 2009 sweat lodge was far different from that of the prosecution's first witness, Melissa Phillips.

Tucker on Friday was the third witness in the manslaughter trial of Ray, 53, who is charged in the deaths of Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman after the sweat lodge ceremony, which was the culminating event of Ray's Spiritual Warrior retreat at Angel Valley Retreat Center in Sedona.

Tucker, an automotive industry consultant from British Columbia, said she went to the seminar in Sedona in order to complete her "Journey of Power." Spiritual Warrior was the only one of Ray's workshops she had yet to finish in the year and a half she had spent absorbing his teachings.

"I was on a track," Tucker said. "My personal development was important at that time. I wanted to complete the series."

The six-day workshop, she recounted, featured a number of notable challenges. Ray challenged attendees to shave or cut their hair, take part in a training exercise called the Samurai Game and endure a 36-hour vision quest before taking part in a sweat lodge ceremony that Ray promised would be as intense as anything they had ever experienced.

And while Phillips on Thursday told the jury she had been aware of many others among the 56 clients who took part in the ceremony, Tucker said she focused on herself and those immediately around her, including her friend Laurie Gennari and Neuman, who was a member of Ray's volunteer Dream Team, and who squeezed into her appointed spot in the sweat lodge just before the ceremony began.

Tucker had been the first to "die" in the Samurai Game, an exercise the state contends was part of Ray's method of creating an environment in which the attendees would substitute his judgment for their own when it came to the limits of what they could endure.

She earned death by breaking a Ray-imposed code of silence when she asked him a question about the rules of the game.

"He yelled at me, 'Die,'" she said, "so I hit the floor."

To die in the Samurai Game was part of the teamwork aspect because, if a person died, they had to lie motionless, eyes closed, where they dropped until the game was done. If they failed to stay still, another teammate would die. In addition, those who died went without dinner that night, leading to a famished state the prosecution believes was part of the reason for the tragic sweat lodge fatalities.

That night, the attendees, including Tucker, were whisked away to the 36-hour vision quest, a portion of the program Tucker said she actually enjoyed.

Upon their return and after a light breakfast and continued urging to hydrate as much as possible, the sweat lodge ceremony took place.

Tucker said she was apprehensive but never thought she or the others were in danger.

"I had no expectation that we would be in a situation where anyone would come to harm," she said.

Neuman's arrival and subsequent advice - she had experienced Ray's intense sweats before - helped her stay calm.

"She basically started telling us, 'Don't be nervous; here's some things you can do,' and she coached us a little bit."

Even with Neuman's help, though, Tucker began having trouble and, by the third round, thought she might not make it to the end.

"I knew that if I didn't get things under control," she said, "I would have to leave."

But she said she did get herself under control by changing her breathing. Also helpful was a system that she, Neuman and another woman, Daniell Granquist, had developed to keep track of one another by tapping each other from time to time.

But then, in the fourth or fifth round of the ceremony, Neuman did something unexpected. She left Tucker's side and moved closer to the pit of hot rocks, eventually coming to rest against Tucker's raised legs. When Tucker tried to get her to move away from the heat source, she said, Neuman brushed her hand away.

She called out to Ray.

"I said, 'James, it's Laura. I'm concerned about Liz.'"

Tucker said Ray did not investigate the situation or ask another volunteer to check on her. Instead, he answered, "Liz has done this before and she knows what she's doing."

When Tucker asked Neuman if she was all right, she said yes, and that she did not want to get out.

"I had Mr. Ray saying Liz knows what she's doing," she said. "I had Liz responding to me promptly and in my mind clearly, so I let things be."

When the ceremony ended, Tucker said she left on her own and saw someone helping Neuman out of the lodge.

Learning that Neuman died has had a lasting impact on her life.

"There's hardly a day goes by that I don't think about it," she said. "I had no idea there was any cause for immediate concern. If I had, I would have done everything in my power to stop it and get her out."

Ray's trial will resume on Tuesday with another Dream Team volunteer, Jennifer Haley, on the witness stand. Haley's testimony began Thursday but was interrupted because of a scheduling conflict.

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