Doctors feared mass suicide after deadly 'sweat lodge,' survivor says

CNN/March 17, 2011

Doctors who treated victims of a deadly 2009 "sweat lodge" at an Arizona self-help retreat initially believed they were seeing the results of a mass suicide, a survivor of the ritual testified Wednesday.

Stephen Ray was on the witness stand for a second day in the trial of self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who is accused of manslaughter in the deaths of three people at his October 2009 "Spiritual Warrior" retreat in the Arizona desert.

Stephen Ray, who is not related to the defendant, ended up in a coma after the sweat lodge, a native American-style purification ritual that was part of the seminar.

"One of the doctors who saw me right around the time I was being released said initially, when people were being brought in, that they thought it was a mass suicide," Ray recounted.

Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York, died that night. So did James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee. Volunteer Lizbeth Marie Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, died nine days after the ceremony, and at least 15 others who took part in the sweat lodge fell ill. But more than 40 others were uninjured, and defense lawyers have argued that the deaths were accidental.

James Ray's attorneys have argued that exposure to an unknown toxin, perhaps a pesticide, could have caused the fatalities. During cross-examination, they showed that doctors consulted a poison-control center and discounted the possibility of heatstroke in treating Stephen Ray.

Defense lawyer Truc Do pointed out that the air ambulance service that took Stephen Ray to the hospital indicated he suffered from "chemical poisoning." But in other documents, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Sullivan Polk noted that another doctor believed he suffered from "acute hyperthermia," most likely the result of the sweat lodge.

Before the participants went into the hut, James Ray told them, "You might feel like you're going to die, but you're not," several witnesses have testified.

Stephen Ray, a marathon runner who had attended several previous James Ray seminars, spent four days in the hospital after the sweat lodge. He testified Tuesday that he has lost his senses of taste and smell and suffers from headaches, insomnia and memory loss.

Participants in the October 2009 event paid up to $10,000 to seek "new areas of consciousness," Ray testified Tuesday. He said he had been unaware that the sweat lodge was part of the process until the morning before it happened, after he had completed a 36-hour desert fast -- but acknowledged during cross-examination that he had gone ahead with the sweat lodge anyway and remained through several rounds before trying to leave.

The lodge - made of willow trees and branches, and covered with tarpaulins and blankets - was heated to perilously high temperatures, causing the participants to suffer dehydration and heatstroke. During a recorded talk to his followers, Ray repeatedly warned them to drink plenty of fluids.

The sweat lodge ceremony consisted of eight rounds, with each round lasting 10 to 15 minutes. While they were not prevented from leaving, participants have said they were encouraged to wait until the breaks between rounds.

During the evening testimony, Lou Caci, a participant from Winnipeg, Manitoba, testified that he fell during one of the later rounds and badly burned his arm on the heated rocks. He indicated that his memory of some details was hazy, but that he remembered his arm being in great pain, and he remembered being determined "to finish and complete my assignment."

Caci said he went back in for what he said he believes was the final round and saw Neuman, the volunteer, "lying flat on her back on top of one of the participants" with her eyes closed and breathing heavily. He said he "knew there was something wrong" because she seemed to be unconscious and her breathing reminded him of his brother and father, whom he watched die of cancer.

"Was there anything obstructing the view from Mr. Ray to Liz Neuman?" Polk asked.

"No, I don't think there was anyone in the way," Caci said. "At that point there was a lot of people (outside the lodge), so, there was very few left over."

Caci said he had attended a previous Spiritual Warrior retreat conducted by Ray, in 2003, and had taken part in a similar ceremony. But this time, he said, it was "a lot hotter" and there were about twice as many people in the sweat lodge.

CNN's Beth Karas and Grace Wong contributed to this report.

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