Detective details Ariz. sweat lodge probe

April 28, 2011

Camp Verde, Arizona - When Yavapai County sheriff's Detective Ross Diskin arrived at an Arizona retreat center a day after two people died in a sweat lodge ceremony, he wasn't sure where to turn.

Other sheriff's deputies who had been at the retreat outside Sedona into the morning hours hadn't returned yet, and he wasn't familiar with sweat lodges that are commonly used by American Indians to rid the body of toxins.

He then was approached by Ted Mercer, a man who tended to the fire that heats the rocks placed inside the structure. Through interviews with Mercer and his wife, Diskin said he learned that no other ceremonies on the property other than those held by James Arthur Ray resulted in problems.

Diskin's testimony Wednesday was interrupted by defense attorney Tom Kelly, who objected. The judge called for a brief recess in the manslaughter trial of the self-help guru, who pleaded not guilty to the deaths of three people following the ceremony. Two people died that day, and a third more than a week later at a hospital.

Judge Warren Darrow warned Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk that the questions couldn't go so far as to illicit hearsay evidence regarding years of past ceremonies led by Ray at the Angel Valley Retreat Center — particularly when his rulings have addressed the issue.

"It's not the time for a bunch of hearsay to be brought into evidence, Ms. Polk. That certainly would jeopardize the whole proceeding to have that happen," he said. "Limiting instructions can only go so far."

Ray's attorneys have suggested that authorities focused their investigation on Ray early on and ignored other potential causes for the deaths, including toxins, poisons and the construction of the sweat lodge.

Diskin, the lead detective, testified that the presence of toxins seemed unlikely because not everyone in the sweltering structure became ill. Eighteen people exhibited signs ranging from dehydration to kidney failure, while others emerged with no problems.

"We believed that if there was some type of toxin in the sweat lodge, that it would have affected everybody," he said.

He said interviews with dozens of participants backed up statements by the Mercers and the owners of the Angel Valley Retreat Center that Ray conducted the ceremonies in an extreme way.

Authorities collected samples of the soil, wood and cross sections of the sweat lodge coverings but did not test them for toxins or chemicals.

Prosecutors said that was unnecessary because the evidence pointed to criminal culpability on Ray's part. They say Ray subjected the participants to a heat endurance challenge in which he controlled the number of rounds, the length of the ceremony and the amount of water.

Ray's attorneys have said the deaths were a tragic accident.

Amayra Hamilton, who owns Angel Valley that Ray rented for his "Spiritual Warrior" event, testified earlier that she didn't initially mention the use of poisons on the property because she didn't believe it was relevant to the case.

She said she first researched the rat poison and ant killing products used there at Diskin's request after the trial began. She also disputed a defense suggestion that her testimony correlated with that of another witness, Fawn Foster, who works at the retreat center.

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