Camp Verde, Ariz. - Brandy Rainey brought her hands toward her face, motioning to a jury in a self-help author's manslaughter trial Thursday how the steam from water poured over hot rocks in a sweat lodge ceremony rolled over her body, up her nose and scathed her throat.
Pulling her shirt over her face helped lessen the effects of the heat, she said, and she put her face and body near the ground and imagined she was sitting on a block of ice in the Arctic to feel cooler.
"I told myself I went there to get something, and if the other people could do it, I could do it," she testified. "I was clear at that point it was fear. And all the anxiety and all the nausea was from my fear."
The leader of the ceremony, James Arthur Ray, told Rainey and dozens of other people hours before the event near Sedona that it would be hot, she said. They signed waivers that cited a risk of harm during his "Spiritual Warrior" seminar.
Rainey said she only skimmed the waiver. During questioning from defense attorney Tom Kelly, she said she never communicated her concerns directly to Ray, who has pleaded not guilty to three deaths stemming from the October 2009 ceremony.
Ray's attorneys say statements such as those mean Ray couldn't have known that anyone was in danger. But other witnesses have said that Ray heard the concerns of others and brushed them off.
Rainey is one of a handful of participants whose testimony will wrap up the prosecution's case. Mark Rock, who was part of Ray's volunteer team, began his testimony late Thursday - the day jurors returned from a nearly 2-week break due to a defense attorney's out-of-town commitment. The trial, which started in mid-February, is scheduled to end June 21.
The sweat lodge was the seminar's culminating event, and it was new to Rainey, who is from Austin, Texas.
She said she felt she would be safe since she had participated in a dozen of Ray's prior events and never encountered or heard of any problems. Still, she intentionally sat near the opening of the sweat lodge, knowing she could make a quicker exit if needed. Her goal was to stay in the ceremony for five of the eight 15-20 minute rounds, and she accomplished that.
While she had a headache, stomach cramps and flushed skin, others were in worse condition. Rainey and other witnesses have recounted people vomiting, violently shaking, and experiencing delusions from the sweat lodge.
In the end, three people died - Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman.
Other participants emerged from the sweat lodge with no major problems.
Prosecutors contend that Ray's conduct led to the deaths and that he conditioned them through mind-altering exercises, and sleep and food deprivation to ignore signs of distress and trust his judgment.
Ray's attorneys have pressed upon the jury that no one was forced to participate in any of the events and that toxins or chemicals might have factored into the deaths they say were a tragic accident, not the result of criminal conduct.
Asked why she remained in the sweat lodge despite her feelings and the observations of others, Rainey said: "I guess because all my friends have gotten such value from being there in the past, I kept telling myself that I need to push past this."
"(Ray) said we have to be willing to push past these thresholds," she added.
Kelly pointed out that Rainey made that decision on her own, "as a strong, independent, professional woman, that you were going to stay there through five rounds."
"Yes," she responded.
The trial resumes Friday with Rock's testimony.