Sweat lodge trial: Victims' families recount emotional harm from deaths

The Daily Courier, Arizona/June 27, 2011

Camp Verde - The trial of James Arthur Ray was an often-emotional affair, but Tuesday's pre-sentence aggravation hearing was perhaps the most poignant of all.

Family members of the three victims who died after taking part in the Ray-led October 2009 sweat lodge ceremony near Sedona testified to the emotional harm they have suffered since the incident that led to the three deaths and to Ray's conviction for negligent homicide.

"Kirby has played full on since she was born," said Virginia Brown, using the Ray-coined term to describe her daughter's outlook on life. Brown said her daughter, who lived and worked in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, in the last years of her life, was "fiercely independent, never suggestible and very physical. I would often describe Kirby as being drunk on life."

Brown said life has been difficult for her and her husband George since Oct. 9, 2009, when a state trooper came to their door in Westtown, N.Y., and told them their daughter had died in a sweat lodge. The Browns were familiar with Ray's events, and Mr. Brown had attended Harmonic Wealth weekend in New Jersey with Kirby in May 2009.

It was during that weekend that Kirby signed up for the Spiritual Warrior 2009 seminar. Mrs. Brown said she was "horrified" when she learned later what took place in Sedona - that her daughter, who was no stranger to demanding activities, had somehow gone astray from one of her normal characteristics.

"Kirby was a great adventurer but she was very conscious of safety," she said. "She was constantly talking about keeping hydrated."

She added that it has been difficult to do her work as an educator and therapist since the event, and particularly during the trial.

"It's been really hard to stay focused when my heart and head have been here," she said.

Andrea Puckett, Liz Neuman's daughter, marks her birthday on Oct. 8, the same date as the sweat lodge ceremony that claimed Neuman's life. Puckett, who also attended previous Ray events, had talked about going to Spiritual Warrior 2009 but didn't because of schoolwork she was doing in pursuit of her master's degree. She heard the solemn news from a cousin on Oct. 9.

"I learned that there was an incident... and that two people were dead and others were in the hospital, but I had no idea what had happened to my mom," Puckett said. Only after inquiring about Jane Does at Flagstaff Medical Center was she able to discover that Neuman was critically ill.

She and other family members flew from Minnesota to Arizona that night and stayed by Neuman's side, finally consenting to allow doctors to discontinue life support on Oct. 17.

"Every day she would take one step forward and two steps back," she said. "She didn't even look like my mom."

Puckett now has a nine-month-old daughter who will never know her grandmother.

"I think the hardest thing was going through the pregnancy and not having my mom there," she said. "I miss her a lot and I feel like there's a lot of things I could have learned from her."

James Shore's wife, Alyssa Gillespie, was the last to testify, and said her husband "was interested in the world. Nobody I know could keep up with him and his interests." She said Shore was "an incredible, incredible father" to their daughters Inaya, now 13, and Amrita, 11, as well as to their son Darshan, 9.

"All he ever wanted to do was hang out with the kids and play with the kids," Gillespie said, struggling to keep her emotions in check. "He read to the children every night. My daughter Inaya has stacks and stacks of books that her father read to her."

Gillespie said she learned of her husband's death the day after the event, while waiting for his call to pick him up at the airport in Milwaukee. Her children, she said, have had enormous difficulties in adjusting to life without their father.

It came as no surprise, she said, that Shore died after helping one person out of the sweat lodge before returning to render aid to Kirby. "It did not surprise me because James really lived like a hero. He was my hero every day."

In order for Judge Warren Darrow to sentence Ray to longer than the presumptive (normal) term of two years for each count, the jury will have to approve at least one of the three aggravating factors that Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk alleges apply. Along with the emotional harm to the victims' families, the state contends that Ray acted in hopes of monetary or property gain from his actions, and that the victims held him "in a unique position of trust" during the event that led to their deaths.

Polk presented no testimony for the latter two factors, telling jurors that there had been ample testimony during the trial on which to base their decision.

Jurors will deliberate on the aggravating factors today, and Darrow will balance them with mitigating factors the defense presents during an as-yet-unscheduled sentencing hearing in the near future.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.