Spectators drawn to Arizona sweat lodge trial

AP News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 5:44 PM
Spectators drawn to Arizona sweat lodge trial

A self-help author's manslaughter trial has drawn spectators from around Arizona and even some out-of-state vacationers who are curious about the deadly sweat lodge ceremony he conducted.

Testimony in James Arthur Ray's case enters its fourth week Tuesday and is expected to stretch into June.

The audience has been a mix of family members of Ray and the victims, American Indians who have long valued the sweat lodge tradition and others wondering about the lure of Ray's teachings. And the popularity of the trial among spectators is indicative of the widespread interest in the case as the trial is streamed live online and broadcast on television.

As a tour guide in Sedona, Chad Graf was well aware of the case. Ray held his five-day "Spiritual Warrior" seminar in October 2009 at a retreat just outside the town that draws many in the New Age spiritual movement.

He and Tara Golden spent a day at the trial last week and had conflicting thoughts on the case.

They listened as a man whose arm was burned in the ceremony said he left the structure but returned because he didn't want to disappoint Ray or himself. Another man testified that he was overcome by the heat and tried to crawl out, but he woke up in the hospital.

"Maybe he (Ray) was straddling that line of trying to get them as close as possible but misjudged drastically," Golden said. "There was a lot of pressure, and it became internal pressure, 'this is what we have to do or else we're a failure.'"

Prosecutors have said Ray that conditioned the participants over a week to trust him and chided those who wanted to leave the sweltering structure. Ray's attorneys say the deaths were a tragic accident, and he's pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charges.

The idea that entrepreneurs, doctors, a hair stylist, consultants and others would spend $10,000 to participate in Ray's seminar led some of those in the audience to believe they were cult followers _ an assertion Ray's attorneys and witnesses have said is false.

Harry Goodman of Cottonwood said he attended the trial with his wife Dixie to get a feel for the participants and the events _ a 36-hour fast in the scrub forest, mind-altering breathing exercises and the sweat lodge ceremony.

"Some really intelligent people can get into this," the 76-year-old Goodman said. "How in the world can you spend that type of money unless you are going to get something out of it?"

The dozen witnesses who have testified so far have said they were on a quest for personal enrichment and found value in Ray's teachings. Three people died following the retreat _ 38-year-old Kirby Brown, 40-year-old James Shore and 49-year-old Liz Neuman.

Brown's family has said she took self-improvement seriously. Her parents listened to two weeks of testimony in the courtroom. Before they left, they asked a group of American Indians who have been a mainstay in the courtroom to represent their daughter's spirit.

Ivan Lewis, a member of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, said he was honored to do so. Brown was "a loving and caring person" _ an impression he drew from an audio tape that prosecutors played of Brown _ who got caught up in something she believed in, he said.

Lewis' presence also is aimed at trying to protect a ceremony that American Indians typically use to rid the body of toxins.

C.O. Jamison and his wife Margaret were on vacation in Sedona when a tour guide mentioned the trial. He had heard a little about the case from their home in Virginia but knew nothing about sweat lodges.

"I thought it's just a sauna, a tent out there in the desert that people go in to sweat," he said, but learned through testimony of the ritual involved.

The couple spent a half day at the courthouse before they broke away to go shopping.

"I wanted to come over and see what's going on. I guess I'm nosy," Jamison said. "I'm wondering how this will play out."