New details emerge about deaths in sweat lodge


POSTED: Wednesday, December 30, 2009

As would-be rescuers struggled to drag three unconscious victims from an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony in October, the leader of the event, James A. Ray, sat outside in the shade, according to newly released police reports.

In the reports, which were released Monday by judicial order, a woman whose husband was heating rocks for the ceremony told investigators with the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office that she was able to pull one woman from the lodge. But, said the woman, Debra Mercer, when she told Ray that she needed to open up the back of the lodge to get the two other victims out, he replied that it would be “;sacrilegious”; to remove the tarps and blankets covering the wood frame structure and that she should do so only if necessary.

As Ray sat in a shaded chair outside, Mercer told investigators, she opened the tent and she and her daughter, Sarah, 17, and others helped pull out James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.

Shore and Brown were pronounced dead a short time later. The woman who had been removed first, Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., died nine days later in a hospital in Flagstaff, Ariz. She never regained consciousness after being pulled from the lodge.

About 20 other participants were hospitalized with heat-related injuries. One woman who survived suffered scorched lungs.

The newly released documents, which had been sought by the Phoenix television station KPNX, provide compelling eyewitness accounts of the chaotic events during and after the ceremony conducted by Ray at the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat Center near Sedona, Ariz.

Mercer's husband, Theodore, told the authorities that he heard Ray repeatedly urge participants to stay inside the pitch-black, 415-square-foot lodge for the duration of the two-hour ceremony, which was punctuated every 15 minutes by the delivery of more steaming rocks.

“;You are not going to die,”; Theodore Mercer quoted Ray as saying. “;You might think you are, but you are not going to die.”;

A participant, Melissa Phillips, told the authorities that she recalled Ray saying that those inside the lodge “;had to surrender to death to survive it.”;

According to the documents, interviews with participants and members of Ray's staff indicate that there was no safety plan for the Oct. 8 ceremony although serious medical problems had occurred after at least two previous sweat lodge ceremonies led by Ray at Angel Valley.

Theodore Mercer told the authorities that medical personnel should have been summoned to the two earlier ceremonies but were not. He said Ray's sweat lodges were much hotter and more intense than several others he had assisted with in recent years. Mercer said he had not planned to work with Ray this year, but he was out of work and decided to help after Ray indicated that a nurse would be on staff. A nurse was there, the documents say, but did little to help participants.

Ray, who has made millions of dollars leading self-help seminars across the country, is the focus of a homicide investigation resulting from the October ceremony. He has declined to describe what occurred that night, but he has stated in periodic e-mail messages that his staff was cooperating with the authorities.

Ray's lawyer, Brad Brian, said in a statement on Tuesday that the police documents “;only tell part of the story.”; The facts, Brian said, “;will show the Sedona tragedy was a terrible accident that no one, including James Ray, could have seen coming.”;

According to the police documents, however: “;There were no indications explaining why there were deaths and why people were getting sick other than it was extremely hot inside the sweat lodge.”;