FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A woman who took part in an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony tells The Associated Press that the spiritual guru who led the event pushed participants too far in what was supposed to be a life-expanding experience that culminated with people vomiting and passing out on the floor.
Texas resident Beverley Bunn is the first participant in the tragic incident to speak out publicly about the events that led up to the deaths. The 43-year-old told the AP in a series of interviews this week that by the time the sweat lodge ceremony began, the participants had undergone days of physically and mentally strenuous events that included fasting. In one game, guru James Arthur Ray even played God.
Within an hour of entering the sweat lodge on the evening of Oct. 8, people began vomiting, gasping for air and collapsing. Yet Bunn says Ray continually urged everyone to stay inside. The ceremony was broken up into 15-minute "rounds," with the entrance flap to the lodge opened briefly and more heated rocks brought inside between sessions.
"I can't get her to move. I can't get her to wake up," Bunn recalls hearing from two sides of the 415-square-foot sweat lodge. Ray's response: "Leave her alone, she'll be dealt with in the next round."
By that time, Bunn had already crawled to a spot near the opening of the sweat lodge, praying for the door to stay open as long as possible between rounds so that she could breathe in fresh air.
At one point, someone lifted up the back of the tent, shining light in the otherwise pitch-black enclosure. Ray demanded to know who was letting the light in and committing a "sacrilegious act," Bunn said.
The account marks a significant revelation in the investigation because it portrays Ray as driving participants to stay in the lodge despite signs all around him that the situation had gone horribly awry. Until now, few details had surfaced about Ray's actions inside in the sweat lodge.
Investigators are considering bringing charges against Ray in a case that has cast a harsh spotlight on him and his self-help empire as he led dozens of people into the sweat lodge during a five-day retreat that cost more than $9,000 per person. He has hired his own investigative team to try to determine what went wrong.
Ray led the group in chants and prayers during the ceremony, Bunn said. People were not physically forced to stay inside but chided by Ray if they wanted to leave as he told them they were stronger than their bodies and weakness could be overcome.
Bunn lasted the entire two hours, but nearly two dozen others suffered serious injuries that sent them to the hospital.
Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died upon arrival at a hospital. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., lingered in a coma for more than a week before dying.
Sheriff's investigators in Arizona's Yavapai County are treating the deaths as homicides but have yet to determine the cause.
Investigators are looking into the construction of the sweat lodge, the fact that people had fallen ill at previous sweat ceremonies led by Ray and questionable medical care on site as they try to determine whether criminal negligence contributed to the deaths and illnesses.
Authorities have said a nurse hired by Ray was directing rescue efforts including CPR when emergency crews arrived. Ray is the primary focus of the probe but others also are being investigated, Sheriff Steve Waugh has said.
"I too want to know what happened that caused this horrible tragedy," Ray wrote on his Web site Tuesday.
He vowed to continue with his work.
"I have taken heat for that decision, but if I choose to lock myself in my home, I am sure I would be criticized for hiding and not practicing what I preach," he wrote.