PRESCOTT, Ariz. – Documents released in the investigation of a fatal sweat lodge ceremony show that people lost consciousness and others suffered broken bones at past events led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray, but Ray largely ignored the medical problems that arose.
Three people died after an Oct. 8 sweat lodge ceremony that was the highlight of Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event at a retreat he rented near Sedona. The Yavapai County sheriff's office has focused a homicide investigation on Ray, who has made millions of dollars by convincing people his words will lead them to spiritual and financial wealth.
In documents released Monday, a man Ray hired to build the sweat lodge told investigators that he was hesitant to assist with the ceremony for a third year because participants previously had emerged in medical distress, and emergency help wasn't summoned. Theodore Mercer said the latest ceremony was hotter than in years past, but Ray repeatedly told participants, "You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you're not going to die."
Mercer's wife, Debra, told investigators that one man emerged from the sweat lodge halfway through the October ceremony believing he was having a heart attack and would die. She said that instead of summoning medical aid, Ray said "It's a good day to die," according to a search warrant affidavit.
When Ray was advised that two participants were unconscious near the end of the two-hour ceremony, Debra Mercer said Ray did not appear overly concerned and said they would be OK until the end.
A message left Monday at a phone listing for the Mercers was not immediately returned.
No charges have been filed. The investigation, including hundreds of interviews, is expected to be turned over to prosecutors next month. Sheriff's officials said they would have no further comment until then.
Ray has hired his own investigative team to determine what went wrong. Brad Brian, an attorney for Ray, said in a statement Monday that Ray's representatives have been working with Arizona authorities to determine the facts, and he urged people not to jump to conclusions.
Brian said he believes the investigation will show "that the Sedona tragedy was a terrible accident that no one, including James Ray, could have seen coming."
Authorities and participants have said no one was forced to remain in the sweat lodge, but they were highly encouraged to stay inside.
Sheriff's officials said they found nothing to explain how the three people — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. — died other than the extreme heat inside the pitch-black sweat lodge — a 415-square-foot makeshift sauna covered with tarps and blankets and heated with hot rocks.
Authorities have interviewed most of the more than 50 people who attended the event and detailed about a dozen of the interviews in documents released Monday after a judge ruled last week that they be made public.
Some of the people told investigators that Ray responded to cries for help from a man who was burned and warned other participants not to leave the sweat lodge during eight 15-minute rounds so they wouldn't also be scorched by the hot rocks in the center.
Others who were interviewed by investigators described suffering broken bones at other Ray-led events after being instructed to break bricks with their hands. Others said they vomited and slipped into altered states of consciousness.
Mickey Reynolds, who attended Ray's 2005 "Spiritual Warrior" event said it was implied the sweat lodge was safe since Ray had done the ceremonies before. Reynolds told investigators there was no discussion of safety procedures or a plan if something went wrong.
The owner of the Sedona retreat, Amayra Hamilton, said she told Ray in 2005 that he would have to change his ceremonies after a man became severely ill and she saw improvements the following year.
Richard Wright said he took part in the latest sweat lodge as a test of courage, enduring seven of eight 15-minute rounds. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident told The Associated Press participants never were asked to provide emergency contacts or answer questions about their health, and they never were given a clear picture of the effects of a sweat lodge.
Instead, they took Ray's word that vomiting and passing out were normal, he said.
"We all chose what we did," Wright said. "But again, if you make a choice with only having half the story, have you really made a choice?"