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Volunteer recalls chaotic scene at sweat lodge

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Rare look inside a sweat lodge ceremony
  • James Ray didn't make people return to lodge if they left, witness says
  • A ceremony volunteer says she received no extensive medical training
  • A survivor says she told Ray her worries about another woman, but he brushed her off
  • Ray is charged with three counts of reckless manslaughter

Camp Verde, Arizona (CNN) -- Testimony continued Tuesday at the trial of a self-help speaker charged in the death of three people at a sweat lodge in Arizona, with a volunteer saying she and others received little training on how to assist people.

Jennifer Haley, who served at the 2009 event near Sedona, took the stand for the third day Tuesday to talk about how she and other "Dream Team" members tried to help ceremony participants, some of whom vomited.

One reportedly was burned after coming in contact with hot rocks, according to testimony.

Author James Arthur Ray is charged with three counts of reckless manslaughter in connection with the October 2009 incident at a spiritual retreat outside Sedona. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison on each count.

Haley described hosing people off, and spoke of one man named Dennis who repeatedly said he didn't want to die.

HLN anchors endure sweat lodge ceremony

Prior to the beginning of the sweat lodge ceremony, Haley testified, Dream Team members received only about 10 minutes of training.

Haley, who was a participant in a 2007 ceremony, said Ray told the group "to expect that anything could happen: There could be throwing up, some people could get delirious ... anything could happen; it could get a little crazy ... expect it, it was normal."

Haley also testified they were not told how to help anyone who was unconscious. She said she performed CPR, despite having no training, on a man who appeared to not be breathing. The witness was outside the sweat lodge during the incident.

"There was no suggestion anything could go wrong," said Haley, who on that day assisted all three people who died.

Eventually, Haley testified, a nurse and doctor rendered aid.

Under cross-examination, Haley said participants had a choice of whether to have their heads shaved, which they were encouraged to do in order "to let go of their vanity." The defense is trying to show participants had free will during their time at the event.

Haley also said ceremony participants had been warned about how hot the lodge would be and that Ray never told anyone who left during the event they would have to return. A man who burned his hand voluntarily returned to the lodge.

A nearby cooling station included fruit, water and fortified water.

Haley also said that Ray was unhappy with volunteers, including Lizbeth Marie Neuman, who drank wine one evening before the ceremony, saying it was prohibited. Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, died nine days after the ceremony.

Asked by a defense attorney if the wine episode had anything to do with Neuman's death, Haley said, "I believe that her feeling shameful absolutely had everything to do with her dying in that sweat lodge because she was more than that."

On Friday -- the fourth day of the trial -- a woman testified that Ray dismissed her alert about the failing condition of a woman who was one of three people who eventually died.

Speaking in Yavapai County Superior Court in Camp Verde, Laura Tucker said she twice told Ray -- the second time more loudly and urgently -- she was worried about Neuman, whom she had helped support, during a brief break in the ritual.

"(Ray) said Liz has done this before -- she knows what she's doing," Tucker said, claiming that Ray did not check on Neuman despite her concerns.

Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York, and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died the night of the event.

At least 15 others who took part in the ritual fell ill, but more than 40 others were uninjured.

Ray, 53, had conducted his Spiritual Warrior Retreat for six years at a cost of about $10,000 for participants.

The so-called sweat lodge -- which was 5 feet tall and 23 feet wide, and built to accommodate up to 75 people -- was the site of a purification ritual for participants modeled on Native American customs.

Prosecutors argue that the lodge -- made of willow trees and branches, and covered with tarpaulins and blankets -- was heated to a perilously high temperature, causing the participants to suffer dehydration and heatstroke.

Ray poured water over heated stones in a pit in the center, in order to create steam.

The sweat lodge ceremony consisted of eight rounds, with each round lasting 10 to 15 minutes. While they were not prevented from leaving, participants have said they were encouraged to wait until the breaks between rounds.

Ray encouraged participants to hydrate throughout the retreat and warned them the sweat lodge would be very hot, his attorney has said. Participants signed a release form saying that the retreat activities could include a sweat lodge with enclosed spaces and high temperatures, Luis Li said in his opening statement last week.

But prosecutors maintain Ray psychologically pressured participants to remain in the lodge even when they weren't feeling well, contributing to their deaths.

Under cross-examination Friday, Tucker acknowledged signing a release form that warned of an "inherent risk" of injury in some activities in Ray's program.

InSession's Michael Christian contributed to this report