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Sweat lodge participant testifies he asked someone if he had died

By the CNN Wire Staff
Dennis Mehravar was told he had been reborn during a sweat lodge ceremony.
Dennis Mehravar was told he had been reborn during a sweat lodge ceremony.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Witnesses say they didn't read waivers closely they signed
  • Witness recounts Arizona sweat lodge ceremony
  • The sessions were led by James Ray, now accused of three counts of manslaughter
  • Dennis Mehravar says he was in no condition to help anyone who was dying

Camp Verde, Arizona (CNN) -- A participant in a 2009 Arizona sweat lodge ceremony that left three people dead testified Thursday that he asked a volunteer if he had died and was told, "No, you came back."

Dennis Mehravar, a real estate salesman from Canada, testified that self-help author and speaker James Ray, who led the event, told him he had been reborn.

Ray is accused of three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of three people who were in the sweat lodge for the purification ceremony. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison on each count.

Mehravar, asked if he would have assisted someone next to him who was dying, said he would normally have done so, but the conditions in the lodge made that difficult. "I wasn't 100% aware, alert of what was going on around me."

Responding to a follow-up question, Mehravar said he would have waited until a round was over to ask for help. 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.

Mehravar said he would not have tried to stop the ceremony: "I don't think I would. I know it doesn't sound logical."

"I think Mr. Ray would have got upset if I had interrupted the ceremony," he said.

Prosecutors maintain Ray psychologically pressured participants to remain in the lodge even when they weren't feeling well, contributing to the deaths of the three victims.

The defense has argued the incident was "a tragic accident" and that participants had a free choice to take part the activities or leave if they became too intense.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Luis Li displayed for the jury Mehravar's medical record from his hospital visit following the sweat lodge ceremony. Li pointed out that doctors could not find a cause for his symptoms and noted the same finding in the two victims that died that day.

The defense has asserted that the symptoms exhibited by the victims are consistent with poisoning from an unknown toxin.

Mehravar, who said he trusted Ray, testified he screamed before losing consciousness during the ceremony at a resort in Sedona.

Another ceremony participant, Michael Olesen, a businessman from Ontario, told the jury how he helped drag people out of the lodge and render assistance. When he asked about one woman, Ray told him she would be all right, Olesen testified.

Mehravar and Olesen both acknowledged they did not read the waivers carefully before signing them. The waiver advised participants to consult a physician before participating in events at the spiritual retreat.

Olesen said he did not tell Ray when he returned to the lodge after a break that there were people outside getting assistance. But, he said, his attendance at prior Ray seminars indicated the author didn't like people interrupting a session.

Jurors on Wednesday heard a recording in which Ray previewed the intense ceremony and told participants how it would be a "death and rebirth experience."

He told participants it would include the most "intense heat you've every experienced in your life. You will feel like you are going to die."

The author described the October 2009 ceremony as a sacred way for participants to rid themselves of "all the things that you've allowed to be your truth and have caused you to sell yourself short."

In the recording, Ray told participants, who paid up to $10,000 each to attend the event, that as "true spiritual warriors" and in their "altered state" they would endure heat so intense it would make it feel like their skins was coming off of their bodies.

"I will be right there with you," he said.

"You will have to get to a point where you surrender to death," Ray said. "When you are going into the lodge symbolically you are going back into the womb of Mother Earth."

"It is such a great metaphor," the author said. "... My body dies but I never die."

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

During his recorded talk, Ray repeatedly told participants to drink plenty of fluids.

Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York, and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died the night of the event. Volunteer Lizbeth Marie Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, died nine days after the ceremony.

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

InSession's Michael Christian, Beth Karas and Grace Wong contributed to this report.