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Emotional witness describes horror outside sweat lodge

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Beverley Bunn roomed with one of the three victims at the 2009 retreat
  • Self-help author and retreat leader James Ray is charged with manslaughter
  • Defense calls the incident "a tragic accident"

Camp Verde, Arizona (CNN) -- The eighth day in the trial of a formal spiritual retreat leader charged with manslaughter after a deadly sweat lodge ceremony concluded Friday with emotional testimony from the roommate of one of the victims.

Self-help author and James Arthur 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.

Witness Beverley Bunn, who roomed with victim Kirby Brown during the five-day retreat in 2009, went through an exhaustive examination Friday, recounting all eight rounds of the sweat lodge purification ceremony. Each round lasted 10 to 15 minutes. While they were not prevented from leaving, participants have said they were encouraged to wait until the breaks between rounds.

Bunn grew emotional while recalling a horrifying scene after the ceremony ended, describing people tripping over others in their haste to leave the searing hot tent, while others lay unconscious outside.

"As I was getting ready to leave, there was two gentlemen in front of me who were dragging another lifeless person out. One man would pull her arms and another would push. ... They (dragged) her all the way to the door," she testified.

She also described seeing her stricken roommate.

"I was passing Kirby, and there was some snorting or snoring sounds coming from her," she said. "It was like a gurgling snorting sound."

Other participants had mucus bubbling from their mouths, and one man opened his eyes to reveal burst blood vessels, she said.

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.

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 in the activities or leave if they became too intense.

Bunn, however, testified Friday that over the course of the five-day retreat Ray instilled a directive among the participants: "Play full on."

"You learn through the course of the week that you don't question Mr. Ray on anything," Bunn testified. "You know what the rules are -- things are not optional.

"As you go through the week you learn that there's consequences or reprimand for you to be called out ... if you question Mr. Ray or don't play full on."

Bunn is scheduled to return to the witness stand when the trial resumes Tuesday.

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.

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

CNN's Daniel Lewis and InSession's Beth Karas contributed to this report.