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Employee testifies about scene at sweat lodge ceremony

By the CNN Wire Staff
An evidence photo from the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office shows the interior of the sweat lodge where three people died.
An evidence photo from the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office shows the interior of the sweat lodge where three people died.
  • Self-help author James Ray is accused of manslaughter
  • An ex-employee testifies about sweat lodge scene
  • Melinda Martin was told it was "normal" for people to show distressed behavior
  • James Ray
  • Manslaughter
  • Arizona

Camp Verde, Arizona (CNN) -- A former events coordinator for a company owned by self-help guru James Ray testified Wednesday about the "wild scene" where people became ill during a 2009 sweat lodge ceremony that left three participants dead.

Melinda Martin, at the time an employee of James Ray International, testified she gave CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York, one of the three victims.

Some participants came out of the heated lodge as early as the first round, Martin said. At least one later vomited and screamed, "I don't want to die."

Martin, now a real estate professional in New York, testified a colleague told her the agitated behavior shown by the participants was "normal" for such an intense event.

Ray is accused of manslaughter in the deaths of three persons at his October 2009 "Spiritual Warrior" retreat in the desert.

James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and volunteer Lizbeth Marie Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, also died. At least 15 others who took part in the sweat lodge ceremony became ill. More than 40 others were uninjured. Defense lawyers have argued that the deaths were accidental.

One woman who exited the lodge, according to Martin, said, "This is bad. This feels really bad. I don't like this. I want to go. I want to go back to the way I was. This is wrong."

"I was kind of surprised that she felt so strongly that she was so unhappy," Martin said. "But I was OK at that stage."

The defense, during cross-examination, implied that Martin sometimes exaggerated details. She was the first Ray employee to testify at the trial.

The ceremony left some participants so sickened that the scene resembled "a battleground" with people vomiting, foaming at the mouth and with their eyes nearly popping out, according to one survivor who testified last week.

"I saw people agonizing," said Lou Caci, a participant from Winnipeg, Manitoba.

James Ray's attorneys have argued that exposure to an unknown toxin, perhaps a pesticide, in the lodge could have caused the fatalities.

The event participants paid up to $10,000 to seek "new areas of consciousness," according to testimony.

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 told to wait until the breaks between rounds.

In Session's Michael Christian contributed to this report.