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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

home : features : crime & emergency May 28, 2016

10/10/2009 2:17:00 PM
Investigators seek answers in deaths, illness during sweat lodge ceremony
Lisa Irish/The Daily Courier
Lt. David Rhodes of the criminal investigation bureau of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office speaks to the media during a press conference Saturday at the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors Room in Prescott. Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh, at left, also provided information.
Lisa Irish/The Daily Courier Lt. David Rhodes of the criminal investigation bureau of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office speaks to the media during a press conference Saturday at the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors Room in Prescott. Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh, at left, also provided information.
Special to verdenews.com

PRESCOTT -- Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh identified two people who died after participating in a sweat lodge ceremony that was the culmination of a "Spiritual Warrior" conference run by James Arthur Ray at the Angel Valley Retreat Center on Sedona Thursday.

James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, Wis., and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., died at Verde Valley Medical Center at 6:36 p.m. Thursday, Waugh said at a Saturday news conference at the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors Room in Prescott.

More than 20 participants were transported by ambulance, air and private vehicles for care at the Verde Valley Medical Center, Flagstaff Medical Center and the Sedona Medical Center. Three patients remain in fair condition and one is in critical condition at the Flagstaff Medical Center, said Starla Addair-Collins, public relations specialist at Flagstaff Medical Center.

"Right now there are no criminal charges pending, and we do not know at this point if there ever will be," Lt. David Rhodes of the YCSO criminal investigation bureau said at the press conference. "We haven't encountered anything like this before."

Waugh also said Ray, who led the sweat lodge ceremony, refused to talk to investigators on site and returned to California.

"We will at some point in time schedule another interview with him," Waugh said.

"I do not know why he chose not to speak with us," Rhodes added. "Everyone else we have spoken with has been very forthcoming with information."

The sweat lodge ceremony Thursday afternoon was the culmination of a four-day retreat in the Sedona area, Waugh said. Ray had hosted events at the resort, including sweat lodges, before, and investigators are following up to see if any similar incidents had happened at previous events. Rhodes said the owners of the resort, the participants and Ray's staff on site are all part of the investigation.

"We are investigating it, at this point in time, as a death investigation," Waugh said. "If there are items that we are looking at that will turn this into a criminal investigation, I will not share it at this time."

A 911 call at 5 p.m. Thursday reported two people at the sweat dome had no pulse. When YCSO officers responded at 5:42 p.m., they found people in medical distress, complaining of illness, and two who were unresponsive and in critical condition.

Investigators interviewed 65 people of the 71 on site from the time they arrived until 3 a.m. Friday. Seven people were paid staff, including Ray, seven were volunteers, and 50 people were paying participants, Waugh said.

"We continue monitoring the condition of participants," Waugh said.

"We believe 50 to 60 people were in the lodge at the time that these deaths occurred," Waugh said.

Spiritual Warrior program participants attended lectures from Sunday to Tuesday, Waugh said. At 10 p.m. Tuesday, participants began a vision quest in surrounding canyons. The vision quest was a 36-hour period of fasting and spiritual exercises, Waugh said. Thursday morning, vision quest ended at daybreak and participants ate a buffet breakfast of eggs, fruit and cereal. Waugh said. Participants were also encouraged to drink water, he said. From midmorning until 3 p.m., participants attended lectures and seminars.

At 3 p.m., participants began the sweat lodge ceremony, with each sweat lodge session lasting from 15 to 30 minutes. Some participants said the original plan was for eight sweat lodge experiences, Waugh said.

In one round, Ray led the participants in various spiritual exercises, Waugh said. Many of the participants were from out of state, and one is from Canada, Rhodes said.

According to investigators, the first round began when 12 cantaloupe-sized rocks were brought into the lodge, water was put on the rocks to create steam and sandalwood was thrown on the rocks to give the effect of incense. At the end of each round, the door flap was raised and new rocks were brought in. Investigators found 58 rocks in the pit when they arrived at the lodge.

After the fourth round, two participants were dragged to the door by people in the lodge, Waugh said.

Ray's staff built the lodge, a temporary structure, with a frame of juniper and oak and covered it with many layers of blankets, comforters and tarps. The lodge is 415 square feet, just 53 inches high in the center, and 30 inches high on the edges. Fifty to 60 people were in the lodge during the ceremony, Waugh said.

"So literally no one could stand up in the lodge," Waugh said.

"We're estimating 50 to 65 people in an area 415 square feet - that is very tight quarters," Rhodes said. "The only ventilation was the door, the one entrance, when it was open."

Autopsies were conducted by the medical examiner of Yavapai County on Friday and results and toxicology are pending. Waugh said determining the actual cause of death may take up to 10 days.

Samples were taken from the fabric covering the roof, firewood, and other items inside and around the lodge to aid in the investigation.

Shore is survived by his wife and three children, a brother in Chicago, and other family members. Brown is survived by her parents, Waugh said.

Related Stories:
• Sweat lodge deaths now a homicide case; Deputies search Ray's California headquarters
• Teamwork: Verde Valley Fire talks about Angel Valley rescue
• Editorial: Worst-case scenario turned into best-case coordination
• Two die, 19 ill in sweat lodge incident

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Reader Comments

Posted: Sunday, October 18, 2009
Article comment by: Sun-Downer

Let's turn our grief into compassionate wisdom. The comparison in the 1st comment to the "Jonestown Massacre" is quite extreme and off-kilter. Still, our best action is (at the risk of sounding like some "Cult Member") to practice one of the things the Buddha taught: "Discriminating Awareness..." and learn from others' karma-causing mistakes! Thank You (& have a Buddha-full Day!)-= ~!~ =-

Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009
Article comment by: Proud!

What a handsome young man that Lt Rhodes is.

Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Article comment by: Sr. Citizens Speak

THIS ENTIRE FACILITY NEEDS TO BE RETURNED BACK TO THE NATIVE AMERICANS for proper management. There is much blame to go around, including the blatant disregard for the Health, Safety, and Welfare by our city and county officials. We therefore propose new legislation to prevent any further exploitation of CULTS in our Valley.

Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Article comment by: Don Larson

Don't blame Native Americans in this matter. This is just a scam and sadly people died from it.

Posted: Monday, October 12, 2009
Article comment by: Gene Weed (pro: We Edde]

Research into ancient Native American cultures show that this practice of "Sweating" originated in the Americas in or about 1362 when the remains of the exiled Knights Templar arrived in Michigan. The Kensington Stone exactly dates the introduction of this Scandinavian practice. The practice was nothing more than a cold weather bath. The present day interpretation of “Spiritual Healing” is a far fetched and inaccurate myth. Furthermore, to attribute this ancient bathing practice we go back to Rome who adopted its cleansing properties. At no time did any culture ever use this bathing technique to ‘Purify Ones Soul”. My Naumkeag / Algonquin heritage never used this technique, as it was dangerous. However, my good friends at the Apache Nation today concurred that they in fact did, as it saved water. They even went on to say, " . . . they have no idea how to do it". Therefore this California con artists needs to be charged with multiple counts of felony murder and misreputation of the facts for profit. SIC noun Law a false or misleading statement : persons who suffer from a realtor's misrepresentation may be able to recover their losses. • the legal action to provide a remedy for a false or misleading statement.

Posted: Monday, October 12, 2009
Article comment by: life long local

The real shame rest's in the fact that we have people with the disposable income to spend close to $10,000 a week for such a sham. The negative light this will cast on the area as well as the true native american practice of the sweat lodge is very unfortunate. But as a whole I hope it might illustrate a deeper issues. In a country where 1 in 8 children don't have enough food to eat we have people who can drop that kind of money to spend a week fasting... only to be rewarded with a breakfast buffet and yes... a tragic sweat. The real kicker is that this has been happening for years. As completely awful as this was I can only hope that this serves as a wake up call to us all.

Posted: Sunday, October 11, 2009
Article comment by: [sic] Jonestown 1978

Total tragic event that replays over and over again in the history of humanity. Sedona and the Verde Valley should hang your heads low in allowing these con artists to practice and misuse our resources here. This is nothing but a micro replay of Jonestown in 1978. Sic semper tyrannis

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