Sweat Lodge Deaths Not Due to Negligence, Say Lawyers

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Phoenix, Arizona—Lawyers for the man accused of negligence in the case of three Sedona, Arizona sweat lodge deaths say that their client had no reason to believe that anyone would die during the ceremony.

James Arthur Ray, a self-help guru who claims to assist others in achieving spiritual freedom, hosted the sweat lodge ceremony as part of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat. The five-day, $9,000-plus experience was intended to help people overcome the obstacles that had been holding them back in their life, and to be spiritually reborn. Halfway through the two-hour sweat lodge event, several people began complaining of extreme weakness and discomfort. Three people died, and 18 others were subsequently hospitalized with kidney failure, dehydration and other ailments.

Ray had encouraged people to stay inside the lodge for eight sessions of 10-15 minutes each, telling them that leaving during the round would be unsafe due to the presence of hot rocks in the middle of the darkened lodge. No one was forced to stay inside the tent, although some participants say that Ray’s psychological manipulation, combined with days’ worth of fasting, sleep deprivation and other mind-altering activities, would have made it difficult for some to make rational decisions about their well-being.

The participants had signed a waiver beforehand, acknowledging that they were about to experience extremely high temperatures and small, confined spaces, and that injury or death could result.

“It was not unreasonable and certainly not criminally negligent to expect people to know their limits and take care of themselves,” wrote Luis Li, one of the attorneys representing Ray.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk would not comment on the letters other than to acknowledge that she had received them.

Ray’s attorneys wrote that there had only been one previous medical issue during one of his sweat lodge encounters, in 2005, and that safety protocols had been improved since that time. Yet accounts have surfaced attesting to the poor ventilation in the sweat lodge, as well as its being overcrowded. One of the people attending the retreat, which took place at the Angel Valley Retreat Center, decided not to participate in the sweat lodge ceremony, and later told authorities that it did not appear safe.

Several civil suits have been filed against Ray, accusing him of negligence and fraud, but he has not yet been charged in a criminal complaint. Authorities will turn over the results of their investigation within a few weeks to prosecutors, who will then determine whether or not charges will be filed.

 

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