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3rd Person Dies - A Comprehensive Report on Sweat Lodge Event

20 October 2009  
A third person has died as a result of the Sedona Sweat Lodge event on October 8. This is a comprehensive report of the current information known: Includes building & fire info, waiver, "what to bring" checklist, more.
angelvalleyretreat
A view of the Angel Valley Retreat from the road.

A third person has died as a result of the Sedona sweat lodge incident that occurred on Thursday, October 8, 2009. She is identified as Lizbeth Neuman, 49, from Minnesota. No other retreat participant remains hospitalized. Neuman passed away on October 17, 2009, after being in critical condition at Flagstaff Regional Medical Center for 9 days. An attorney has been hired by her family to investigate her death, according to the Arizona Republic.

Neuman was participating in an event for "Spiritual Warriors," which was organized by James A. Ray, an author who purports to "create harmonic wealth in all areas of your life".

On Thursday, October 15, Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh stated that the investigation has been elevated from a "death investigation" to a "homicide investigation". The decision was made based on recent information received from participants in this event, as well as details which were provided by those who had attended a Spiritual Warrior event in the past. Specifically, Sheriff Waugh cited an incident from 2005, in which a participant had been taken to the hospital via ambulance, and another incident from last year. Details on these incidents have not been released.

According to the Arizona Republic, Ray's publicist, Howard Bragman, objects to Waugh's decision to elevate this case to an homicide investigation, terming it a "purposely incendiary" decision.

"I think they are trying to tar my client," Bragman is quoted in the Republic as saying. "Somebody must be running for reelection in Yavapai County."

(Waugh was re-elected to his office in 2008. Ernie Cox was his opponent, and Waugh won with a margin of 71.30% to 28.61% percent of the votes.)

Waugh is declining all individual press interviews at this time, due to the amount of requests he has received.

Below, you will see an assortment of information gathered in the last few days.

From the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office (YCSO):

YCSO detectives are actively seeking out participants of past events conducted by Ray who may have had, or be aware of similar experiences like the circumstances from the October 8th event at the Angel Valley Retreat Center.

  • Please contact the Sheriff's office via email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • You may also call Yavapai Silent Witness at: 800.932.3232

On Wednesday, October 14, 2009, YCSO detectives, along with the Carlsbad California Police Department, executed a search warrant at the offices of James Ray International. The detectives were searching for:

  • Medical information on participants of the October 8th Spiritual Warrior event
  • Documenation kepy by Ray or his staff regarding the construction, proper use, and conduct regarding sweat lodges
  • Records showing that participants had been advised by Ray of the associated risks of the Spiritual Warrior activities
  • Rosters for previous attendees of Spiritual Warrior events

While Ray is the focus of the investigation, he is only being termed as a "person of interest" at this point. Waugh specifically refused to characterize Ray as a suspect at this point. YCSO is also looking at the evidence to determine if the actions of any other persons may have led up to the deaths of these people.

Who Built the Sweat Lodge, and Under Whose Direction?

The answer to that seems to be rather murky at this point.

The best place to start is probably by identifying some people:

Michael and Amayra Hamilton are the founders of the Angel Valley Retreat Center. At the Sheriff's press conference, held on Thursday, October 15, other people, simply identified as the Mercers, were said to actually build the sweat lodge.

According to YCSO, the Mercers typically built sweat lodges for the Angel Valley center, and in the Group Retreat Terms and Conditions, they offer "Additional Options Made Available at Extra Charge" at the top of page 3. In that list, you read, "Sweat Lodge: $900-$1300, for up to 75 people, without or with facilitator and fire tender(s)".

When asked, Criminal Investigations Commander Lt. David Rhodes said that the Hamiltons own the property, but they allow the Mercers to contract with incoming organizations to build the sweat lodge. Rhodes declined to state whether Ray or the Hamiltons directly hired the Mercers.

"Right now, the investigation is such that we feel we need to make every effort to find out what occurred in there, because it was very unnatural, very unexpected and we need to get to the bottom of it," Rhodes said.

Was a Building Permit Required?

The short answer is, "Yes," according ot Jack Judd, the Yavapai County Building Inspector. When Prescott eNews called to ask certain questions, Judd requested time to research the information to ensure his accuracy.

Judd stated that any structure greater than 120 square feet requires a building permit. This is not an overnight process, either. The entity requesting a permit must submit plans to the County and undergo a plan review. Typically the permitting process takes 7-10 days, Judd said.

Judd said that to pass the building permit requirements, it must meet the 2006 International Building Codes.

When asked if temporary structures have the same requirements, Judd said it didn't matter whether the structure was temporary or not.

On the Yavapai County website, it also states:

A building permit is an official document required to construct or alter a building or structure in compliance with the minimum requirements of the building codes in the unincorporated areas of Yavapai County. No matter what the project may be, the enforcement of codes is carried out to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. A permit also provides the means for the code officials to inspect construction to ensure that minimum standards are met and appropriate materials are used. Zoning clearances are required for any structure that exceeds $1,000.00 in value for new construction or for repairs and improvements that exceed $2,000.00 in value. A zoning clearance/building permit is typically required for the following: New buildings, additions, renovations, demolitions, prefabricated structures, temporary buildings, manufactured homes, electrical systems, plumbing systems, HVAC systems (heating ventilating and air conditioning) miscellaneous for residential (fireplace, pools, decks, fences, etc.) and miscellaneous for commercial (parking, health, food handling, etc.)

No building permit is on file for this structure.

Fire Code Inspection

Verde Valley Fire Chief Jerry Doerkson stated that his department has conducted many fire code inspections of the Angel Valley Retreat Center, and the owners have always been extremely cooperative.

However, he also stated that his department had never seen this sweat lodge structure before, and thus had never performed any kind of a fire inspection on it.

A fire inspection would have taken ventilation and temperature into consideration, among other things.

Emergency Responder Personnel

According to Chief Doerksen, when the call came in, support from the entire Verde Valley responded. It took 21 minutes to the first responders to arrive at the facility.

(Prescott eNews wondered why it took so long, until we drove out ourselves to the property. There is a very bumpy 2 mile road to travel, and in our car, that 2 mile stretch alone took 8 minutes. It would likely be slower going in a firetruck or ambulance.)

 

bumpyroad
The access road is very bumpy and steep in places.

Responding to the incident:

  • 4 helicopters - 2 Guardian, 1 Native Air (one helicopter came back for a second trip)
  • 3 engines - 2 from the Verde Valley Fire Department, 1 from Sedona Fire Department
  • 6 ambulances - 2 Verde Valley Fire Department, 1 Sedona Fire Department, 2 Verde Valley Ambulance, 1 Montezuma-Rimrock Fire Department
  • Camp Verde Hazardous Materials Team
  • Yavapai County Sheriff's Office
  • Trauma Intervention Volunteers

Chief Doerksen notes that any time a person is in a structure such as this, certain factors should be considered:

  • Adequate ventilation
  • Temperature not too high
  • Amount of time in environment
  • How do you feel? If lightheaded, nauseated, or if you pass out or are sick, get out of the environment immediately

What Were the Participants Led to Expect?

In a July 2, 2009 guide sent to the participants of the Spiritual Warrior event by the James Ray International Team, it is written, "Keep in mind that we will be working diligently to make this event memorable. For this reason, it is important that we do not disclose any further information regarding the event schedule or planned activities. However, we will tell you that it is going to be an exciting, unforgettable and transformational week!"

The participants were required to pay $267 per person per night (for 6 nights) for lodging, meals and snacks, in addition to the fee for the Spiritual Warrior event which is reported by the YCSO to be between $9000-$10,000. The lodging prices are specifically stated to be "per-person, and are based on 203 individuals sharing a room. No private accomodations are available." They are also invited to stay through October 11th, at the "discounted rate of $155 per night."

This rate appears to be higher than that quoted by the Angel Valley Retreat Terms and Conditions, which states, "For the 2009 and 2010 groups the basic rate for contracts signed after August 1, 2009 is $165 per person, per day." Their stated discounted rate for longer stays is $133 per night.

The schedule provided for Sunday - Thursday simply states:

Breakfast Approximately 7-8:00 am
Group Gathering Approximately 8:00 am
Lunch Approximately 1 pm
Group Gathering Approximately 2 pm
Dinner Approximately 6:30 pm
Group Gathering Approximately 8:00 pm
Day Ends Approximately 11:00 pm

 

avretreat2
Another view from the road.

In preparation for the event, there was "Required Reading" which included The Holotropic Mind by Stanislav Grof in addition to those listed on the Recommended Reading List as "Required Prior to Spiritual Warrior."

They were also asked to invest in Holosync technology, and told they needed to do so prior to Spiritual Warrior. The cost to purchase the "Awakening Prologue" is $179.

Other products from the James Ray International were also required, including: the Power Generator, Wealth Ignition and Reclaiming Your Full Energy and Vitality CDs.

Their checklist of things to bring included:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Back pack or duffle bag
  • Hiking shoes (not tennis shoes)
  • Power objects (objects that hold special meaning for you)
  • Yoga clothes
  • Large, blank spiral bound notebook
  • Writing instruments (several)
  • Headphones for CD player
  • Baby wipes
  • Compass
  • All-weather jacket
  • Sunglasses
  • Warm gloves
  • Bag of chewing tobacco
  • Six feet of string (approximately dress shoe lace size, preferably red, but color not critical)
  • Seven 3" x 3" squares of fabric
  • Re-sealable bags (10, any size)
  • Bathing suit and/or one set of clothing you can get wet (and possibly dirty)
  • Yoga towel or band
  • Toilet paper (1 roll)
  • Hat with large brim
  • Flashlight
  • Portable CD player
  • Replacement batteries for CD player
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellant

It was stressed that photography and recording of any kind was not allowed in the meeting room.

They were also given copies of the Spiritual Warrior Release, Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, Indemnity Agreement and Disclaimer and the Participant Publicity Release Form. Each participant was required to sign these, have them witnessed and submit them at registration in order to gain admittance to the event. In addition, an Angel Valley Release of Liability and Acceptance of Responsibility Form had to be completed and turned in.

In the Spiritual Warrior Form it does say, "Please read carefully. By signing this agreement you are waiving all rights to compensation in case of injury."

The second paragraph reads:

I am fully aware and understand that I will be given the opportunity by the Company to participate in physical, emotional and other activities during the Event, some of which may take place outdoors and/or require the participants to be isolated from one another and/or include very loud music. These activities may include physical exercise (e.g., hiking, swimming, yoga, team games), Holotropic Breathwork (a psychotherapeutic approach believed to allow access to non-ordinary states of consciousness), a sweat lodge ceremony (a ceremonial sauna involving tight, enclosed spaces and intense temperatures), and/or a Vision Quest (a multiday, solitary, personal and spiritual quest in the wilderness without food or water) (the “Activities”). I am fully aware that I may suffer physical, emotional, financial or other injury during any of the Activities and there is and can be no assurance or guarantee regarding my health or safety in connection with my participation in the Activities. I understand that (1) there are inherent risks in the Activities; (2) people may have been seriously injured by participating in the Activities; and (3) if I voluntarily choose to participate in the Activities, there is a risk that I may receive injuries requiring medical attention. I fully understand and acknowledge that there is no requirement whatsoever that I participate in the Activities. If I do choose to participate in any of the Activities, I affirm that I have not been nor will I be coerced or persuaded in any way to do so and I assume full responsibility for and risk of any injury sustained in connection with the Activities, whether caused by the negligence of Releasees or otherwise.

Towards the end of the waiver, you find, "I agree not to record by audio, video, photographic or any other means, any portion of the Event."

Despite the fact that Angel Valley is located in Arizona, it also includes this statement: "I further expressly agree that this agreement is to be governed by the law of the State of California, without regard to conflicts of law doctrines, and the release, waiver of liability, assumption of risk, indemnity and disclaimer provided herein are intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by the law of the State of California and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall continue in full legal force and effect."

 

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Lynne LaMaster