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'Sweat lodge' survivor says Ray dismissed plea, didn't check victim

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Arizona sweat lodge trial continues
  • NEW: A survivor says reports that the ritual participants were "brainwashed" are wrong
  • She says she told James Ray her worries about another woman, but he brushed her off
  • Lizabeth Neuman died nine days after the "sweat lodge" ceremony; two others also died
  • The defense claims the deaths were "a tragic accident -- not a crime"

Camp Verde, Arizona (CNN) -- A woman testified Friday that the leader of a spiritual retreat dismissed her alert about the failing condition of a fellow participant in a 2009 "sweat lodge ritual," one of three people who eventually died after that event.

Speaking in Yavapai County Superior Court in Camp Verde, Arizona, Laura Tucker said she twice -- the second time, doing so more loudly and urgently -- told James Arthur Ray she was worried about Lizbeth Marie Neuman, whom she had helped support, during a brief break in the ritual.

"(Ray) said Liz has done this before -- she knows what she's doing," Tucker said Friday, claiming that Ray did not check on Neuman despite her concerns.

Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, died nine days later. Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York, and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died the night of the October 2009 event. At least 15 others who took part in the ritual fell ill, but more than 40 others were uninjured.

Tucker testified on the fourth day of Ray's trial. Ray is charged with reckless manslaughter related to his actions at his "Spiritual Warrior" retreat outside Sedona, Arizona.

Anchors endure sweat lodge ceremony
  • James Arthur Ray
  • Arizona
  • Trials

Prior to the ritual, Tucker said she expressed her own nervousness about the ritual, only to be reassured and getting tips from Neuman. But as the tent heated up, after several "rounds," she became more worried about Neuman herself after the woman started leaning back on her.

"I thought it was odd that we were having to support her as much as we did," Tucker testified.

Ray, 53, had conducted his Spiritual Warrior Retreat for six years at a cost of about $10,000 to participants. The so-called sweat lodge -- which was 5 feet tall and 23 feet wide, and built to accommodate up to 75 people -- hosted a purification ritual for participants modeled on Native American customs.

During the defense's cross-examination, Tucker said it would be wrong to characterize her and others who participated in the retreat as "cult followers" or "brainwashed" -- noting that many were well-educated and successful.

"It was absolutely a massive distortion," she said of media reports, such as that participants were part of a "cult" and subject to "mind control" by Ray.

Prosecutors argue that the lodge -- made of willow trees and branches, and covered with tarpaulins and blankets -- was heated to a perilously high temperature, causing the participants to suffer dehydration and heatstroke. Ray poured water over heated stones in a pit in the center, in order to create steam.

Tucker, for one, said Friday that the enclosed space "was a lot hotter than I expected."

"It was very uncomfortable pretty quickly for me," she said.

On Thursday, another survivor testified that several participants were collapsing and "having issues" in the superheated environment.

"I mentioned several times that I thought people were having issues and needed help to leave, and they didn't wish to leave," Melissa Phillips testified. She said she could hear "a snorting breath sound" from Brown, one of those who died.

Defense attorney Luis Li told jurors as the trial began Tuesday that the deaths were "a tragic accident -- not a crime." But prosecutors maintain Ray psychologically pressured participants to remain in the lodge even when they weren't feeling well, contributing to their deaths.

Under cross-examination Friday, Tucker acknowledged signing a release form that warned of an "inherent risk" of injury in some activities in Ray's program. Phillips likewise admitted doing so, but said she wouldn't have taken part "if I had thought my life could be in jeopardy."

InSession's Michael Christian contributed to this report.