CAMP VERDE, Ariz. (AP) — Dr. Jeanne Armstrong raised her arms in the air with fists clenched to show jurors Friday her demeanor after a sweat lodge ceremony that, for her, was a cinch to complete and a celebration of personal achievement.
Laurie Gennari, on the other hand, struggled with the intense heat, panicked and tried to crawl out as fast as she could before a self-help author’s words stopped her about 4 feet from the opening, she said.
Jurors heard the women’s stories Friday during James Arthur Ray’s manslaughter trial. The charges stem from the deaths of three people following the October 2009 ceremony that Ray led near Sedona. Ray has pleaded not guilty.
Armstrong testified that breathing exercises, a 36-hour fast in the desert and a hair-shaving event during Ray’s weeklong “Spiritual Warrior” seminar had no bearing on her decision to take part in the ceremony, nor was she pressured by Ray or anyone else. Gennari likened the week’s events to junior high school, where students are taunted and pressured to participate in activities and berated — in this case by Ray — if they don’t.
Prosecutors are trying to convince jurors that Ray conditioned the participants to remain in the 415-square-foot structure despite signs all around that things were going wrong.
“We were well-trained to do as we were told by the end of the week,” Gennari said, a statement to which defense attorney Luis Li objected and the judge sustained.
Armstrong called the idea that Ray conditioned or brainwashed participants “ridiculous.”
Defense attorneys say Ray isn’t to blame and that the whole thing is a tragedy. They’ve suggested that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., and that prosecutors ignored those possibilities.
Though not an expert witness, attorneys on both sides took advantage of Armstrong’s medical training to ask what caused participants to vomit, foam at the mouth and slip into altered states of mind. Armstrong said all of those conditions could be signs of poisoning or heat stroke — the official cause of death for both Brown and Shore.
Armstrong assumed that all but two people — a man who burned his arm in a pile of heated rocks and a woman who passed out — had as easy of a time in the sweat lodge as she did. It wasn’t until she raised her arms in the air like Rocky and began surveying the scene that she said she realized people were in trouble.
One of the jurors later asked whether Armstrong fell asleep or was in a relaxed state for the last half of the ceremony. Armstrong responded that she was meditative and relaxed, but “I don’t think I feel asleep.”
Armstrong said Brown and Shore were in full cardiac arrest, lying on the ground behind the sweat lodge, but she didn’t believe medical intervention could have saved them. But even a doctor wouldn’t know what’s going on with a person’s heart without the proper medical equipment, prosecutor Bill Hughes asked on re-direct.
Gennari’s time inside the sweat lodge, as she told it, was much different than Armstrong’s. She recalled the same man — Lou Caci — getting burned, Ray becoming “angry” about a flash of light during a round, participants being dragged out, and Neuman’s slurred speech when she said she didn’t need to get out.
Gennari said she and Laura Tucker tried to keep Neuman propped up, but Gennari no longer could take the heat and started in a clockwise direction as Ray had instructed toward the door.
When she was near the opening, she said Ray told her: “You’re too late. The door is closing. Find yourself a spot.”
“None of my rational systems were functioning at that point,” she said. “Someone yelled ‘stop’ at me, and I did.”
A medical examiner concluded Neuman died when her organs shut down due to hyperthermia.
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