After attending many courses led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray, Dennis Mehraver says he developed great trust in his mentor and came to believe that Ray “knew how far I could go better than myself.”
But as Mehraver and others struggled to remain conscious in the stifling heat of a sweat lodge during a retreat with Ray in 2009, their leader did nothing to stop the ceremony or to check on their well-being, Mehraver says.
Mehraver’s last memory was an urge to flee, and when he finally came to after passing out, a smiling Ray was sitting in a chair and saying, “Go get a shower and get ready for dinner,” Mehraver has testified in Camp Verde, Ariz., where Ray, 53, is on trial on reckless manslaughter charges. If convicted, he faces 10 years in prison for each manslaughter count.
The trail, which began March 1 and is expected to last for several more weeks, comes nearly 18 months after three people died and 15 others got sick in a sweat lodge during a $10,000 “Spiritual Warrior” retreat. So far, the trial has featured dramatic testimony by Ray’s former followers, who are now angry and disillusioned about the horrific scene during the ceremonies.
Victims ‘Found Death’
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk contended in opening statements that Ray made the sweat lodge too hot, discouraged people from leaving and did too little to help as participants lost consciousness.
“Instead of growth and enlightenment [the victims] found death in Mr. Ray’s sweat lodge,” said Polk.
Longtime Ray friend Lou Caci testified that the stricken followers reminded him of how his brother and father died from cancer.
Caci testified that he’d attended a Ray sweat-lodge ceremony before, but this one was “a lot hotter” with about twice as many people, and as he stumbled out he burned his hands on the hot rocks.
Outside the lodge, the scene was “like a battleground” with people vomiting, foaming at the mouth and their eyes nearly popping out, said Caci.
During his testimony, Caci and Ray looked at each other and wept. They had become close friends, with Ray even attending Caci’s wedding, since meeting at a Tony Robbins seminar in 1992.
Defense: Deaths Accidental
After the seminar, Caci said, Ray began publishing self-help books and giving seminars of his own. Ray has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live and in the movie The Secret.
Defense lawyers say the deaths were accidental, and suggest that exposure to an unknown toxin, perhaps a pesticide, could have caused the fatalities.
“If the state’s case is that he’s so persuasive that he can make people do something against their will, well then, he’s not very good at it, because a lot of people left,” defense attorney Lui Li said in opening statements. “Nobody was coerced. People chose for themselves.”