Jun 3, 2011

James Ray Sweat Lodge Trial Roundup June 2

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

James Ray with Attorney Tom Kelly

As news out of the James Ray trial slows to a trickle, let's see what we can deduce from what is obviously so dull a story that it merits little to no coverage. Oh, here's a thing. Dawn Gordon testified that not only could no one leave when the sweat lodge when the flap was down, Ray responded to James Shore's concerns over Kirby Brown by saying, "No one is leaving at this time."

As per Mark Duncan, one of the handful of lonely reporters still covering the Yavapai County Courthouse beat, we learn that Spiritual Warrior participant Gordon had concerns over Brown's condition and labored breathing. She enlisted help from James Shore. Gordon was surprised that Shore had come back after dragging out an unconscious Sidney Spencer because he appeared to be struggling himself.

"He had his own free will to stay outside and he chose to come back in," she said.

By the time he did return, Gordon said, Brown had ceased her chant but was lying on her back, breathing loudly through what sounded like extreme congestion. Shore tried to move her onto her side to ease her airway but was unable and asked Gordon to help.

"I told him to get on the other side of her and that I would put my feet under her back and he could pull her arms," she said. "I stayed low...and as I was pushing and he was pulling we got her onto her side."

So why didn't they take the obviously ailing Brown out? Well, they all knew that once the flap was closed, that was it. And, for good measure James Ray reminded them when James Shore called out for help with Brown. Trouble breathing? Suck it up,  people. Flap's closed.

Brown's "chant" is one we've heard about from a number of witnesses. Brown had been chanting "We can do it," over and over again, loudly enough that several people told her to be quiet. Said Gordon:

"Partly because it was repetitive like a chant and it was disruptive for what I was perceiving as needing to take care of my well-being," she said, "both for my journey and what I was in the sweat lodge for in the first place."

This is something I've found odd from the beginning. On the one hand, Ray apparently led many chants during this heat endurance exercise but apparently Brown's attempts to start a chant only served to annoy. Could it be because she sounded out of control and disturbing? That's how this has always read to me. Like she was starting to sound like an embarrassing drunk as her disordered mental state overcame her determination.

Also exempt from the media blackout on this trial is Dateline's April Santiago who continued to tweet from the courtroom yesterday. From her we learned that Kim Brinkley, a teacher from California, stuck her face in the dirt to try to stay cool during the sweat lodge. (No doubt hoping that Ray hadn't told too many people to piss on the floor of the "temple" as he did to Lou Caci.)

We also learned that Sheila Polk tried to raise the issue of the Ray's no refund policy and was shot down. Of all Judge Darrow's rulings regarding "prejudicial" information, this is the one that honks me off. In this case, Ray's dubious business practices are directly on point because the defense's argument has made them so. The defense has argued repeatedly that people could have walked away at any time -- and indeed some people did. More to the point, they have argued endlessly that participants knew what they were getting into because they signed a waiver. Leaving aside for a moment how uninformative those waivers were, what were people supposed to do if they found the minimal disclosures in those waivers off-putting enough that they reconsidered attending? (Something Linda Andresano apparently wrestled with only to be mislead by Ray's staff.) What jurors are not hearing is that anyone who had concerns for their health or safety and reconsidered participating would forfeit nearly $10 grand. California a mandates a three day period cooling off period, which JRI complied with by law. But any concerns after that point, like when the waivers came, would have meant a rather large financial loss. Given that, it's understandable that a lot of people would have simply rolled the dice and trusted Ray not to kill or maim them.

Brinkley also confirmed earlier testimony about Laura Tucker raising concerns about Liz Neuman's health and being told "Liz has done this before..."

Tom Kelly's cross of Brinkley Santiago described as "testy." Shocker. Kelly cross-examined a female witness and managed to make her uncomfortable. Kelly also learned that Brinkley had decided against participating in a class action suit against Ray.

On redirect Polk extracted some details about Brinkley's medical condition following the sweat lodge. She experienced nausea and was diagnosed with heat exhaustion.

Brinkley also reiterated what many have testified to; that Ray pushed people to their limits and that his students didn't want to disappoint him. And this is precisely what made this (and other Ray events) so dangerous. He sets things up as a test of will and the difference between being a success or a failure in life. And he makes himself their judge, jury, and, it would seem, executioner.

Kim Brinkley was excused subject to recall.

Santiago also provided some other details from Gordon's testimony. She actually heard Ray say twice that no one could leave once the flap was closed.

Gordon appears to have approached this event with a lot of determination to succeed. She hadn't known there'd be a sweat lodge but once confronted with it she pushed through her own feelings of physical weakness and was proud of her accomplishment.

I am always just saddened when I learn about people treating a sweat lodge ceremony like an obstacle to be surmounted.

Over on the In Session blog, Jim Kyle seems to have taken a scunner to both of these witnesses. He found them to be"unusually dispassionate" as they recounted the horrific events. From his telling, they do both come off as a bit oblivious to what surrounded them. It sounds like Kim Brinkley was really out of it.

After a lengthy description of how she entered the sweat lodge, the position she took ultimately took and where she sat in relation to various other participants, Brinkley talked about how the first sign of something unusual was Amy Grimes passing out and falling on her.  Brinkley said she called out for help for about 20 or 30 seconds before anyone came to take Grimes out of the sweat lodge, and she couldn’t recall who that person was.  Brinkley then recounted hearing someone scream as though they were in pain, but didn’t know who it was at the time.  Only much later did she discover it was Lou Caci who fell into the rock pit while exiting the sweat lodge.  Brinkley explained her lack of attentiveness to what was going on by saying that her memory was auditory rather than visual due to the darkness.  She went on to claim to have been in an altered state throughout the sweat lodge ceremony, was unaware of the passage of time and probably not even awake the entire time.

. . .

After leaving the sweat lodge at the end of the ceremony, Brinkley describes how very cold she felt.  All she wanted to do was to go to her cabin and lay down.  She makes somewhat vague reference to hearing the arrival of helicopters and ambulances, but nonetheless was taken to her cabin in a gold cart where she took a shower.  Absent was any reference to sweat lodge participants lying about outside the sweat lodge in various states of distress as we often heard from other witnesses.

After showering, fellow participant Lynette walked Brinkley to the dining hall where all she ate was some toast due to her nausea.  Afterward she went back to her cabin to sleep.  Soon thereafter, Brinkley was summoned back to the dining hall to be checked out by EMT personnel.  She later consented to be taken toVerde Valley Medical Centerfor a more complete examination.

Kyle also found Brinkley to argumentative with Kelly. He cited several discrepancies with police interviews. No talk of perjury charges, though. Nope. Hmmmm....

A bone of contention seems to have been the medical report which Brinkley apparently did not agree with. But from Kyle's reporting we don't really know what the disconnect was, even though Polk apparently clarified it on redirect. As stated above, according to Santiago, she was diagnosed with heat exhaustion. I'd sure like to know what the issue was but I'm guessing it has to do, once again, with what condition -- and body temperature -- she presented with at the hospital after showering and resting, as opposed to what she experienced in and immediately after the sweat lodge. Sadly, I doubt I'll ever know.

Kyle describes a lack of situational awareness in Gordon, as well.

Gordon was next willing to admit that Shore may have also been struggling.  “He was constantly sighing and she told him to keep breathing and stay calm.”  This happened around the fourth or fifth round.  In particular, at the close of the day’s direct examination, Gordon recalls that at the end of the eighth round Shore, who was near Brown, said that he “needed help over here.”  However, the lodge flap was closed and Ray announced that no one was leaving at that time.  Polk then suggested that Gordon consider that Shore may have been asking for help for himself and not necessarily for Brown.  However, Gordon offered that at this stage she no longer recalled even hearing Brown because she was not paying attention to her surroundings but simply wanted to “complete the process and get out of the sweat lodge.”

Gordon then described how she managed to drag herself out of the sweat lodge even though she was very weak.  As she was coming out no one else was moving so she had to go past people to get out.  She didn’t even observe the people she was passing.  Shore and Brown were right next to her.  She saw no movement from them, and her awareness was not really on them.  Nevertheless, she dragged herself out of the sweat lodge feeling very proud of what she had accomplished.

Kyle also posted on the previous day's testimony and it does flesh things out a little. For instance, he clarifies that Mark Rock had actually recanted statements made in early police interviews in October of last year. He did this after undertaking a "healing process" at Angel Valley, where he and his wife volunteered for some months. So he's been accused of perjury for contradicting testimony he already recanted in a later police interview?? That seems odd to me. But from what I've been able to deduce Kelly is claiming that Rock concocted a new narrative in collaboration with the Hamiltons, the Mercers, and Fawn Foster.

Kelly’s next tactic was to establish that Rock did not change his story until after spending several months at Angel Valley talking to the Hamiltons, the Mercers and Foster who presumably convinced Rock to make a statement that steered responsibility for what happened away from the Hamiltons who were facing numerous lawsuits.

If that's the case Mark Rock is remarkably willing to risk his own liberty to maybe, possibly improve the Hamilton's prospects in law suits that have already been settled.

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