Apr 7, 2011

James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge Trial: Day 25

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Luis Li Demonstrates Impressive Printing Skills

Luis Li began his cross examination of Ted Mercer by asking a bunch of questions about the Hamiltons regarding things he wouldn't know anything about. He asked if he knew Angel Valley was registered as a ministry or if he knew that the Hamiltons were ordained ministers in the Order of Melchizedek. Mercer knew they were ordained but didn't know in what. Of course Li's absolute murder of the word Melchizedek probably didn't help. Did Mercer know that Angel Valley has tax exempt status? No.

Then Li asked him if he knew that Angel Valley charged Spiritual Warrior participants who stayed there $1600? He had no idea what they charged. Were they allowed to charge like that as a ministry? Mercer did not know that either.

Wouldn't those be better questions for, I don't know, the Hamiltons? But of course Li's not asking to get answers. He's asking to get that information in front of a jury without qualified answers.

It amuses me that Li is acting like he has sticker shock over the Angel Valley rates when he's representing a client who was charging nearly $10,000 a head... not including room and board.

Li also asked Mercer, who helped with the construction of the sweat lodge, if the Hamiltons had a building permit to put up the kiva. He didn't know that either. I'm going to go way out on a limb and suggest that questions about building permits for structures made out of willow branches and tarps might not go over real well with the average Arizona homesteader. I have no idea what the composition of that jury is but I'm going to speculate anyway.

Li's major point, though,  is that James Ray didn't authorize any of the materials on the giant list. The Hamiltons did that.

Mostly, Li was determined to undo the damage of yesterday's testimony about illness and unconsciousness at earlier James Ray sweat lodges. He started, as Mercer had, with the the tall woman who had fallen, eyes rolling in her head, into the mud. In a rather comical pantomime he attempted to show that falling when you're already sort of crawling of out of a low structure isn't such a big deal. It's not that far to fall. Mercer pointed out that she was quite tall and she "sort of torpedoed" into the ground. Li seemed to find the whole description comical, comparing it to a nose tackle, because, you know, he played a little football.

But did the CPR trained former First Responder think it was life threatening? No. Not life threatening. I expect if he'd thought that he would have taken some action.

Li showed numerous photos, purportedly taken by Debbie Mercer, of shiny, happy people in the mud after the 2008 sweat lodge. Why it was just like the Mud Run at Camp Pendleton. Most of those people were doing fine, he pointed out. Mercer couldn't disagree, saying that some people came out "very empowered" while others... did not.

He also asked about a woman in a pink bathing suit who Mercer said "looked right through you" and didn't know her own name when she came out of the sweat lodge. In retrospect, knowing that Mercer is trained as a First Responder, the importance of statements about people not knowing their own names takes on a whole new layer of meaning. He wasn't just being colorful. That would be a question he'd ask a person in trying to assess their condition. But, he agreed with Li, that she did not require CPR. He didn't think it was life threatening.

No one, Mercer agreed, needed CPR in 2007 or 2008. No one was was "frothing at the mouth." They did, however, exhibit nausea and disorientation, Mercer pointed out. (No worries. Li had made it clear earlier that these are the reasons some people do sweat lodges; throwing up and "altered states." Whew. Covered.)

Li also went to some lengths to prove that Mercer could not have known the temperature in the various lodges because he'd never been in them. (Yes, that's right. The fire keeper has never been on the inside of a sweat lodge. Sigh.) Of course, you'd think that knowing how many stones went into the various ceremonies and that the rocks in 2009 were the hottest ever, he might just have some indication of the heat variation. But never mind.

Li tried to make the point, after showing all the pictures from the 2008 sweat lodge, which was very like the 2007 sweat lodge, that both were very different from the 2009 sweat lodge. This, contended Li, was why Mercer had been so desperate to find a cause for that difference and seized on the construction wood. But Mercer wouldn't play ball.

Li: You'd agree with me that '09 was tragically different.

Mercer: Uh. Somewhat, yes.

Li: Well there, two people passed away.

Mercer: Yeah but the scene was basically the same.

Li: But two people passed away.

Mercer: That's correct.

Li: And then one person passed away later.

Mercer: That's correct.

. . .

Li: Now you, like the detectives on the night of October 8th were, were, searching for what, what it was that killed these folks.

Mercer: Yeah.

Li: Because it was such a surprise to everybody, to you, that these folks died in the sweat lodge.

Mercer: I wouldn't say it was a surprise, but, uh

Li: Then let me rephrase it. Let me rephrase it.

Li was at his strongest, however, when he discussed Mercer's expressed concerns about the fact that he had only used old construction wood in the fire that year, whereas he had previously used a mix of that and natural wood. He had mentioned it to the police and it concerned him. I expect this will be something Michael Hamilton will have to address; what was that wood, was it treated, why did he direct Mercer to use it? Because Ted Mercer has no idea what may or may not have been in that wood.

"That was the only thing that was different and I was still kinda panicky," explained Mercer.

Luis Li's Dramatic Reading of the Diskin Transcript

Later, Li played a recording of Mercer's interview with Det. Diskin that I think was meant to position him as the reigning authority on pressure treated wood. The problem was that he did so by first selectively playing an excerpt of the recording. When Sheila Polk objected to his truncated reading, he insisted that he couldn't really play it again. (???) So instead, he read the transcript aloud. But Polk noticed another problem with Li's oratory skills. He was reading questions as statements.

It's times like these that make me really wonder if Li is a dolt or deliberate manipulator.

Mostly, Li was becoming increasingly frustrated that Mercer wouldn't corroborate his narrative about how Det. Diskin had clued him in on the prosecution's case. He explained how Diskin had told Mercer about the small sections of material detectives had taken as samples from the scene. Mercer had no idea what he was talking about.

Of course Li also brought up Angel Valley's ritual burning of the sweat lodge.

Now here's my question about the Hamilton's destruction of all that evidence. If the police had already released the scene, what court would allow evidence gathered from an unsecured crime scene by the defense or anybody else?

But Diskin had recommended that Mercer get himself a lawyer, even though he assured him that he was in no danger of prosecution. So the fix is in.

Li asked Mercer a number of questions about the mysterious, possible rat poison in the pump house and contends, as the defense has all along, that the paucity of insects in Angel Valley structures must be due to pesticides. Keeping the blankets and tarps in the pump house, vermin must surely be a problem needing a remedy. Aren't there black widows and other such threats. Doesn't Mercer worry about reaching into the blankets and being bitten by a black widow? Well, not really, Mercer explained. He's been by a black widow and it wasn't that big of a deal.

Fair to say that you don't really want to have a black widow colony living in your, in your blankets?

A "colony" of black widows? That would live in piles of blankets? Has Luis Li ever been outside?

While Mercer conceded that it was certainly not desirable to encounter black widows -- or scorpions, for that matter -- the collision of these two men from their very different worlds was positively laughable. It was another of those moments that underscored what a total fish out of water this fancy-pants lawyer from California is. I think it's a fair bet that Luis Li doesn't do a lot of camping.

Li went on to compare areas on the property where there are weeds and the sweat lodge area where there aren't, proving I suppose that some areas are more important to weed than others.

He also set out to prove that there just aren't a lot of insects in common areas like the sweat lodge. Mercer still contends that Angel Valley maintains a policy against spraying anything on the ground.

But isn't there a fire ant problem in the area? Mercer is familiar with fire ants.

Li put several photos of not ants on the viewer.

There were pictures of refuse and leftover beverages and fruit at the comfort station. Where are the ants? Where are the bugs? Li can't find them. And these many pictures, he insisted, were taken 24 hours later.

Day Old Chopped Fruit???

Li seems to think it strains credulity that fruit could sit outside in the desert and not show any evidence of bugs by the following day. What I think strains credulity is that chopped fruit could sit outside in the desert and still look like that 24 hours later.

Were I the prosecutors I'd be investigating the defense's claims of the time line on some of these photos. Frankly, it puts all the pictures of "day old" trash and beverages into question.

I realize that Li is not an outdoorsman but hasn't he ever been to a picnic? No way cut fruit looks like that even several hours after sitting outside, exposed to the open air. Especially in a hot, dry climate.

Still Life With Rat Poison

Li made it very clear, today, that he did not want Mercer to guess, or "assume," about the blankets and tarps. He wasn't working there in 2009. He would not have him speculating about what pesticides may or may not have been used. He's not the landscaper. He can't speak to what might be in the soil.

Li does want him to agree, though, that the "artfully" plated rat poison "has been staged," even though he'd have no real way of knowing. He's also determined to accept Mercer's admitted guess about the granules he saw in the pump house being rat poison. And of course he wants to keep in Mercer's guess, or assumption, when he initially spoke to police, that the wood was the only difference between the 2009 sweat lodge and previous ones and may have been toxic.

So Li is very conditional as to when he'll let Mercer "make an ass of u and me."

Sheila Polk Redirects Ted Mercer

Polk went straight for the easel and had Mercer clarify what about the elements of the sweat lodge structure were the same and which were different over those three years. The frame, of course, was different between 2007 and 2008. Mercer, himself, had participated in rebuilding it. The blankets Mercer still insists were the same; they were stacked in exactly the same order.

The wood was a mixture of construction materials and natural wood in 2008. And, no, he had never gotten sick from burning any of it.

The lack of weed problem in the sweat lodge area was actually due to a weed barrier cloth under a layer of soil in that entire area, Mercer explained.

Polk also asked him again to compare the James Ray sweat lodges and others performed at Angel Valley over 2007, 2008, and 2009.  Had Mercer ever observed combativeness, nausea, rolling eyes, etc., at anyone else's sweat lodges? Well, no.

Polk asked him if he'd ever noticed chemical smells emanating from the blankets or seen any of that rat poison actually falling out of the blankets? No.

Did he ever spray those tarps with anything? Water.

Then Polk launched into the meat of her redirect; the kinds of physical symptoms directly observed by Mercer through the years at James Ray's sweat lodges. 

Gary Palisch, the general manager of Angel Valley and former fire keeper, had explained to Mercer  that they'd see things at a James Ray sweat lodge that you wouldn't see at any other lodges. Indeed.

Polk addressed the lovely photos that Li had shown of participants in 2008. Mercer estimated that they would have been taken starting about a half hour after the end of the sweat lodge because that's when Debbie Mercer was done getting people out of the sweat lodge and cooled down a bit at the comfort station and with the hose.

Polk deconstructed the photos, pointing out the many downed people in and amongst the more cheerful participants.

Lady in Pink

She started with the delirious woman in the pink bathing suit. Not only did she not know her own name after the ceremony, Mercer further explained that she still didn't know it 45 minutes later when she was helped to her room. Nor did she know it in the dining hall later that evening. He described her as acting like a 3 year old. The next day, however, he was optimistic because she had regained her ability to "formulate sentences."

But, Polk pointed out, this poor woman could be seen from many angles in the otherwise cheerful photos.

In the Background from the Back

Getting Her Feet Rubbed by Some Helpful Soul

Other photos went from cheery to depressing as Polk zoomed in on the details of incapacitated people.

People Milling About

Detail 1 of People Milling About

Detail 2 of People Milling About

Mercer explained that, yes, both '07 and '08 presented a mix of post sweat lodge experiences; happy and not so happy. And the same could be seen in 2009. Some people came out "very empowered and other people came out on their face"

Foreground Detail of "Empowered" Woman

Background Detail of "Empowered" Woman

To illustrate some of that unhappiness, Mercer shared the story of a man at the 2008 sweat lodge. He had tried to retrieve his girlfriend by opening up the back the sweat lodge. The "James Ray ladies" asked Mercer to help wrestle him to the ground, which he did. Mercer sat on him to keep him down and away from the sweat lodge structure. He kept saying he had to get her out. This went on for a half hour or so. Mercer described him as irate and not in his right mind. A few hours later he didn't remember any of it.

Luis Li was unhappy with Polk's evisceration of his photographic evidence so he gained permission to recross on some of the key issues raised. He and Mercer sparred back and forth as to whether or not he could be certain that his wife didn't start snapping pics until a half hour or so after the end of the sweat lodge. Mercer seems pretty sure. But, Li, contested some of these people looked flushed and red as if they'd just come out of the heat. Or perhaps it was organophosphate poisoning? Red as a beet? Maybe?

Mercer had explained to Sheila Polk that he only saw that flushed appearance after Ray's sweat lodges. Hmmm....

Li also insisted that the hose downs would have stopped by then. But Mercer pointed out that a lot of people were playing with the hoses for a long while afterward. Remember: They were having fun, just like at a Mud Run.

No, the simple truth is that even in 2008 a number of people were incapacitated for quite a while after the sweat lodge had ended.

Ted Mercer was excused subject to recall.

All information on the trial comes from news articles with provided links or live courtroom footage on TruTV's "In Session" or CNN's live feed. All quotes and paraphrased statements that are not linked to a source document are my best attempt to transcribe material from live broadcasts.


  1. ray has a personality disorder....he'a a classic pathological narcissist

  2. @billiem, I think a case could definitely be made for some sort of personality disorder. The question is, Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder with socipathic features... or just screwed up guy raised by sociopathic mother... Lots to ponder. That mother, though. She really flipped me out.


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