Apr 8, 2011

James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge Trial: Day 26

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Luis Li Attempting Not to Raise the Judge's Ire

The day started with a bit more legal wrangling. I missed most of it due to other pressing news events taking up all the CNN feeds... and of course the Cayce Anthony pretrial hearings. I did catch bits and pieces, however, on In Session. The major concern seemed to be getting on with the limiting instruction so that the jury has some idea in what context to view the testimony of all these ghastly, horrifying, very bad for James Arthur Ray, prior sweat lodges.

Luis Li broke the issue down for Judge Darrow.

Li: I think the jury has to be reminded that the state must prove everything beyond a reasonable doubt. And so this instruction hued very closely to not only rule 404b but to the court's ruling of uh, of February 3rd, 2011. And it's critical that it be given because what's happening is the evidence is getting just so...

Darrow: Just a minute Mr. Li. Thank-you.

Li: Well, it's a good chance for me to use a different word than mushed. The evidence is getting conflated and, and, and, combined into an unidentifiable mess. And it's up to the court t' -- we' -- and what I mean by that your Honor is that, uh

Darrow: Again, I'm thinking about everything that came in the opening and all the other evidence and, and I'm just puzzled by that, but go ahead.

Li: Your honor, I apologize for the characterization if it...

Darrow: No, I see a lot of characterizations in things that get filed and believe me I'm gonna only look at the substance...

Li: And I appreciate that.

Darrow: You can characterize it how you wish.

Li: I appreciate that your honor and I will, I will attempt to characterize it in a way that doesn't raise the court's ire.

Judge Darrow is probably the most laid back, easy-going judge I've ever seen. I keep wanting to compare him to Alan Arkin as the Police Chief in So I Married and Axe Murderer.

Who could forget this sparkling bit of dialog?

Police Chief: I'm too nice?

Tony Giardino: Yeah, you're too nice. Why can't you be like the Captain on "Starsky and Hutch?" You know, when you come in, and you haul me into your office, and you bawl me out because you're sick and tired of defending my screwball antics to the Commissioner? Why can't you do that?

Police Chief: Well, the truth of the matter is, I don't report to a Commissioner. I report to a committee. Some of whom are appointed, some elected, and the rest co-opted on a bi-annual basis. It's a quorum, so to speak.

Tony Giardino: A quorum?!

Police Chief: Yeah.

Tony Giardino: Captain, when I joined the police force, I thought I was going to be Serpico. But instead, I'm like... Fish from Barney Miller.

Police Chief: Hey. Somebody needs a hug!

That's Judge Darrow. And yet, the defense has repeatedly managed to raise his ire. That said, Judge Darrow looked past the defense team's bluster and agreed with the central thrust. He promised to look at both party's suggestions and provide a limiting instruction by the end of the day. And he delivered.

Debra Jean Mercer

Debbie Mercer had never even heard of a sweat lodge before she started volunteering at Angel Valley, where she was asked to help out with James Arthur Ray's in 2007. She subsequently worked at his 2008 and 2009 events as well as numerous other sweat lodge ceremonies there.

Mercer started volunteering her services at Angel Valley as a labor of love for the property. She had been staying in a nearby camping area and she just thought their land needed some help. She pulled weeds and took down extraneous saplings. Later, her husband Ted was hired to work there and she took on housekeeping duties as well. She was never paid for her services.

In describing her landscaping efforts she confirmed prior testimony that she'd been instructed not to use chemical pesticides or herbicides. When she did laundry and kitchen work she was instructed to only use all natural products. Even a rat seen in the kitchen was only supposed to be caught using a live trap. The task was ultimately left to the cat.

Asked when she met James Ray, she explained that she hadn't ever been properly introduced. In fact she'd been instructed not to approach him if she saw him moving around the property. But he did ask her questions on occasion. So it looks like James Ray got the kind of VIP treatment generally accorded to celebrities when he was at Angel Valley.

Her contact with Ray was also extremely perfunctory when she assisted with his sweat lodge events. It really drives home the point of how non-traditional Ray's sweat lodge ceremony was -- if the scorching heat and horrific deaths hadn't fully made that point already. No one knew anyone's names unless they'd known them beforehand. There was no sense of community. And people who had no experience with the native traditions represented were rapidly schooled in the various tasks without really understanding how it all fit together.

The Mercers, who seem like very decent, well-intended folks, had no business keeping the fire or the door, which Debbie ultimately did. Neither of them, to this day, has ever been inside a sweat lodge during ceremony.

Gary Palisch, General Manager of Angel Valley had instructed Mercer in the various tasks associated with getting the rocks from the fire into the sweat lodge. She had not, however, been instructed as to how to attend to people as they left the sweat lodge. She relied on her own common sense to help them cool down with water and beverages.

From that first sweat lodge in 2007, Mercer was pressed into service attending to people in distress. Early in the ceremony, she saw a woman fall on her face as she tried to exit the sweat lodge. Her "beautiful blue eyes" were fluttering, she had chipped a tooth, and was bleeding. She doesn't remember who helped her move the woman but I tend to think it was probably her own husband Ted, and this is probably the tall woman he described. Amayra Hamilton later came and assisted the woman with ice and things to clean her face.

Later a man came out of the sweat lodge asking her to take him to the creek to cool off because he  had a heart condition and "his heart was scaring him." He plowed, barefoot, over rocks, twigs, and other debris to get into the water.

She assisted a great number of people that day by wiping the vomit, mucus, and tears from their faces,  pulling them out of the door, comforting them, getting them towels, and trying to get them to wake up.

Mercer described working with one Dream Team member who was touching points on the arms and hands of an apparently unconscious person. She's doesn't remember how long it was before that person regained consciousness; only her concern over whether they would.

Mercer spoke to Gary Palisch after that event in 2007 about her alarm at the condition people were in. He gave her some answer but what he said we can't know because it's hearsay.

Debbie Mercer continued to assist at other sweat lodges in 2007 at Angel Valley, ultimately acting as  the door keeper at one of them. This she described as holding the energy of the door and opening and closing it at the behest of the pourer leading the ceremony.

She didn't observe any vomiting, falling, running to the river, or fainting at any of the non-James Ray sweat lodges. She did however see one woman crying tears of joy.

Another major difference between Ray's sweats emerged as Mercer described how they disassembled the the moving parts of the structure after every ceremony. One of her tasks was to help fold the blankets and tarps and return them to the pump house for storage. But after a James Arthur Ray sweat lodge ceremony they couldn't put those blankets away immediately. They had to allow an extra day for them to dry out because they were always sodden.

In putting those materials back into the pump house, she testified that she'd never seen any rat poison falling out of tarps.

In 2008 she was demoted again to assistant door keeper for the James Ray sweat lodge cermony. Palisch took over for their celebrity water pourer.

Asked if anyone had drawn her attention at the 2008 event she said it would be hard to choose. There were so many people exhibiting various forms of distress.

One man did leap to mind, however. He had passed out briefly upon exiting the sweat lodge. When he regained consciousness, he'd been hysterical about trying to get his girlfriend out of the sweat lodge. This, I would assume, was the man Ted Mercer had testified about. Together she and her husband had pinned the man to the ground until he had calmed to "a lower level of excitement."

She also saw a young woman whose muscles had cramped up locking her in a fetal position. She did not appear to be in control of her body. Her care was ultimately taken over by a man claiming to be a doctor who took her to the dining hall where there was a bathtub.

Sheila Polk helped her to identify the fetal woman in question, who had also been previously discussed by Ted Mercer, in one of the photos.

Fetal Woman Circled in Pink

She also distinctly remembered an "oriental guy" who didn't know where or who he was. She had approached him because he appeared to need help. She spent about 10 minutes with him saying that he had responded to her, but not logically.

So 2008 was another banner year for James Ray's "pinnacle event" with people throwing up, going fetal, spewing mucus from nose and mouth, becoming incoherent, and passing out.

Mercer clarified that she had indeed taken the pictures after she was done with her duties as assistant door keeper. She confirmed that it would have been about 25-30 minutes after the sweat lodge had ended. She had taken pictures that year because her friend Anita, from Switzerland, wanted to see what "the crazy Americans were doing."

Mercer had been door keeper for at least 3 non-James Ray sweats in 2008. She admitted to taking the occasional cigarette break but never was out of viewing range of the sweat lodge. In a series of very carefully phrased questions, Polk drew her out as to what she'd witnessed at those events.

Before each event, she'd observed that there were fewer people than at any James Ray event. The people all appeared healthy and happy.

During those events participants remained sitting inside, talkative, group oriented, healthy and happy.

After those events they looked about like they did when they went in; healthy and happy.

In 2008 both Mercers were told their services were no longer needed at Angel Valley but they continued to rent a house on the property that was privately owned by someone other than the Hamiltons.

They both assisted in two sweat lodges in 2009. One was for a woman named Healing Wolf. The second was for the infamous James Ray sweat in September of that year. They moved off the property in November of 2009.

In 2009 Debbie Mercer was the official door keeper. Her job was to listen for Ray's instructions to open and close the door and deliver buckets of water and heated rocks.

Mercer described a ladle with a long handle, holding less than a cup of water that other sweat lodge pourers used. Ray didn't want the ladle. He preferred to dump the water directly from the gallon buckets. There were three buckets and she and her daughter Sarah filled them at least twice. At other sweat lodge ceremonies the buckets have never been refilled. (Hence the uniquely sodden blankets and tarps at Ray's sweat lodge.)

About twelve people came out after the first round and Ray invited them to come back in after the rocks were loaded in. One of the women was upset and crying that she was "disappointing James Ray" and should be back inside. She saw two Dream Team members pressing their hands on her back, urging her that she could go back in. At that point Mercer intervened and told them that she didn't want to go in. (This is clearly the woman Fawn Foster also observed.)

She also had to assist many people who would get to door to go back in and collapse.  She would help to drag them away from the door.

She also heard many of Ray's words of "encouragment." She gave a little rundown of those thought-stopping phrases: "stay tough," "stay on the course," "you're not your body," and the ever popular "play full on."

Mercer also described the now well-covered Dennis Mehravar incident in which he screamed repeatedly that he was dying and didn't want to die.

She described Ray as asking her, "Who is that? What's that noise out there?" But Mercer didn't know anyone's name. Someone else explained who it was and she heard Ray call out some more of his encouraging words, including this lovely new wrinkle. To the terrified Dennis Mehravar Ray said, "It's a good day to die."

Mercer was also aware of Lou Caci falling into the pit. She heard many people screaming, "Open the door! Open the door!" She didn't recognize Ray's voice among them.

She described Caci's badly burned and blistered arm as having the "skin coming off." Like Fawn Foster, she disagreed with the officially unofficial nurse that it wasn't good to wrap a bad burn in a towel and concurred with Foster's decision to run for ice and water.

She speculates that ten people were dragged out of the sweat lodge and explained that it could only have been right in front of Ray because he was right by the door.

She also overheard the discussion, such as it was, about Liz Neuman not responding. She couldn't see it but she could point out the direction. She heard that this person, whom she could not name, wasn't doing so well and wasn't responding. Ray responded with words to the effect that "she'd been down the road before," and "she's where she needs to be." She was disturbed but deferred to his authority as the water pourer.

Foster was surprised to hear earlier that day when someone asked Ray what to do if they needed to go to the bathroom, that they should take care of it where they were. She was particularly surprised because it was a new response. Even at a previous Ray sweat lodge in 2007, she had assisted a woman from the sweat lodge to the bathroom. Now Ray was, as previously discussed, telling a man to go ahead and piss and the floor of this very sacred space.

Foster also described seeing James Shore drag one of the unconscious participants to the door. She took that person and dragged them away from the structure. She did not see Shore again until she discovered him in the emptied sweat lodge lying next to Kirby Brown.

Foster sobbed as she recalled pulling apart the back of the sweat lodge -- over Ray's expressed displeasure -- and making the final, gruesome discovery.

My daughter was with me... We lifted up the back of the tarps... We saw two people laying there... They were, their lips were blue and their faces were white. And my daughter said, "Mama they're holding hands." And I said, "I know. We have to get'em out of there." And then I called for help again. Somebody came over to the side and held up the tarps. And Sarah and I pulled them out.

When she screamed for help her husband Ted and "the nurse lady" came to her assistance.

The "nurse lady" said, "She's not breathing!... What do we do?"

What do we do?!!... Said the NURSE?!!

But by then Ted Mercer was there and he told her immediately to call 911.

The "nurse lady" stammered, "Ask Megan. Ask Megan if you can call an ambulance."

Two people, not breathing, and the RN's response was to ask permission from Ray's gal Friday to call 911. Permission!

Nah. These people weren't brainwashed.

But Mercer didn't see Megan and she decided instead to go to the closest phone she could find at her house and call 911. She also grabbed her husband's cell from the house and brought it back to the scene so she could call 911 again with any additional information. In total she made three calls as still more discoveries of seriously ill and injured people continued. Amayra Hamilton made yet another.

Mercer continued to weep as all the 911 calls were played for the jury.

As did I.

Judge Darrow Reads the Limiting Instruction to the Jury

Ladies and Gentlemen I have a special instruction to give you at this time. As I have mentioned, some evidence is relevant only for limited purposes. In the past three days you have heard evidence of circumstances at sweat lodge ceremonies that took place prior to the 2009 sweat lodge ceremony which is the only sweat lodge ceremony that is at issue in this case. You must not consider any of that evidence regarding prior sweat lodge ceremonies if believed to draw any inference regarding Mr. Ray's knowledge of any risk of death in 2009. You also must not consider that evidence regarding prior sweat lodge ceremonies if believed to draw any inference regarding Mr. Ray's intent, character, or conduct, in 2009. You may only consider that evidence for those prior sweat lodge ceremonies if believed as it may relate to whether the physical cause of death of the decedents was heatstroke or some other physical cause.

So that should help the jury keep their abject horror better organized.

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. LaVaughn - thanks again for you excellent reporting.
    I keep thinking that ray must be stoned or something. He's a smooth manipulator type of psychopath, so why would he behave so 'badly' in public? Perhaps because he's gotten away with so much previously? I want him in the joint - and we all know what he'll be up to - saving souls and writing about overcoming the victimization of ray.

  2. @ Susan, After reading some of the earlier reporting after the event, I thought "stop him before he kills again." There really looks to be some sort of escalating pattern. He got away with causing multiple injuries. He got away with Colleen Conaway's death. None of it even slowed him down. Quite the contrary. He just seemed to be power tripping on what he could get people to do. People paid him thousands of dollars to basically torture them.


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