Apr 21, 2011

James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge Trial: Day 31

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Polk and Mercer Sort through Photos

Sheila Polk finished up strong today in her redirect of Debbie Mercer. She went straight for the weed barrier that Tom Kelly had claimed yesterday to be plastic. Mercer had explained that she thought it was fabric. But Polk set out to completely demystify it. It's a fabric barrier that Mercer described as ripping easily with with common garden tools. It is covered with a layer of course sand. So, no. It's not a candidate for creating any sort of airtight seal with the sweat lodge coverings.

Polk also asked Mercer about questions Kelly had asked her about the structure of the sweat lodge. Things like, did she know what a "heat barrier" was? That's a term from the Haddow email that Kelly tried unsuccessfully to ask/tell Mercer in his backhanded attempt to impeach her sweat lodge construction with testimony from an expert he never intends to put on the stand. Also to establish her culpability in the making of the faulty sweat lodge. Mercer had no idea what heat barrier meant. She did know where the heat came from, though. The rocks, the number of which were determined by the pourer: James Ray.

Then Polk asked her some specific questions on air circulation in the sweat lodge. Of course, this was also a bit over Mercer's head. She did assume, though, that the amount of time that the sweat lodge door was open would impact air circulation. The door was also controlled by Ray. Predictably, Kelly objected, pointing out that Mercer doesn't know anything about air circulation. Funny, because it was Tom Kelly who opened up that line of questioning in his zeal to introduce his highly selective reading of the never going to testify Rick Haddow. It turned out that Mercer didn't know anything about carbon dioxide, either.

Mercer did know a lot about the photos she took in 2008. She confirmed again that the photos were taken at least a half hour after the sweat lodge ended. It could have been as much as forty-five minutes later. And, yes, people were still playing with the hose long after the sweat lodge. They were also still unusually red.

She also insisted again that there was a lot in them that she found alarming. This photo was alarming because there were three people on the ground. The woman in the green shorts was particularly alarming. She'd gone all fetal and she would not respond to questions.

She was also alarming, fetal, unmoving, and unresponsive here.

And here.

This man rubbing the feet of someone who was having "difficulty coming back" was alarming.

It was also alarming from this angle.

Mercer had been alarmed going all the way back to 2007. She had asked Gary Palisch about the vomiting and other bizarre behavior. We don't really know what he said because it's hearsay.

Her distress continued through 2008, when she took the photos, which she said do not capture how really alarming it was in live action. Mercer had simply never seen people put themselves in a situation like that by choice.

She did not think that as a volunteer and the lowest person on the totem pole it was her place to take any other action or call 911. In 2009 she realized, though, that no one else was doing anything even though the situation was dire so she made the calls.

The biggest news, though, regarding prior sweat lodges came when she was asked again about the woman in the green shorts in her 2008 photograph. Something was coming out of her mouth. Something Mercer didn't want to touch. It wasn't vomit. It was a "foamy, mucus kind of stuff."

Yes someone was foaming at the mouth in 2008.

Debbie Mercer was excused subject to recall.

Michael Hamilton

Michael Hamilton took the stand today. He and his wife Amayra own Angel Valley which has been host to Ray's Spiritual Warrior retreats for many years running. We've been hearing about the Hamiltons for weeks, mostly as foils for every alternative theory the defense has parlayed. We've heard that their poisons used to kill rats, ants, and weeds, might have been unleashed in the sweat lodge on that fateful day in 2009. Or that it was poisons in the obviously pressure treated wood that was burned to heat the rocks that year. More recently we've heard that their shoddily built sweat lodge selectively killed Ray's participants. We've also heard that they destroyed evidence by taking down the sweat lodge and burning it, the implication being that they were covering up their own culpability. We've heard other aspersions against their character, like how they're ordained ministers who charge high rates for room and board. And, of course they must be wrongly using their tax exempt status to keep from paying taxes on all that income.

A number of those theories were debunked today.

Much has been made by the defense of the pest poisons that have been noted and photographed, particularly in the pump house. And yet, we've heard several employees testify that there were very strict rules about not using toxins around the property. Today Hamilton spelled out the policy when it comes chemicals and possible toxins. Hamilton explained that their theory of "stewardship" of the property is to use as few chemicals as possible, right down to disallowing strong perfumes. or other fragrances, out of respect for the sensitivities of all of their guests. When problems have arisen they have used as few chemical products as possible, in as targeted a way as possible, to take care of the problem. The two problems that have required chemical solutions have been rats and ants.

When rats destroyed several vehicles, after nesting in them for warmth, Hamilton went to the hardware store. He tried several products, including granules and the much discussed critter biscuits. Hamilton said that he did, indeed, place those products on a plate, "to contain them." So, according to Hamilton the artful plating of the biscuits was not staged, except that it was set up and photographed for the police to give them an idea of how it had been handled. After getting cats in 2007, their need for such tactics was ameliorated.

Artfully Plated Critter Biscuits

Hamilton described being deeply ambivalent about poisoning the rats, having hoped to reach a better agreement with them. He believes that we can communicate with animals and tried that first before telling them to eat the biscuits on the plate. I have little doubt that Hamilton sounded nuts to a lot of people. As someone who has had similar dialogs with members of the animal kingdom, I could completely relate. I hate killing anything and have made numerous agreements with a variety of pests, including wasps and spiders. Usually it goes well. The wasps and I have kept good agreements for years now. I have many stories. Most people have a hard time believing them, which I completely understand. Last year I had to kill a black widow, and her numerous egg sacks with bug spray. It broke my heart but I put my own child first and the black widow was recalcitrant. So I can't scoff at the kooky Mr. Hamilton. I have found ants to be terribly stubborn and disagreeable so I kill them, too. The much discussed Amdro ant poison, though, has only been in use since 2010 at Angel Valley.

Actually, I found much to relate to in Hamilton's approach. I strive for a very nontoxic home. But sometimes you have to bite the bullet and use a product you hate to use. And when you do you use it as cautiously and minimally as possible. I'd also be willing to bet that there are a lot of people on that jury who use toxic chemicals far more liberally than the Hamiltons who would not enjoy the idea that killing pests in their homes would put them on the hook for accidental deaths.

Hamilton's commitment to avoiding herbicides is also quite strong. He affirmed that the strongest thing he's allowed to be used for killing weeds is salt water. He also insists that the vast majority of weeds at Angel Valley have been handled the old-fashioned way. They're pulled.

He also affirmed Debbie Mercer's testimony that the weed barriers were made of water permeable, mesh fabric; not plastic. They were covered with sand. And those fabric weed barriers have been in place for years.

Where Hamilton's testimony most effectively demolished one of the defense's theories was on the wood question. It turns out that Hamilton knows an awful lot about wood. His background is as a contractor, after all, and he spent many years selling log homes. He's had the same commitment to creating non-toxic environments, throughout his career. One of his companies was called Holistic Log Home. Hamilton would only use lumber that had "zero outgassing." So the wood he's used for years, including the discarded lumber he'd instructed Ted Mercer to burn for the sweat lodge fire, was not pressure treated. It was free of any chemical process so that it is not toxic, even when burned. It's all completely natural cedar, that has been cut and grooved for assembly of log buildings. The log he's holding, which is a sample taken by police for their investigation, was part of a shipment of cedar he found unusable because of imperfections and cracking. It was used to build the pumphouses and one cabin, but those that weren't used quickly deteriorated and had be repurposed as firewood. 

Mercer went on to explain that in the structures he's built, including many on the Angel Valley property, have only what pressure treated wood is required by building codes, at the foundation. Any discarded pressure treated lumber is disposed of safely and never burned.

The cedar logs in question were not only burned in the sweat lodge fires. As Ted Mercer has testified,  that wood was used in previous years. It's just that it was usually mixed with tree wood. This was the first year he'd only burned the logs, and in his panic, he'd seized on that as the only difference between 2009 and other years. But, Hamilton testified that the cedar logs have been burned more liberally around Angel Valley for some time, including in the fireplace of the main house on the property. They've been used in a number of fire ceremonies. No one has ever gotten sick after being exposed to any of these fires.

I think the defense's toxic, pressure treated wood theory just went up in smoke.

Natural, Non-toxic Cedar Logs

Hamilton also explained some of the stickier financial matters. They formed the LLC in 2008 because "it just felt" like the thing to do at that time. They set it up as a for profit business within their non-profit ministry. They were audited later that year and it was recommended that they do so. They already had. I would not be surprised if this is an area that Truch Do follows up on in her cross-examination.

The other sticky wicket is their bankruptcy and their lawsuit against James Ray. Hamilton explained that they were in Chapter 11 before the deadly sweat lodge but they were well on their way to solvency. Having people cooked to death on their property was a significant setback on their road to financial recovery. So, with heavy heart, they filed suit to try to recoup some of their losses.

Things started to get ugly when Hamilton was asked to explain the history of sweat lodge structures at Angel Valley and how they came to have what many of us consider to be monstrosity. The request for the giant, sprawling, low to the ground sweat lodge was the result of cumulative requests from James Ray. There were many objections from Do regarding Hamilton's testimony on this matter.

James Ray wanted a bigger lodge to accommodate groups of up to seventy-five people. Hamilton believes this request came in 2006. It came via Megan Fredrickson. Hamilton did not want to build such a big sweat lodge and didn't have the first idea how it could be accomplished. He asked if Ray would please consider holding two sweat lodges. The response from Ray, via Fredrickson, was a flat no. He later met a Native American man, whose name he can't recall, who offered to build the larger structure.

Ray was still unhappy and he complained again in 2007. The lodge was not getting hot enough. What Hamilton testified to is something that those of us who've read Megan Fredrickson's police interview already know. Ray wanted the structure lower to offset that pesky heat rising problem. Ultimately Gary Palisch hired the previously discussed David Singing Bear. Hamilton testified that he had nothing to do with the building of that sweat lodge and never met Singing Bear, himself.

But that, in a nutshell is how the low, deformed structure, in which three people were killed, came to be. It's the result of Angel Valley meeting demands from James Arthur Ray.

Hamilton also clarified, for the record, the niggly questions about the legality of the sweat lodge structure. The sweat lodge did not have a permit. Other structures on the property were surveyed by inspectors and permitted. The sweat lodge structure was in plain sight and many inspectors saw it. None of them ever told him he needed to have it permitted.

Their fire pits were also inspected and did not require a permit and the Hamilton's have always checked to see if permits were needed for fires on the property.

In short the Hamiltons were and are in compliance with any and all necessary permitting.

Hamilton's direct testimony ended amidst a hail of objections and sidebars. In fact, yet another mistrial request was made by Luis Li. The biggest issue came about when Polk asked Hamilton about how he came to be aware of the problem at the 2009 sweat lodge. He testified that Amayra called him and said, "He did it again." Do objected and the comment was stricken.

Hamilton did not go to the actual sight until he heard the helicopters and he grokked how really serious it was. He broke down describing the scene he discovered. Seeing that people were being attended to he moved on to the gate to prevent "lookie-loos" from coming onto the property, until a police officer took over guarding the gate.

Hamilton went afoul of the defense again when he began to describe his movements throughout the evening. Hamilton had continued to circle the property and see what was needed. He choked up again as he described consoling Fawn Foster who said, "It never should have happened." The statement was stricken as hearsay.

Another objection came when Polk asked Hamilton where he'd seen Ray that night; in the gift shop. That objection was overruled but another bench conference commenced soon after. For some reason Do didn't like Hamilton explaining what the gift shop was. (???)

Hamilton continued to weep as Polk resumed her questions. He described taking down the sweat lodge, which he said, emotionally, he wanted to do with a chain saw. But he understood the healing purpose of doing it as they did. And, yes, it was only after the police had released the scene.

It was remembering Liz Neuman, who had been at Angel Valley many times, that caused Hamilton to completely fall apart. He was still weeping after his testimony, as yet another sidebar was called.

To me she was a very loving, caring, [pause] very centered, very grounded, fun-loving person. [pause] One that was always friendly. [long pause] And always wanting to take care of others.

After Hamilton was dismissed for the recess, Judge Darrow pointedly reminded the jury that any sustained objection, whether the information is formally stricken or not, should be viewed as stricken. They cannot give that information "any weight" at all.

After the jury was dismissed, it became clear that he was referring to Amayra Hamilton's "He did it again," statement, which had been ruled as hearsay. Judge Darrow also formally turned down Luis Li's mistrial motion, believing that the jury instruction to not consider it to be plenty.

Judge Darrow promised a ruling tomorrow on prior sweat lodge testimony.

Yesterday, I reported that Kelly had reminded Mercer that she was not qualified to determine whether his favorite cowboy or anyone else had free will. Well, Patrick Wanis, PhD is a little more credentialed... at least it says so on the TV box. He's a human behavior specialist (whatever that is.) He also has background in hypnotherapy and NLP; some of James Ray's favorite tools. He doesn't think the James Ray's sweat lodge participants had free will, either. In this recent In Session interview he even compared Ray to Charles Manson.

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.

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