Apr 27, 2011

James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge Trial: Day 34

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Amayra Hamilton at Sweat Lodge Memorial Site

Today marked the end of the Hamiltons' testimony. It involved more torturous cross examination by Luis Li, which I'll get to in a moment. But I have a few closing thoughts on these very important witnesses who we won't see again unless and until they are recalled.

Michael and Amayra Hamilton are very polarizing figures. Even amongst those who want to see James Arthur Ray convicted, there are many who wanted to see them roasted on a spit by Ray's defense team. Michael Hamilton draws particular ire. I will say that having listened to him, I think there is a slipperiness to the man. That said, I would probably get real slippery if I were being questioned by Truc Do, just as a survival mechanism. Ask a simple question, get a simple answer. Push poll me or put words in my mouth... well, don't expect cooperation. So, I can see both perspectives on Michael Hamilton. He's a little too good at evading aggressive questioning but it was very aggressive questioning and he's in a rather vulnerable position.

Amayra Hamilton, I thought, came across as very likable. She seemed as sincere as she did decisive. She stood up to Li when he tried to belittle her and mischaracterize her testimony. And considering that her cross examination was the most sneaky and smarmy I've ever seen Li, I admired her all the more for recognizing when he was being manipulative.

As near as I can tell, there are three basic reasons people are skeptical of the Hamiltons. The first is their outre spiritual beliefs which they charge money for dispensing. I have outre spiritual beliefs myself so I can't really get judgmental about that. I also charge money for spiritually based serviced. Not only can't I throw stones, I wouldn't. The need for everyone to make a living regardless of what kind of work they do is something I'm very much at peace with. Religious and spiritual institutions have to earn at least enough income to be self-sustaining and pay their bills. That's a simple fact. Among indigenous people's it's usually donations and barter, all of which are forms of payment. Early on, when I started doing psychic and healing work, I had to address various forms of this question: How can you charge money for a gift that comes from God? My general response: Can you think of a gift or a talent that doesn't come from God? Because I truly believe that we are spiritual beings having a human experience rather than the other way around, I really don't draw a distinction between the spiritual and the material in work or anything else. So, I personally, don't have an issue with the Hamiltons' charging fees and asking for donations for their work and their resources. Their hourly rates are well within reason and based on numbers of spiritual significance, 111 and 144. Their other rates I can't speak to because I don't know what their overhead is for big events. They may be too high. I don't have a basis of comparison as to what the market bears in their area.

As I said before, I think James Ray's rates were egregious. And that, I have a problem with, whether it's for "spiritual" work or anything else. What constitutes too high? It's like any other obscenity. I know it when I see it. And then, there's the larger problem, very much at issue in this trial, as to what kind of psychological manipulation was at play in getting those sums out of people.

The second reason people have a problem with the Hamiltons is that they enabled James Ray. They didn't reign him in. They didn't terminate their business with him, although it would appear they were in the process of doing so. They agreed to make that monstrosity of a sweat lodge to keep Ray as a client and to do so, they trusted people of questionable credentials and authenticity like David Singing Bear. They were at best a bit gullible and naive. At worst, they put their need to dig their way out of bankruptcy ahead of responsible decision making. I tend to think the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

The third reason people don't trust the Hamiltons is that they took down the sweat lodge and in a hurry. It's not surprising that people wanted to see the prosecutors get to the bottom of that. They failed, in my opinion, to do so. They needed to prove that the Hamiltons knew there was specific, legitimate interest in surveying the structure within the two day period following the sweat lodge incident and before they took it down. They didn't because they could at most imply the Hamiltons knew at that time was that there was gossip about it. No government agency expressed an interest and the police had concluded their investigation and given them the go ahead to dismantle the scene.

The main problem with the argument that they "destroyed evidence" is that it's really not evidence once the scene is no longer secure. It gets real hard to get something admitted as evidence if it comes from an unsecured crime scene because it could have been contaminated by any number of things, intentionally or otherwise. It makes sense for the defense to rant about it but it's an illogical diversion designed to do what defense attorneys do; create any sliver of doubt however they can.

To blame the Hamiltons for taking down the sweat lodge ignores that they had very legitimate reasons to do so and do so promptly. The first they've stated repeatedly. It was part of the healing process for a number of people who had just been through a horrific event. You may disagree with their spiritual belief system and the way they articulate their process but such rituals to process grief are necessary. That's why we have wakes and funerals.

There is also a very pragmatic reason for them to get rid of something that was, as Michael Hamilton put it, "out of alignment." The new agey lingo aside, I can't think of a single business or church -- and Angel Valley is both -- that wouldn't move as quickly as possible to get rid of such a ghoulish spectacle. Any business that plays host to a gruesome death or crime scene wants the police to conclude its business, let them repair the damage, and restore their property to a normal appearance. Anything else is bad for business... or attendance. Or worse, it could draw a rather creepy, voyeuristic element. No facility, least of all one that is trying to provide a peaceful, serene, healing environment, would want a macabre reminder of tragic death as a sight seeing attraction.

Luis Li Cross Examines Amayra Hamilton

Well, I don't know why I put such effort into documenting so much of Luis Li's cross yesterday since he's just repeated every element of it again today... and again, and again. I'll say this for him. It's impossible to miss the fine points because he repeats them anywhere from three to a hundred times. I also have to give him credit for opening up a few gaps in Amayra Hamilton's testimony; mostly having to do with the fact that she's not completely aware of what the staff might do that isn't in accord with the Hamiltons' rules. As I said before, Ted Mercer, who I'm sure means well, isn't the sharpest pencil in the box. And some of his testimony on the rat poison doesn't jibe with her understanding. She seemed more than a little surprised. Frankly, it's one of those things anyone who has staff or employees has to learn. Sometimes you think you're understood when you're not and employees make mistakes you  know nothing about.

In this for instance, the issue was the rat poison which Ted Mercer claimed was in little piles on the floor in the pumphouse. Now of course Li never clarified for her that Mercer expressed, in court, that he was never sure it was rat poison. But the bottom line is that Mercer did not think he'd ever seen rat poison on a plate. Of course I don't think he'd ever seen any rat poison that wasn't the piles he wasn't sure were rat poison. So the whole line of questions was really misleading... as usual. But it got creepier.

Li: I don't want to force words into your mouth but do you think he's lying?

Amayra: I don't want to say that to a person. If that is his perception, I have never seen it and I have never wanted that to happen.

Li: Okay. I'm really sorry to just push you on this but, uh, just one more time, I mean, are you saying that Mr. Mercer is lying to this jury.

Amayra: I don't want to say yes or no to that question.

Li: Okay but what you think he told this jury, you think what he told this jury's untrue.

Amayra: I have never seen it.

It's like watching a pathological liar sow seeds of conflict between friends for entertainment. But, of course, the point here was to sow seeds of reasonable doubt with the jury. It is unfortunately true that pesticide rules may not have been perfectly understood by every employee. What it does not prove, however, or even indicate, is that the employees were misusing those pesticides. But who knows what the jury will do with such little gaps opened up by a slick, misleading, defense.

Li started this day's hours long continuation of his cross examination with a seemingly pointless tangent about Angel Valley's waivers; a waiver he tried to pass off once as James Ray's waiver. (It's a much better, more thorough waiver.) I'm really not clear on why he brought up the waivers and as near as I can tell, he didn't get back to that issue... which is strange. Either he didn't get the answer he was looking for or I've completely missed the significance of this line of questioning. Maybe it's as simple as, look, everyone has waivers and it's all about personal responsibility anyway. I just can't say for sure because, unlike every other question, he didn't beat this to death.

Next Li went back to listing Amayra's media interviews. That he did beat to death... for the second time. Apparently, we needed to hear them all again. Then he listed all of the police interviews. He even made another giant chart. Finally he worked his way to a point. Amayra didn't mention pesticides in any of those interviews. Apparently, it was her responsibility to make the defense's case even though -- and most people would think this was a significant point -- nobody asked her about pesticides in any of those interviews.

According to Li, she should have known that pesticides were at issue because rat poison was mentioned briefly in Ted Mercer's police interview. And because the issue was raised in Li's opening argument. Never mind that she was precluded from listening to any news about the trial because she's a witness.

Li tried several times to trick her into saying that she had violated the court ordered rule of exclusion so that may have been a dual purposed question. Later, he implied that she finally came clean with Det. Diskin about the Amdro ant poison because Fawn Foster had testified about it and, you know -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge -- she might have been given the heads up by Foster. Amayra explained that she had told the detective about the Amdro when she did because that's when he had asked the Hamiltons for every such chemical product they had ever used. The Amdro was not in use until 2010, after the sweat lodge, so it hadn't occurred to her before that to list it. It was also barely used.

Li also tried to snag Amayra on her unwillingness to do a recorded interview with the defense attorneys. When she was able to actually explain the reason, which took some doing, it turned out that it was because her lawyer thought a recorded interview of unlimited scope was a bad idea. No matter how clearly she stated it, Li continued to imply that she had put the lawyer up to refusing the interview.  I love it when lawyers pretend they find legal advice, that they would probably give themselves, unethical.

If you ever doubted that Li will parse any issue to dust, the meaningless, court-time wasting discussion of Hamilton's camera should put that to an end. First, he tried again to make hay of the incomplete listing of numbered photos. It seems pretty obvious to me that Hamilton put together and edited the photos that were germane to the investigation. It's not like the dated photos were out of sequence or anything really questionable like that. There are just numbers missing in the sequence. You'd have thought it was the "18 minute gap" in the Watergate tapes. But what really became clear from Li's questions is that he had all the metadata for the photos, so if anything had been truly awry with her claims about the photos, we would have heard about it. He even knew what camera she'd used in 2006 and that it was a different one in 2011. Amayra explained that the camera she used in 2006 was long gone.

Li: It was a very nice camera. It was a Sony, uh, TC9, or something like that? It's like a six hundred dollar camera. Yeah.

Amayra: No this was a little, uh, T9 I think.

Li: Yeah. It's like a five to six hundred dollar camera.

Amayra: [inaudible]

Li: Would you disagree with me if I researched what, how much that camera cost when it came out and it was about five or six hundred dollars?

Amayra: Well, if you want to research that, fine.

The man will argue about any pointless thing. Remarkable.

Not surprising in any way is the fact that he invoked the "not a big deal" issue of the nail he'd found in the cedar log. He even claimed that there were nails in all four of the logs in police evidence. Amayra explained again that it was due to the tarps but I, personally found that explanation confusing; probably because she wasn't able to explain it exactly. I just didn't know how tarps could put nails in wood. Neither did Li and that nail was now his leverage to discredit any "assumption" she made.

He also went back to the mysterious, nameless, faceless "EMT" who talked about organophosphates. He conveyed his incredulity that she could remember only part of his statement; the part about how to care for one another and what symptoms to look out for but not the part about possible toxins. I think it's amazing she remembered that much considering what she was dealing with in the dining hall where they were caring for sick, traumatized people. Not to mention that they were all probably in shock. I don't find it even a little difficult to believe, though, that she would have retained what was crucial at that moment which was the health issues themselves. That is what she expressed to Li.

Thus began another song and dance to get the hearsay background noise played and admitted into evidence. Judge Darrow called for a sidebar and then lunch. He ruled that it could be used again with the limiting instruction that it only be considered as to Amayra's state of mind, not for the truth. So we got to hear the inaudible recording of the nameless person the defense keeps insisting was an EMT again. Jolly good fun.

Judge Darrow also cautioned, I think quite tellingly, that the admission of the recording was not an invitation for Li run his suck endlessly again over something that's already been litigated to death. Okay, I'm paraphrasing. But I really think Judge Darrow is getting fed up with the Li's logorrhea and the whole defense team's grandstanding.

Bill Hughes Redirects Amayra Hamilton

Bill Hughes made his redirect mercifully brief.

He rapidly alleviated my personal confusion over what the tarps had to do with nails in the cedar by asking the right question. The tarps had to be tacked to the wood with nails to keep them from blowing off and sometimes they were left behind when the tarps were removed. 

Hughes also clarified with Amayra that the largest group to use the sweat lodge ever, except for James Ray's, was a group of forty people. She can tell that, oddly enough, by looking at a contract that claims fifty participants. She knows this because if there had actually been fifty, it would have included her creating additional accommodation because they can't provide rooms for a group of over forty people. This group, she also remembers, included some of the Angel Valley staff so she had her eyes on the whole thing.

Amayra affirmed that she was completely unaware of the pit being off-center in the sweat lodge. It looked centered to her. She also tried to answer a question about the sweat lodge being inspected by someone from JRI but it was stricken because she couldn't name the person.

Hughes also clarified the media training question. There was a class it was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and taught by a PR specialist. Li just had all the names and dates wrong. But she did receive guidance after the incident on how to interact with the media that was circling; no talking points, mind you.

She also clarified again that the first time she heard about a pesticide issue was in March of this year, after the trial had already started, when Det. Diskin asked her what products were used.

Hughes also tried to ask her about Fawn Foster's statement that caused Amayra to recommend she speak with the police. Li objected, was overruled, and demanded a sidebar. An exasperated sounding Judge Darrow agreed.

I found all of this very hard to follow and I think there was subtext I missed completely. Hughes says there was an accusation of fabrication. I don't know if that's the subtle implication that Amayra and Fawn Foster may have improperly discussed some things but Hughes felt that Foster's comment needed to come in to explain why Amayra wanted her to talk to the police. Ultimately he was not able to get her statement in. But he did ask her to clarify that it was an utterance from Foster that caused her to refer her to police investigators.

Amayra Hamilton was excused subject to recall.

Det. Ross Diskin

Under Sheila Polk's direct questions, Det. Diskin quickly established his local boy bona fides. His family has been in the area for several generations.

Next he established his construction bona fides. It turns out that Det. Diskin worked in construction to help pay for college and still does some carpentry. In other words, he knows a little about wood, too.

Diskin primarily works on crimes committed against children and has had a great deal of training in handling those deeply disturbing crimes. He came to the James Ray sweat lodge investigation to take over for Det. Polling who was going on vacation. It was on the second day of that investigation. Right after the incident much of the police department was focused on this investigation because of its seriousness.

Secured Sweat Lodge Scene

He began his testimony on the incident by explaining how crime scenes are handled and pointing out the crime scene tape that marked the area. The trailer in the background houses the officers who are on the scene 24 hours to keep it secure. He also explained how some participants wanted to get back into the area to retrieve things, which they couldn't.

People also wanted to leave flowers at the scene. He explained how he kept the flowers at the perimeter and placed them inside after the scene was released. It's one of those bits of testimony that, for some reason, makes the horror and sadness these people were experiencing so vivid for me. And it is another reminder of what makes the Hamiltons' sweat lodge destruction and memorial so crucial as a healing event for those grieving people.

Det. Diskin also had the lovely task of notifying James Shore's next of kin. It required a little detective work because no one from JRI had any information on how to contact his family. He had to go into the room he shared with Lou Caci and look through his personal effects. Another officer contacted Kirby Brown's family.

Initially, Diskin explained, they thought the cause of this tragedy must have been some sort of toxin. It didn't occur to them that a sweat lodge could be hot enough to cause death. Carbon monoxide was eliminated by blood work at the hospitals. The hazmat team and the Arizona Poison Center were also contacted.

Det. Diskin's first interview was with Ted Mercer who approached the police. He answered some questions about where the blankets were stored. Diskin also asked him to explain the fundamentals of how the sweat lodge worked; how the stones were heated and so on.

Mercer also explained to him which wood pile the fire wood was taken from. He clarified that it was the pile of cedar logs which it was. He also asked him if any of the firewood was pressure treated but his answer was hearsay so we don't know. What is somewhat concerning is that Diskin's concern came from having observed a single piece of pressure treated wood in a different pile; one that was not used for the fire. I say it's concerning because it wasn't in a trash bin. Hopefully, we'll gain a little more clarity on that. But Det. Diskin felt secure that the only wood pile used for the fire did not contain pressure treated wood. He is well familiar with pressure treated wood because of his construction background.

At this point Tom Kelly was distressed enough by Diskin's wood clarity that he asked to voir dire him. He then asked thin the kind of question that one would more expect during cross examination. He asked him if was present when the fire was made. Obviously, he was not.

He also addressed the scrap wood pile that has been repeatedly asserted by the defense as containing possibly pressure treated wood. Det. Diskin doesn't think it looks at all like pressure treated wood which is easily recognizable.

Polk then asked Det. Diskin about his interview of Debbie Mercer, which raised the sticky issue of how Debbie Mercer's statements shaped the direction of the investigation. It's because she told him James Ray's sweat lodges were the only ones where there were problems. The answer was stricken.

Judge Darrow Hears Arguments

After the jury was dismissed for a break, Judge Darrow took up the issue of Debbie Mercer's prior sweat lodge testimony. Kelly, of course, was against it.

Polk argued that the question goes the central issue of how Diskin focused his investigation. Because the defense has made Diskin's investigation an issue by insinuating that it was less than thorough, the State needs to be able to clarify why he focused where he did and how the investigation progressed.

Judge Darrow allowed that they can't leave a hole in explaining the course of Det. Diskin's investigation. The Mercers' testimony on the prior sweat lodges is already in. But he conveyed that the questions will have to be extremely careful not to elicit hearsay or there is risk of a mistrial.

After this there was also a lengthy discussion of how some exhibits that show Ray's personal effects, make him look bad, and for some reason make it look as though he fled the scene. He did flee the scene but I guess that's something else the jury can't know. (???) There will be more to come on that, I think as the defense believes they already filed a motion to exclude those photos. Maybe there's a photo of his pharmaceutical collection. I kind of doubt it but it's fun to speculate.

Polk and Kelly Agree on Some Sweat Lodge Photos

After the break and legal discussion, Polk did, very carefully ask Det. Diskin about Debbie Mercer's impact on his investigation and Det. Diskin very carefully answered. It probably helps that because Diskin is also the case agent and sits at the prosecution's table, he's also privy to the legal wrangling. I don't think he wants a mistrial either. So it was distilled to this: James Ray's sweat lodges were more extreme than others. This caused him to focus on the sweat lodge itself and the heat. He also continued to investigate toxins but toxins seemed unlikely because only some people got sick.

Most of today's testimony had to do with the physical structure and positioning of the sweat lodge. There were many photos of the structure from various angles and they demonstrated the size of the structure with a tape measure. It really is hard to imagine cramming 60 people into a structure that size.

Then Det. Diskin explained interior photos of the sweat lodge and where Kirby Brown, James Shore, and Liz Neuman were sitting... and how they and others were dragged out.

Entrances Ripped Open by Debbie Mercer to Remove Unconscious People

Where Liz Neuman Was Sitting

Where Kirby Brown and James Shore Were Lying and Dragged From

A Clearer View of the Drag Marks

Another View of Drag Marks

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. Those drag marks are so incredibly chilling in this series of macabre crime scene photos. So totally sad and brings this home--I suspect a jury member gasped or something in response to this requiring the Judge's admonition about reacting. So terribly sad.

    Thank you for another clear and interesting summary of another trial day.

  2. LaVaughn is there something somewhere in your entries that describes more about JAR fleeing the scene?

  3. @katiecoollady, I think in some of the earliest coverage after the event, the fact that Ray bolted is discussed. I have embeds of a lot of the news coverage in those entries but, right now I couldn't tell you exactly where. We got a chronology today though in the arguments over evidence. His council advised him not to talk, his stuff was under search warrant and being examined by police, and he just grabbed the first flight back to California. Not clear on how he bought a ticket and boarded a plane without his wallet and I'm not optimistic about ever getting clarity on that.

  4. @katiecoollady, You might also check Salty Droid's earlier coverage, too. I'm pretty sure he addressed Ray's suspicious movements post-event.

  5. mercifully I have been unable to follow the trial lately and have therefore missed Li' crosses that we all have to bear. Personally I find no fault with the H's for any of the three reasons, but I've wondered why the dislike for them, and that explains it but they don't valid reasons to me.
    from twitter I gather that many are concerned about the jury, and how they are feeling about the trial, and the worry seems to me to be due to the success that the Dt has had, which has resulted in a restricted and unbalanced presentation of the facts. True enuff, I think. However, I somehow feel this jury has seen enough to get a dern good idea of what actually happened, and I think this jury has seen enough of the defense to know they are basically trying to hide the facts, and I believe James Ray is going down big time.

  6. Thanks for some good coverage and detailed writing.


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