Sweat-lodge participants say leader urged them to stay inside

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

SEDONA -- Two women who were inside a Sedona sweat lodge when a spiritual retreat turned deadly are talking about their ordeal.

They say dozens of people were crowded into a pitch-black hut. Physically ill participants were told to push through their pain with self-help guru James Ray literally "playing God."

One of the survivors is a woman from Southern Arizona. Her attorney calls Ray's actions reckless and says necessary medical precautions were not taken for participants' safety.

James Shore, Kirby Brown and Lizbeth Neuman died after a spiritual sweat-lodge ceremony in Sedona almost two weeks ago.

Authorities are now conducting a homicide investigation with a major focus on the leader of the ceremony.

"If this sweat-lodge experience had been conducted properly nobody would have been injured, but it was reckless how they handled this thing," said Ted Schmidt, who represents Patagonia resident Sidney Spencer.

Spencer, 59, was one of the participants sitting in the back row next to the three victims who died.

"Each and every one of them, they were told that to succeed you need to see this through to the end and if you don't you will have failed this activity," Schmidt said.

He said there were no medical personnel inside the sweat lodge, there were too many people and it was pitch black.

In addition to the physical strain, Schmidt says there was psychological pressure by Ray for participants to see the ceremony through.

But by the time the fifth or six round of hot rocks had been brought in, Spencer knew she had reached her limit.

Spencer had to be air lifted out of the Angel Valley Retreat Center to a Flagstaff hospital. She suffered multiple organ failures, neurological issues and has difficulty talking. She is recovering with family in Tucson

Beverley Bunn, a retreat participant from Texas, said people began vomiting and having trouble breathing an hour after the ceremony began, but she claims Ray urged them to stay inside.

Bunn said Ray led them in a game in which he played the role of God and she says retreat participants were subjected to physical and mental stress for days before entering the sweat lodge.