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When Brandi, Amstell, crawled into the hot dark tent at the Angel Valley retreat in Sedona, she made sure to stay by the door by James Ray. He's not gonna hurt himself. I knew that's where I needed to be. The only light came from embers crackling off a pit of gleaming superheated stones. Brandy sat with 54 other people in two concentric circles around the pit. All around them, plastic tarps trapped, intensifying heat. No air could enter or escape.
Claustrophobia was a huge issue to sort through. Like, how am I going to do this? How on earth am I going to do this?
But she was determined. She'd invested months of her life following James and over fifty thousand dollars on his events and classes. She was sure that each one brought her closer to being the person she wanted to be. Spiritual Warrior was the final step. So the promise was to get rid of the black bags that are holding you back in your life. The things that are buried so deep that you don't even know they exist. Are you willing to explore that?
Are you willing to have the courage to explore those deep, dark rooted things that are keeping you small? Through the heat and steam, she watched, James approached the center pit. He lifted what looked like a five gallon bucket filled with water and tipped it onto the sizzling rocks in a cloud of steam pushed through the dome. And I could feel it going in my nose and down my throat, actually physically burning the insides of my body as it was going in.
James instructed them to open the door as soon as that door was opened. Well, that was the warm up round. So then, like, now we're gonna get serious.
This was not James's first heat endurance challenge, but he was determined that it would be the most demanding.
He was gloating again about how exciting it was. He was gonna be putting more rocks than anybody's ever put. It's gonna be the hottest. He yelled out the door for the fire keeper to bring more hot rocks than when they arrived. He smiled at the glowing pile and pulled the flap closed. It was so hot in there and it was so crowded. Brandy was sweating through her swimsuit. She closed her eyes and tried to calm herself, but she could barely breathe.
I started to lay down, like because the dirt was cold. And if you could just lay down and breathe and pretend you weren't there, then it was OK.
The cycle kept repeating every 15 minutes. James would briefly open the flap to request more rocks at these points. People could leave. But he encouraged them to stay. You're better than that. He'd say nobody wanted to disappoint him so they'd stay seated and the fire keeper would bring new smoldering stones. James would close the flap and add more water to the pit, filling the tent with more scalding steam. Each round was hotter, more humid and more difficult than the last.
The sounds that were going on in a tent were so intense. People screaming. Blood curdling scream. Sir, there was. Wow. Everyone was gasping for air. Brandy tried to stay calm. Just. Just breathe. Just breathe. Just breathe. Just breathe.
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On the morning of October 8th, 2009, before the attendees of the Spiritual Warrior event entered what he called the sweat lodge. James Arthur Ray laid out what to expect if you had a touch of phobia.
You're going to have to get over it because everybody's going to be voted out against everybody. Shoulder to shoulder. If you have darkness or claustrophobic issues is an opportunity for you to get over. Suffering from that. It'll be pitch. He explained the rules on the master of the Lord.
So when I tell you to do so, did that's when you do it. You don't say anything unless you're asked to stay. You will be in such an altered state. And so what that means. And let me tell you a fraud, because what starts to happen and has happened in years past is that you forget where you are. You forget what you're a part of. And, you know, people start yelling crazy stuff in the lodge. Well, that's respect.
You're going to have to keep your shit together, but you can't in an extreme all day and just all on.
He told everyone to wear as little clothing as possible.
You know, a pair of shorts and a t shirt is a good way to go for the ladies room, then to take off all jewelry, get literally scores, you know, good, because it'll be getting hot and getting in your skin. So all earrings and necklaces and watches, everything else needs to come off.
And to be ready to push through all doubts and fears come of time.
We're going to we're going to want to run. You wouldn't want to bolt. I know, because I feel that way, too. And it's in those moments where you get to say, hey, this is my chance to live. You just have to let go and say, if I'm going to die, it's OK because I don't ever die. My body dies. I don't die.
At the end of the presentation. James, open the floor for questions quickly about how long?
How long the lodge. Oh, I accidently two hours, maybe three hours. That does raise your blood pressure. Yeah. Good. Just like working out, raising your blood pressure. The easier if your skin is exposed or covered with a t shirt. There's no easy. There's no easy on this. And where is it that we will meet? We're going to be straight down there. You'll you'll see the light. Straight down here. And like 215 like sentiment's now.
Ready. Go. As they walked in a line toward the tent, Laura Tucker was relieved to find herself directly behind the friend of hers, Liz Neuman. Liz definitely had a calming presence about her. She was also somebody who I just genuinely liked very much and enjoyed being around. And I trusted her judgment.
Laura and Liz met at a James Ray event called Quantum Leap in 2008, and they clicked immediately. Liz was a mother of three, a successful salesperson for a multi-level marketing company called Herbalife. She always seemed to have a smile on her face. She was part of the volunteer staff at Spiritual Warrior events. She'd assisted with several of James's sweat lodge ceremonies before.
There's a lot of trust. At that point together, they inched toward the structure. I do remember starting to feel scared when I saw it. She wasn't the only one having doubts behind her. She could hear another attendee calling out saying, you guys are crazy. And she was talking to us in the line saying, you know, don't go in there. I'm not going in there. Her shouting made Laura uneasy. But since Liz was still going in, she followed her cautiously.
You know, we kind of grabbed each other in line and then we were all good.
They ducked down and entered the makeshift tent along with the others. They arranged themselves as James had instructed one group and circled the pit of rocks with their feet nearly touching it. Another larger group gathered behind them, their backs to the TARP walls. As the ceremony began, Liz and Laura settled into their spots in the dirt. They sat shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, with their knees bent to their chests, their feet flat to the ground.
And Liz had told us to just tap each other, to give each other a tap occasionally just to check in on the heat. And the darkness were disorienting. Cinders floated upwards from the rocks in the middle of the tent. It was this pie and. Three person had their slice and it was so hot in there that you could have your slice of the pie and inhabit what was going on in that slice, but you could be completely unaware what was happening.
You know, one or two slices over, let alone on the other side of the lodge, like it was all consuming. I remember managing my body know like managing my heart rate, breathing really slowly. Bang, bang. I mean, my heart was just racing. At the end of the first round, Liz turned to Laura and tapped her arm. Laura stepped back. They were both OK. James opened the flap to the entrance. More red hot rocks were brought in and dumped in the middle.
James closed the flap again, maneuver to the center and bathed the rocks in more water. Another wave of heat saturated the lodge. It was like a rolling sheet. Up over the shins to the rest of the body. Oppressive. The temperature now hovered around one hundred and twenty degrees. It was horribly, horribly uncomfortable and it was in line with what James had described ahead of time. I don't think it was long before. Instead of sitting up, I had laid down, you know.
And then was wriggling deeper into the sand at some point. James told everyone they had to surrender to death. To survive it. But Laura was struggling, at what point does it make more sense to not feel like your heart is exploding in your chest and maybe just get out? But she didn't. I'm a person who stays.
Liz had told Laura how she usually coped with the heat. First, she burrowed her fingertips into the earth. She pushed in pulses, sending her fingers down inch by inch. When she'd cooled down, even briefly, she'd bring her hands back up and go into a child's pose. That's what she was doing now. Laura could tell. Liz paused a tap. Laura on the shoulder there, checking. Then she went back to digging at some point.
She got up and she moved and she leaned back on my legs. Liz later, head on Laura's shins. Laura grabbed her by the hips to pull her closer. Soon they were breathing in unison. Is that got hotter? It was hot. It was hot for a long time. Some people were leaving. Some people were staying. I stayed listed after a while. Laura tapped Liz. Liz didn't tap back. OK, not getting their spots that I'm looking for here.
So then I tapped up on her shoulder to say, you know, Liz, are you okay or do you need to get out? But she shook her head. She brushed my hand away and went back to it. Laura called out to James. James, I'm concerned about this. And his response to me was that Liz has done this before. She knows what she's doing. So here I am still thinking as a logical human being in a situation where logic just was not going to work.
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But it didn't work. Her body kept pulling her back into the lodge, which was quickly becoming a furnace, a nightmare.
I started crying and freaking out, actually wasn't just crying. I was I was panicking straight up because that was a lot like this. The steam was burning my throat. It wasn't like it was just filling it. It was burning and actually physically burning the insides of my body as it was going in. And so the guy who was sitting next to me was like, he guitar's freaking out. He's just just breathe. Just breathe. Just breathe. Just breathe.
Then a brightness beyond her eyelids broke her concentration. She opened her eyes to blinding daylight.
James had pushed the flap aside. It was the end of the fourth round.
As soon as the door open, I was like, I'm out. And somebody says, Oh, she can't leave. And I looked over at James and I gave him the dirtiest look I've probably ever given someone in my whole life because there was no way he was telling me I wasn't going out.
James nodded to Brandy and turned away. I get on my knees on my car. She's. This is weird. My legs don't feel right. I'm crawling out and there's four people there. And they picked me up by each limb.
They brought brandy outside into the bright sun and dropped her down on a wet, muddy tarp. She couldn't move her legs. One of James's staff members raced over and started hosing her down with bone chilling water. It felt surreal, like I was watching from above. Some stuff happening coming down. There was steam coming off of my body as they poured the water on it. I was like, Dude, that's not right. That is not right.
She started shaking uncontrollably. Her body finally calm down about 15 minutes later. She looked around. People started throwing up on each other like this. Just projectile. Why throw up everywhere?
Tarps were splayed out flat around her soaked. The staff members raced through the mud and vomit, hosing people down with water, trying to keep them awake to cool them down. A few people sat in cheap plastic chairs, breathing heavily and chugging for bottles.
And one girl was freaking out. She was next on my left and she, like her body, was flailing around and she was screaming, I don't like it. I want to go back. I want to go back. She was very distraught. And then over here was another guy and he started screaming about that. He was having a heart attack. And it was just like total chaos. She could see the tent with its door open. It wasn't over yet.
More people came out of the tent panting and distressed. James called for more rocks. Minutes passed. Maybe longer. The man could be heard inside the tent screaming, saying that he thought he was having a heart attack. Buddy, you need to pull it together. James told her the man said he felt like he was going to die. James responded. It's a good day to die. Brandy felt her hands. She looked down to see them lying flat in standing water that had pooled in the plastic tarp beneath her body.
She realized she could move. She sat up. Just then she heard the largest door snap open again. There was a commotion. Two staffers raced to the door to help someone out. Brandy squinted to get a better look. It was one of her friends and she was unconscious. And I was trying to just be with her. Just comfort her. See if she's breathing. And one of the ladies comes over to me that was working the event.
Here she goes. You need to leave her alone. This is her experience. You don't want to mess with her experience. That just made me really upset. And it made me cry. I felt helpless that I wanted to help my friend. My friend should not be unconscious. Yet she is. And they're saying that she's OK. That is her experience. And I'm like that. She doesn't seem OK. Brandy stayed on her knees, holding her friend's hand, watching the scene unfold in front of her.
And they just kept getting worse and worse with each round. And I was like, oh, my God, why do I have to be here to see this? Why am I watching this?
Debra Mercer wasn't too far from Brandy. She and her husband Ted worked at the Angel Valley retreat while Ted shuttled the hot rocks to the tent. Deborah stood outside by the entrance. She was the doorkeeper and her job was to help James pull the door open.
At the end of each round, as she waited, she could hear him talking to the people inside, preaching basically about how they were stronger than their bodies, their not their bodies. They need to find that other strength or not worry about their bodies. Ignore their bodies. Tell it to shut up. You're stronger than that.
She'd set up towels, water and fruit slices by the door with James Ray, I expected. Extreme, that's what he does, is extreme, and that's what it was. Five rounds. Six rounds, seven rounds after eight rounds of about 15 minutes each. After more than two hours, James finally ended the ceremony. He'd been standing by the entrance every time Deborah had opened the flap. He'd gotten relief, direct access to the outside, to sunlight, to air.
He emerged unscathed, a little sweaty. He walked toward a spot where a group of people had gathered. Brandy, Amstell, saw the last participants stagger out, but she noticed that Deborah stayed by the flap.
At that point, like somebody is like, oh, there's still people in the tent. And I looked at James saying, there's people still in there. I need to get them out. And he said, well, wake him up. Deborah peered inside the tent. Brandy was watching from where she sat.
And I looked down and I can see some hands, just fingers stuck out the edge of the tent. And I'm like, oh, that's not good. Deborah Rip the back of the tent opened. And went in. Wonderings audio drama Blood Ties is back for a second season with Josh Gad and Gillian Jacobs returning as Michael and Eleanor Richland. If you haven't had a chance to check out season one, The Wall Street Journal said it's the kind of character driven story that fits right in with a true crime mini series.
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What happened to the victims and to James Arthur Ray? To find out right now, binge. All six episodes add free by starting your 30 day free trial of wondering plus in the new one diary app. Download the app today. There were four people still inside the tent. One of them was Laura Tucker. She was still lying beneath her friend's lives. Well, at that point, the door was open. It was cooling off somewhat. And I was not going to crawl out from under Liz and leave her there.
I tried to get her to get up and get out under her own steam. I couldn't if I couldn't have. Two guys came and took her by the arms and took her out. As soon as she was carried out, I. I followed. Laura crawled out the door. It looked like a MASH unit. There was stuff everywhere. Nearby, people drifted in and out of consciousness. One woman was foaming at the mouth. Someone tried to cover her with a blanket.
Another woman began writhing on the ground, screaming for James. James was nearby. But he didn't move. He simply looked over and then looked away.
The word that comes to mind is stunned. Laura was still woozy and out of it, but slowly she began to take it all in, looking to see where's Liz? Where's this? Like starting to do visual checks. And then as it was becoming obvious that there was some serious shit going down, then it's like, is anyone a doctor? Is anyone this is anyone that no one on staff was a doctor or medic. She watched as staff pulled up the size of the tent to get inside.
Laura moved closer to the structure and found Deborah Mercer standing over two bodies.
Yes. Yes. Then they started making everybody leave.
The Spiritual Warrior staff and volunteers started guiding those who could walk themselves away from the tent. Within 30 minutes, a helicopter arrived.
Moments later, an ambulance followed. When your body can't keep its core temperature near ninety eight degrees, the nervous system begins trying to cool you down. That moves warm blood away from your organs and toward your skin. Without that warm blood, those organs lose oxygen. So does your brain problems cascade from their organs begin to fail. Breathing becomes difficult. Eventually, your overworked heart stops beating. Staff members asked everyone to clear out and regroup, and one of Angel Valley's main buildings, Laura, headed for a shower.
And I washed my no hair probably for an hour. Right. It was it was hard. Just the horrible, horrible feeling. Physically, mentally, emotionally. It was just raw. Right. And then not really knowing what was going on. I don't I don't think I remotely even understood that life was being lost. By the time Laura returned to the main cabin, people were wearing T-shirts over bathing suits, blankets over bare shoulders and swim trunks.
At that point, it was just so discombobulating. This shock of holy fuck, what just happened. And I feel horrible. I need to drink. I just had had enough brandy. Amstell was in the main cabin, too.
Nobody knew who was in charge and nobody knew what to do or what was happening, or we didn't even know why there were helicopters. We knew people were hurt.
Everyone in the cabin was looking for answers. Brandy didn't know where James had gone. Rumors were flying.
None of us knew what was true. It was like hearsay. What was it? What did you actually talk to? Did you actually see James? Did you know he's gone or is he just hiding in his room?
A swarm of paramedics and cops entered the cabin.
They were so mad at us. They were just like like this attitude like that. We were some crazy people that got people hurt. They thought it was a mass suicide. There was no compassion.
Shortly after Brandy started to feel noshes, her body felt weak. She could barely move. These were all symptoms of heat exhaustion. Paramedics immediately took her to the emergency room. Several of the more seriously affected attendees were helicoptered to the closest hospital. But Laura stayed in the cabin all night that entire time.
The only thing on my mind is where's Liz Newman and how is she doing? Two people had died and Laura didn't know it yet, but her friend Liz Neuman was in intensive care, clinging to life. Later that evening, detectives took Brandy's statement at the hospital and drove her back to Angel Valley. Both Brandy and Laura spent one final night in their tepees. The next morning, Detective Ross Diskin arrived on scene at Angel Valley.
The scene looked chaotic and there was all kinds of debris laying around Cupps medical equipment like I.V. tubes, you know, empty gauze packages, all kinds of medical type equipment.
He'd missed a dispatch call the night before. And at this point, he didn't have much to go on.
I had a general briefing that that there was a sweat lodge and that two people had died.
He surveyed the scene, tarps splayed out flat in the dust, whipping against cheap plastic chairs, bags of clothing lying in piles and bright orange water coolers rolled on their sides. In the center of it all, the remains of the sweat lodge. I didn't understand or know what had happened. I didn't know if this was like some kind of cold or a mass suicide or what. I could see women walking around with shaved heads. They were walking around almost like zombies, like they were in shock.
Of course, we didn't know what to ask specifically. We didn't know what the issues were or, you know, if there was some some kind of drugs involved or, you know, we just didn't know anything.
But he did want to know who is responsible.
So the first person I wanted to talk to are the people directly involved with setting up the sweat lodge. And those were the Mercers, Ted and Debbie Mercer. And I talked to them initially to find out what happened in the midst of the chaos and confusion.
James had left the scene.
I would love to talk to James Ray early on, but he was no longer there. That same morning in upstate New York, Kirby Brown's mother, Ginny Brown, got a visitor Friday morning at fifteen.
A trooper came to my door and asked me if I knew Kirby Brown.
Kirby was the woman who had spent her life savings to attend Spiritual Warrior and.
When I say yes, I'm her mom. He says she passed in a sweat lodge. And Arizona and initially confused, like she's sure that at the spiritual or you retreat, what are you talking Pat past? Do you mean dead? I was so blindsided. She didn't believe it. You know, maybe this is a mistake. It wasn't real. And then when we spoke to the investigators in Arizona, we realized it was all too real.
James Shaw and Kirby Brown died after participating in a cleansing ceremony inside the sauna. Like hot, 19 other people also became ill and one is still in critical condition. The story of the deaths at Spiritual Warrior made national news. Ginny Brown's phone kept ringing off the hook for days. She let every single call go straight to voicemail except for one. James Ray's assistant called our home. On Tuesday afternoon, GenY immediately picked up the phone. Soon, James Arthur Ray was on the other end.
So James Ray gets on the phone and says, How are you? And I say, I'm in shock. And he says, I am, too. I can't imagine how this could have happened. And then he said, you know, Kirby was just such a wonderful person and you need to know she was in a really good place. And I just said, too bad it was with you in Sedona. I don't remember hearing him say, I'm sorry.
I got off the phone. I was, like, numb. James Arthur Ray spoke to Jenny, but back in Sedona, he wasn't around to talk to Ross because in the aftermath of the sweat lodge with two attendee's dead and another fighting for her life, he walked to his rental car. Climbed in. About two hours after the phone call from James, Kirby's roommate from Spiritual Warrior called, she'd been inside the sweat lodge, too. And she described to Ginny in detail what had happened to Kirby.
People were in distress by the second round. There were eight rounds. And his response of encouraging people to stay in in this superheated environment and his refusal to stop the ceremony, to check on people being told that Kirby was in distress and not doing anything. And then at the end, he walked out and never looked back. This is no accident. This was no accident. Totally reckless, totally Breton's.
Ginny Brown and James Ray never spoke again, but their lives would be intertwined for years to come. From one to three, this is Episode two of six of Guru.
A story about the dangers in the dark side of enlightenment. The next episode will be out in a week. But if you want to listen right now, all six episodes are available on one degree plus and on the one, Daria. If you want to help us spread the word, please give us a five star rating and a review on Apple podcasts. And be sure to tell your friends. Subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, the Wonder App or wherever you're listening right now.
Join Wonder E-Plus in the Wonder Free App to listen ad free for more detail on James Arthur Ray and the scandal that shocked the self-help industry. Check out the podcast Real Crime Profile. As professional criminal profilers and analysts, they break down the criminal behavior of James Arthur Ray to figure out what he was thinking and why he did what he did in these pivotal moments. You can find real crime profile on Apple podcasts, Spotify or add free on the Wonder app.
This episode was written and reported by me. Matt Stroud, associate producer, is a SEAL Kipe story editor is Casey Miner, Sound Design by Jeff Schmidt. Fact checking by Sarah Maclure. Producer is Alex Blonsky, managing producer is Latha Pandya. And Executive producers are George Lavender, Marshall Lui and Hernan Lopez for wondering.