SEDONA — The owner of a retreat where a sweat lodge ceremony turned deadly said the man who led it was a perfectionist who controlled every detail of an event meant to push people beyond their physical limits.
California-based motivational speaker James Arthur Ray is the focus of a homicide investigation that began shortly after three people died following the ceremony he led at the Angel Valley Retreat Center in Sedona in October.
His attorneys have suggested the sweat lodge was unsafe and that Ray cannot be held liable because its construction was the responsibility of retreat owners Amayra and Michael Hamilton.
But Amayra Hamilton said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that Ray "absolutely" would have pointed out anything he saw wrong with the sweat lodge before he led more than 50 people inside. She stood by previous statements that the sweat lodge was sound and that its construction was not to blame.
"What else can you say if James does not understand what went wrong? We know that there was nothing wrong with that sweat lodge," she said from her home at the retreat she and her husband purchased in 2002. "And yes, we know he must have or could have checked and it was not different than in previous years."
Nestled on 70 acres in a valley surrounded by scrub forest, the Angel Valley Retreat Center was a draw for Ray, who touted its reputation, energy, beauty and history of American Indian use of the land.
The Hamiltons said they knew little about Ray when he held his first sweat lodge ceremony at the retreat in 2003 and had little personal contact him over the years. They said he made sure that every detail, from the menu to the placement of stage stairs and the timing of events was precise. If it wasn't, "we would redo it according to his wishes," Hamilton said.
"James is a perfectionist," she said. "He had his retreats perfect the way he wanted it. I cannot see why the sweat lodge would be an exception."
More than 50 people filed inside the sweat lodge that was built in 2008 and used numerous times without incident — something Ray's attorneys and the Hamiltons agree on. Feeling restless, Hamilton said she drove a golf cart to the site of the sweat lodge the evening of Oct. 8 and witnessed "total chaos" as it ended. She called 911.
People were vomiting, passed out and being hosed off in an effort to cool them down. Three people who never regained consciousness died at hospitals — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. 18 others were hospitalized.
Ray had promised the participants that the sweat lodge would be one of the most intense experiences of their lives. Authorities in central Arizona's Yavapai County are considering charges against him in a wide-reaching investigation that is expected to be turned over to prosecutors soon.
Lawsuits filed after the deaths accuse Ray and the Hamiltons of negligence and fraud. Authorities have said the sweat lodge lacked the necessary building permit.
Amayra Hamilton said she's not concerned with the lawsuits. "We feel very much at peace with what we did and did not do."
Ray's attorneys said again on Wednesday that the deaths were a tragic accident and that criminal charges aren't warranted because holding a sweat lodge isn't inherently dangerous, Ray took all necessary safety precautions and he acted immediately when participants became ill. Many participants have said Ray could have done more to ensure their safety.
Amayra Hamilton said she advised Ray in 2005 to tone down his sweat lodge ceremonies after a man fell unconscious and was taken to the hospital. Ray's attorneys said he has since limited the number of rounds, moved the ceremony to daylight hours, set up a recovery station and trained staff in CPR.
"We were confident he had learned from that experience in 2005 and that that would never happen again," Hamilton said. But last year, things were worse.
Central to the Hamiltons' beliefs is that everything happens for a reason and out of everything bad, a lesson is learned. Ray is not the only teacher who tries to push people beyond their boundaries, Amayra Hamilton said, but it's a matter of how far and whether the people he worked with were empowered to "keep their measuring sticks in place.
"If there is something that you are taking part in and it doesn't feel right, don't do it," she said in a late October interview. "Don't give your body away to someone who is saying beautiful words. And if, as a facilitator, if you feel that people are giving you that, stay away. Beware of yourself."
Three weeks after the event, Hamilton said she received a package from Ray with three plants and a thank you card. She planted each in its own circle outside a heart-shaped memorial made with stones used to heat the sweat lodge.
She calls it the "Garden of Transformation," an area near a flowing creek where already groups have discussed life and death.