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Guru's trial over Arizona sweat lodge deaths starts

By Tim Gaynor

CAMP VERDE, Ariz (Reuters) - An Arizona jury on Tuesday heard how participants in a sweat lodge became delirious and passed out in scorching heat at a seminar hosted by self-help guru James Arthur Ray where three people died of heat-related causes.

Ray is charged with three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of three participants in his October 2009 personal growth seminar, near scenic Sedona, Arizona, a popular destination for New Age retreats.

The 56 participants in Ray's "spiritual warrior" retreat were crammed into a four-foot tall sweat lodge, packed with superheated rocks.

In an opening statement for the prosecution, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said instead of finding "enlightenment," the three participants "found death" at the five-day retreat, for which they paid nearly $10,000 each.

Polk played an audio tape made at the retreat, where Ray warned participants they should expect "the most intense heat" they had ever experienced.

"You will feel as if you are going to die. I guarantee that," he said in the recording. "... You will have to get to a point where you surrender, where it's OK to die."

Polk said the jury would hear testimony about one sweat lodge participant who screamed he was having a heart attack, and passed out as he tried to crawl outside for fresh air.

Other participants were in distress, vomiting or delirious during the sauna-like cleansing, Polk said. One man slipped and burned himself on hot rocks, which left his arm with "chunks of flesh falling off," the prosecutor said.

"Despite of all this chaos, Mr. Ray did not stop the ceremony," Polk said. "Mr. Ray continued to bring in more superheated rocks, more water and more ... steam."

"A TRAGIC ACCIDENT"

Luis Li, an attorney for the California-based motivational speaker on trial, in opening arguments said participants were sent waivers months before joining the ceremony at the Angel Valley Retreat Center, so they knew what the seminar involved.

"I am here to say they died as a result of a tragic accident, not a crime," he told jurors.

The attorney added that participants were "all adults," and could make decisions for themselves.

"They were doctors, dentists, regular folks," Li said. "Nobody was coerced."

On the day in question, 21 participants in the seminar were taken for treatment to nearby hospitals, where James Shore, 40, and Kirby Brown, 38, were pronounced dead. Liz Neuman, 49, died several days later in hospital.

Television news images of the sweat dome showed a windowless structure, covered in black roofing material.

Sweat or medicine lodges -- smaller domed or oblong structures warmed with heated stones -- have traditionally been used in ceremonies by some Native American cultures.

Li said doctors initially reported that they suspected toxins from treated wood involved in construction of the dome could have been involved, and accused the prosecution of failing to pursue the possibility.

The trial continues this week and is expected to last three to four months.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Greg McCune)

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