Former James Ray Employee: Paramedics Mistook Sweat Lodge for 'Mass Suicide'

In an exclusive interview former employee said the self-help guru only watched.

ByABC News
December 9, 2009, 8:14 AM

Dec. 9, 2009— -- Melinda Martin, a former employee of self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who was at the Sedona, Ariz., sweat lodge where three people died two months ago, told ABC News when officials arrived on the scene that they mistook it for a mass suicide.

"When the paramedics arrived, and they came, the guys like, 'What happened here? Is this like a mass suicide?' he said to me. And I said, 'No, it was a sweat lodge gone wrong,'" said Martin in an exclusive interview with ABC's "Nightline." "There were people lying everywhere out. It was crazy. There was vomiting, you know, moaning and crying, and it looked like a mass suicide. It looked like people were on their way out. It was crazy."

Martin said sweat lodge participants were vomiting and fighting to stay alive outside the 400-square-foot makeshift tent, where Ray led more than 60 followers in a spiritual ceremony with fire-heated rocks and steam. The guests paid nearly $10,000 to spend the week with Ray at the retreat.

Martin, a former real estate agent, took a job with James Ray International Inc. about a year ago, after listening to some of Ray's motivational tapes.

"I had actually gone through one of his courses called '21 Days to Success for Coaching.' And it actually really helped me build up a business and build it from scratch and then sell it. So I actually got a great benefit from him.

Ray's message, featured in the best-selling book and DVD "The Secret," that you can get whatever you want through the power of your thoughts, resonated with Martin.

But when she went to work for Ray, Martin said she found him personally disappointing -- especially after she said she was told that employees were not allowed to address him directly.

Click here to watch the full "Nightline" report.

"James was on a pedestal, and he lived in Beverly Hills, and he very, very rarely came to the office," Martin told "Nightline." "And when he would come to the office, he was very quiet and didn't really talk to anyone. And when we would all have group dinners, he would have his assistants next to him. He didn't really like to interact with the rest of his employees."

During the so-called Spiritual Warrior event in Sedona, Martin said her role was to greet the guests and to help oversee exercises, including something called "breath work," where participants alter their state through hyperventilated breathing.

"It sort of tricks your mind. You go into an altered state," she said. "And people start screaming and yelling and flipping around. I was physically walking around and seeing how these people were -- were flailing around their arms were atrophied and -- and screaming and crying and people were having nightmares and they're thrashing this way and that way."

But that was just the beginning. It got even stranger, when Martin said that Ray organized a game about death -- based in part on the movie "The Last Samurai."

"James, his role was God, so he wore a white robe and he was God and no one was allowed to talk to God," she recalled. "I was an angel of death. And all of the volunteers ... we all had grim reaper costumes on."

The now-infamous sweat lodge ceremony took place on the fourth day of the workshop inside the crammed tent. Martin, who was stationed outside, said she first realized that something was going wrong when guests started streaming out.

"After the first round when the door opened and people came out, I was shocked. I was shocked at the condition of the people that came out. A girl comes out, and she was hysterical. She was crying, telling me, 'This is bad. This is bad. I don't like this. I want to go back to the way I was. Please, please. I don't like this. This is bad.'"

As the ceremony went on, the damage got worse. Martin claims there was no paid medical staff on site.

"I had another guy come out, and he was screaming at the top of his lungs. 'I don't want to die! Please don't let me die! Please! Please save me! I'm dying! I'm dying!' He was screaming so loud, and … I'm doing everything I can to put water on people and calm their -- their -- the heat, you know, just put water on them to bring the heat down, put towels on them, trying to warm them up, give them electrolyte water, do all the things that I was told that I would have to do, but amplify it by, you know, 1,000 percent, because now I was dealing with people in trances and saying they were dying and they -- their arm skin was gone."