Angel Valley owner speaks of poisons and waivers
CAMP VERDE – Staged photographs of rat poison, evasive non-answers to seemingly simple questions and implied immunity from criminal responsibility were the highlights of Michael Hamilton’s second day on the witness stand Friday in the manslaughter case against motivational speaker and author James Arthur Ray.
Hamilton is co-owner of the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat Center near Sedona, where Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman died after a Ray-led sweat lodge that was the culminating event of his Spiritual Warrior seminar in October 2009.
Facing cross-examination from defense attorney Truc Do, Hamilton seemed wary as her questioning entered areas that appeared to challenge his credibility.
Do asked Hamilton about his reaction to the wave of criticism that Angel Valley encountered after the fatal ceremony on his property, criticisms that centered on the alleged “makeshift” construction and poor design of the sweat lodge that his help had built primarily for Ray to use.
“My truth is my truth,” Hamilton said. “The structure was sound.”
But when Do ventured that Hamilton and others had destroyed the sweat lodge less than 48 hours after the ceremony had ended, before county officials had a chance to inspect its construction and safety, Hamilton waxed philosophical.
“We got rid of it because it was out of alignment,” he said, adding that “the detectives work for the county.
“After the lodge was physically taken down I became aware that people were questioning the structure of the lodge. That particular morning I did not know there were questions about the lodge itself.”
Hamilton spoke about the prices Angel Valley charges for spiritual services including intuitive coaching, channeled writing and something to do with crystal skulls. He denied, though, charging for use of the sweat lodge, until Do showed him his own brochure that showed a price of $900 to $1,300 for the structure that would fit 75 people.
During his Thursday testimony, Hamilton recalled having grave misgivings when Ray asked him to build a lodge that large.
On the topic of liability waivers Angel Valley asks its patrons to sign, Hamilton was even more evasive, saying that the retreat center only asks that people take responsibility for “their own creations” while on the property.
“When people come to Angel Valley,” he said, “the intent is to take them to a place other than where society in general is at. If they won’t take responsibility for what they create, then Angel Valley is not the place for them.”
Hamilton also said that when he wrote to all of the participants of the fateful sweat lodge inviting them to a memorial service one year later that his insurance company would pay for “in exchange for a full release,” he was merely trying to create a “heart-to-heart and face-to-face interaction with these people. I was asking them to take their responsibility, we would take ours and we would meet.”
Early on in the police investigation of the incident, Hamilton initially told Detective Ross Diskin that he would not consent to an interview without his attorney present. That attitude changed, however, when Diskin told him that “my wife and I were not under criminal investigation.”
Since that revelation, Hamilton has been highly cooperative with authorities, talking with Diskin at least four times, including as recently as March 21, when the detective asked about the use of organophosphate-based pesticides at Angel Valley after the issue came up in trial.
In response to those questions, Hamilton and his wife, Amyra, provided staged photos of rat poison cakes placed neatly on a plate in the property’s pump house in an effort, he said, to show what the scene would have looked like near the time of the event.
“Any time rat poison would have been put in the pump house it would have been put like that,” he said, a statement in contrast to Ted Mercer’s memory of granules scattered in the building.
Hamilton said that it was with great reluctance that he and his wife decided to sue Ray over the incident he says has all but destroyed the retreat center’s business.