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Bad for your health: sweat lodges and deadly nurses?

PLUS: A dancing chicken sells pizza,a ventriloquist gets government assistance, and a Target costume becomes a political tool.

Saturday, a distressing bit of national news became suddenly, and tragically, local. A disastrous sweat lodge ceremony in Arizona, which had already left two people dead, claimed its third victim, a Minnesota woman named Liz Neuman, as Felicia Fonseca of the Associated Press reports. And so Sunday gave us the results of local news reporters’ unhappy duty, to call around and work the local angle.

Dee DePass of the Star Tribune offers a portrait of Neuman as a healthy, robust woman, quoting a press release by her family: “She loved to hike, take her dog on walks and share her passion for health with others through the nutritional products she promoted.” She was also a dedicated follower of self-help guru James Ray, and his five-day, multi-thousand-dollar, American Indian-themed (in a New Agey way) retreats; the deadly sweat lodge was at one of these retreats. Minnesota Public Radio’s Jessica Mador, in the meanwhile, looks in on the mourning family and quotes the family attorney as saying Neuman’s death was “entirely preventable.”

According to Maya Nishikawa of WCCO, Neuman’s family will be taking this to court. She reports that the sweat lodge had sickened people in the past. Blogger bmaz at the blog Emptywheel takes on the story and is less than charitable: “Ray had between 55 to 65 adult sized people crammed in a 415 sq. ft. sweat lodge that Ray and his assistants apparently shabbily hand built themselves with a wood frame covered with layers of tarps and blankets. The structure was 53 inches high at the center and about 30 inches high around the outer edges … Ray, conveniently, remained safely outside of his handmade pressure cooker during the ceremony.”

Years ago, Mad Magazine parodied the sorts of sales gimmicks that pop up during a down economy: They illustrated a movie theater that was giving away household gifts to anybody who could catch a bullet; the front of the theater was thronged with patrons holding butterfly nets and catchers mitts. Things haven’t gotten that bad, thank goodness, but FOX 9’s Rob Olson takes a look at a pizza shop in St. Paul that’s not afraid to act a little ridiculous to attract customers. They send two of their employees out with a boom box and a chicken costume and have them dance on the sidewalk to tunes like “Apache.” “Business is up,” an employee happily reports. We can only hope they don’t get wind of an earlier dancing-chicken routine that was once popular at state fairs, and involved real chickens who actually danced. How? They were put on a hot plate.

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The Associated Press offers another example of how this economy is encouraging what once would have been thought of as dated, gimmicky performances, telling the story of Shari Ellingson, who made use of Minnesota’s Family Assets for Independence program to launch a new career. And what is that? She’s a ventriloquist. The Associated Press doesn’t bother to link to Sheri’s Web page, but we shall: Here she is, surrounded by stuffed animal puppets, including an elephant and an alligator, who apparently loves pizza.

Murderous nurses are a horror story staple — Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes, from his novel “Misery,” was one; having used her position as a nurse to hasten the deaths of dozens of people. As the Associated Press’ Chris Williams explains, Minnesota has a similar story, and it’s a weird one. According to investigators, a former nurse named William Melchert-Dinkel, made a habit of visiting Internet suicide chat rooms under aliases, buddying up to the people he met there and then encouraging them to kill themselves, often offering detailed instructions as to how to do so. The story quotes one such instruction, with spelling errors left intact: “Most importatn is the placement of the noose on the neck … Knot behind the left ear and rope across the carotid is very important for instant unconciousness and death.”

It’s going to be a bit difficult to prosecute Melchert-Dinkel, even though at least two of the people he allegedly encouraged actually did kill themselves; his online discussions may fall under freedom-of-speech protections, although he is being prosecuted under an old and rarely enforced law that criminalizes the act of encouraging somebody to off themselves. Melchert-Dinkel has been stripped of his nursing license, but otherwise says, “I’ve moved on with my life.” As evidence that there is no issue that will not have a frothing blog full of ranting, polarizing posts dedicated to it, this tale was recently retold on a blog called “Suicide Malpractice,” which has no patience for prosecuting those who assist in suicide, and sums up the charges against Melchert-Dinkel as follows: “They are really seeking scapegoats for their own contributions, genetic and environmental, to the suicide of their loved one.”

Some quick campaign updates from the Associated Press: Dr. Maureen Reed has kicked off her campaign to unseat Michele Bachmann in the 6th Distict and former State Senator Steve Kelley has declared himself a candidate for governor.

Toni Randolph of Minnesota Public Radio points out a potential problem that could cost Minnesota its 8th congressional seat: snowbirds. So many Minnesotans take off during winter months that, if the census misses them, the state might lose one of its congressional seats.

Target found itself in the hotseat when it posted a costume on its website showing a space creature carrying a green card; the costume was identified as an “illegal alien.” According to the Associated Press, Target never intended to actually sell the costume and somehow it wound up on its website by accident. Those things happen.

As Kevin Hoffman at City Pages reports, though, one company’s mistake is somebody else’s opportunity to be obnoxious: Anti-immigrant organizations are encouraging their followers to wear the costume on Halloween, using a typically incomprehensible and paranoid word salad as justification. City Pages quotes the president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC as saying, “These are the same types of people that are trying to ban Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck from television. They want to control what people can see, hear, say, or even wear for Halloween in pursuit of their open borders agenda.”

In sports: A hockey game between Minnesota and North Dakota ended in a donnybrook Friday, which isn’t that unusual, even though the battle took place off the ice and between fans. According to the AP, one fan was left unconscious and another is looking at felony charges. If you followed Twitter comments regarding the Vikings versus Ravens game, the consensus seemed to be that the Vikings deserved to lose; they didn’t, thanks to a lucky left hook.