On Thursday, May 19, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge sentenced Tracy Elise, head priestess of the now-defunct Phoenix Goddess Temple, to four and a half years in prison for numerous felony counts related to running a house of prostitution.
The long-running case received international attention and was the subject of a New Times feature story last month by Miriam Wasser, who explored the claims of Elise and temple supporters that the business existed not to facilitate prostitution but to improve clients' health and promote religious beliefs. In March, about five years after her arrest, and following a 48-day trial in which Elise represented herself, a jury found her guilty of 22 counts of prostitution, illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering, conspiracy, and related charges.
Handcuffed and clad in a black-and-white-striped jail uniform, Elise delivered an impassioned, hour-long speech at Thursday's sentencing hearing before Judge Sherry Stephens, rebutting fresh allegations by prosecutors and restating many of the reasons she felt that the criminal trial was an affront to religious freedom and sexual healing.
"It's never been about the money," she said at one point, her voice wavering. "I saw people in darkness become the light ... I am a priestess."
Displaying patience reminiscent of her work during the trial of infamous boyfriend-killer Jodi Arias, Judge Stephens permitted Elise to say (and occasionally sing) everything that was on her mind. In her rambling monologue, Elise covered topics ranging from ancient Rome to Mary Magdalene and concluded with a rendition of "America, the Beautiful."
When she was done, the judge read a list of prison sentences for 19 of the counts that ranged from six months to four and a half years, noting that the terms would be served concurrently.
With credit for having spent 305 days in jail, Elise will serve another three and a half years. Stephens also ordered four years of probation, which will go into effect upon Elise's release.
The case revolved around Elise's management of the Phoenix Goddess Temple, run out of a building at 24th Street and Thomas Road, where men (mostly) would go to participate in sexual activity with the "goddesses" and self-described healers who worked there. Operations were different at the Phoenix Goddess Temple than at other goddess temples around the country.
Elise and the temple's employees insisted they weren't turning tricks, but rather practicing "sacred" sexuality. Sex acts were said to have been conducted not for simple pleasure, but to awaken "chakra" energy centers. "Tantric sex," based on Eastern mystical beliefs, was another focus.
The Goddess Temple was open for three years without hassle from authorities until its operations were exposed in a March 2011 New Times cover story by Niki D'Andrea, who wrote that the place was taking in $20,000 a month and seemed to be "nothing more than a New Age brothel practicing jack psychology techniques." The women who worked there took on names like Magdalena, Shakti, and Gypsy, and advertised their services on the Internet complete with photos and sometimes body measurements. Sex "ceremonies," as Elise called them, were offered for donations of $204 to $650.
After D'Andrea's story was published, Phoenix police sent in undercover agents, who learned that temple workers were required to take classes on performing sex acts and had a handbook detailing how much various sessions would cost. A raid six months later led to the arrest of Elise and 17 other suspected prostitutes.
In court proceedings, prosecutors with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office didn't go along with the religious-defense argument, which Elise wasn't allowed to raise at trial. The case hinged on whether the money the church collected was church donations or payments for sex.
All of the co-defendants agreed to plea deals that gave them probation.
Elise said on Thursday that the prosecution offered her a plea deal in 2013 that would have put her behind bars for just three months, but she turned it down "because I refused to stop defending my faith."
She detailed a litany of things for which she was being punished, in her view, including "for believing in the Constitution of the United States" and "because there's no respect for the Native American church." But most of all, she said, she's being punished because of County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who she said "is a very stubborn man about getting his way."
Montgomery issued a statement praising the prison sentence and condemning Elise as a menace to other women, who used religion as cover for a criminal business. By the time of the 2011 raid, he noted, a Seattle temple run by Elise had been shut down by police, and she'd been run out of other areas after neighbors complained about suspected brothels.
"Her time in prison will provide an opportunity to reflect on the harm she has caused by objectifying and degrading other women and subjecting them to what was no more than an exchange of money for the sexual gratification of others," Montgomery said.
At the hearing, the deputy county attorneys prosecuting the case for Montgomery, Chris Sammons and Ed Leiter, reminded Judge Stephens about that alleged degradation.
Sammons said some of those women were "violated" in ways they never would have been if not for meeting Elise. Some were victims of prior sexual abuse and were emotionally affected by their work at the temple "whether they realize it or not."
While they agreed the temple was unlike any they had seen before, it was in many ways similar to a how a common brothel or "street-level pimp" might operate, Leitner said.
"She would bring people in, convincing them of something that wasn't true, then introducing them to a life of prostitution," he told Stephens. The women would sometimes be thrust into sessions "with very little training," or no real desire to have sex with strangers, he said.
Sometimes women at the temple who "pushed back" at Elise's ideas were "berated" or even "slut-shamed," Leitner said. "[B]roken women ... became even more broken. There was testimony of drugs, drug dealing."
Elise interrupted, exclaiming, "That was never brought up at trial!"
Stephens told her she'd get the chance to respond. Before concluding, Leitner added that "rapes or potential rapes" had taken place at the temple.
In her rebuttal and comments to the judge, Elise denied any drug dealing had taken place, then said no "big" selling had occurred. As for allegations of rapes, Elise argued that in 65,000 hours of practice, she had only heard of four occasions of "boundaries being overcome, accidentally."
There was no "coercion" of healers, which would be the opposite of what the place stood for, she said.
"This thing that I forced people is absolute bull crap," Elise said. "We're not part of the cesspool of ... prostitution. We're part of the solution."
Before being led to back to jail to prepare for her trip to prison, Elise vowed that she would appeal the verdict successfully.
DeAnna Bennett, who described herself as Elise's best friend, was among the court observers for the hearing and said afterward that it was "startling" to her that people want to punish Elise. At the same time, she acknowledged that the sentence could have been worse.
"I think prostitution should be legal in this country," Bennett said.
"It's sad to think that this is the justice system," said Elise's son, Ben Wade, who also attended the hearing. "People should be free to worship and seek the creator without fear of punishment."
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