Tracy Elise, head priestess and founder of the Phoenix Goddess Temple, has been found guilty on all 22 criminal counts of prostitution, maintaining a house of prostitution, illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering, pandering, racketeering, and conspiracy.
The verdict comes five years after she was initially arrested by the Phoenix Police Department for her leadership role in the Goddess Temple and four months after the trial began. She faces at least three years in state prison and was taken to a Maricopa County jail this afternoon to await her sentencing on April 8, 2016.
Elise — who represented herself in the court case — frequently refers to her legal battle as “a long journey,” and vowed multiple times in the last few weeks to continue the fight, even if she must do so by filing appeals in jail.
“Your honor, I obviously didn’t expect this,” she said to Judge Sherry K. Stephens after the jury was led out of the courtroom. “This was a complex case, and there were many things the jury didn’t get to hear or see.”
Elise has maintained from the very beginning that her temple was a non-profit church and that the tantric and “sacred sexuality” acts taking place inside were part of her religion. The state, however, has argued that even though Elise may have believed she wasn’t doing anything wrong, the temple she operated in fact was essentially a brothel.
Closing arguments were finished late this morning, and the case was put in the hands of the jury. After less than three hours of deliberation, the foreman announced a verdict had been reached.
It was an emotional afternoon, to say the least. Even before the court clerk read the charges, members of Elise’s family wept from the back of the courtroom, and one of Elise’s friends was almost thrown out for making a scene.
Elise’s eldest son, Ben Wade, had his hand on his mother’s back as the jury filed into the courtroom one last time. As the first guilty verdict was read, she put her face into her hands and rested her head on his shoulder as he hugged her.
At one point, Elise stood up and walked over to embrace her sobbing daughter. Ben followed, and the three cried and hugged as the remainder of the 22 counts were read.
“Honey, it’s going to be okay. I’m going to be okay. We’re going to start right back up,” she could be heard whispering to her children.
Minutes later, Elise – wearing a neon pink gown, silver shoes, and two pink shawls — placed her hands together in the prayer position and bowed her head as a court officer put pink handcuffs on her.
“Don’t forget, just don’t forget why we’re doing this,” she called to her family, looking over her shoulder one last time before being led away.
The four-month trial, while filled with a colorful cast of witnesses and often sexually explicit testimony, really came down to one question: Was the money left by those coming to the temple a donation to the church for a healing ceremony or an explicit fee for any sexual services they received?
Earlier this morning, after outlining the reasons why the state believes the money was a fee and/or fee arrangement, Deputy County Attorney Ed Leiter told the jury to remember that it’s not a legitimate defense to say “something was illegal because it was sacred, that the temple wasn’t making a lot of money, that she was trying to do right by the government, that she received the money after [any sexual activity occurred].
“We’ve spent months and months talking about those things, but they’re not a defense,” he added. “So don’t find her guilty because you disagree with what she believes. Don’t find her guilty because she may have offended you. Don’t find her guilty because four months of your life has been spent on this trial,” he continued.
“Find her guilty because the law and evidence demand it.”
Elise was originally charged with more than 100 counts of criminal activity, but many of those charges were dropped over the course of the case. She was found guilty today on the following charges and says she plans to file an appeal immediately:
One count of Conspiracy to Commit Illegal Control of an Enterprise
One count of Illegal Control of an Enterprise
One count of Prostitution
One count of Operating a House of Prostitution
Six counts of Pandering
Seven counts of Money Laundering in the 1st Degree
Five counts of Money Laundering in the 2nd Degree