Tracy Elise, a “priestess” convicted of running a tantric sex brothel argued to the end that she was the victim of religious persecution similar to the Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials. During her sentencing hearing on Thursday, the 55-year-old mother of three insisted she is a sexual healer and not a brothel madam. Nevertheless, district attorney Stephen Leiter compared Elise to a street pimp who lured broken and sexually abused women into prostitution by falsely telling them that the temple’s activities were legal.

“She was encouraging a number of people through promises, false promises,” Leiter said. “She would convince people that what they were doing wasn’t wrong. What was going on at the Phoenix Goddess Temple was Miss Elise’s way to work around the prostitution law.”

Elise sung the “Star-Spangled Banner” moments before she was sentenced to four and a half years in prison and four years probation by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens, who also gave her credit for 305 days of time served.

“Tracy Elise is the victim of the state,” said Ben Wade, Elise’s son, who assisted her as she acted as her own attorney.

Wade, Elise’s other children (Sylvia and Daniel), and many of her supporters argued that she has no prior criminal record and there were no true victims in the case.

Leiter described Elise as “a very charismatic person” who manipulated weaker women into becoming her ‘Goddesses,’ who actually performed the sex acts on men. Court documents detailed how many of these women took plea bargains resulting in light sentences such as one year’s probation, and Elise said those who testified against her had their charges dropped from felonies to misdemeanors.

Leiter also said there was evidence of rapes occurring and drug sales at the Temple, although there were no such charges filed and Elise said there were only a few disagreements about sexual boundaries that eventually were worked out.
Elise was enraged by Leiter’s comments and quickly launched a long, rambling rebuttal. “Goddess Bless, I intended to open with a prayer but I can’t believe what came out of the prosecutor’s mouth,” Elise spat.

Beseeching “Mother, Earth, Father, Sky,” Elise referred to her third eye, a mark on her forehead, and said, “I promise that my energy will rise in my body and I will see things the way God sees it.”
She said that in every action she took at the Phoenix Goddess Temple, she was trying to help people who were victims of sexual abuse and trying to empower women and to teach men about sacred sexual healing. The treatments or sessions at the temple were designed to create an emotional bond between consenting adults through ancient tantric sex practices dating back at least five centuries that involve touching in certain ways and massage using coconut oil. It is an experience that followers say goes beyond a simple sex act.

“I never said there wasn’t sexy stuff happening, I never said there weren’t donations,” Elise said. “I have to make a living somehow.”

But she argued vehemently that prosecutors mischaracterized the payments as fees or money exchanged for sex, clinging to her argument that a true brothel would never depend upon mere donations and that actual prostitutes negotiate fees up front and up-sell clients, citing the testimony during the trial of well-known Nevada legal brothel operator Dennis Hof.
She said that in every action she took at the Phoenix Goddess Temple, she was trying to help people who were victims of sexual abuse and trying to empower women and to teach men about sacred sexual healing. The treatments or sessions at the temple were designed to create an emotional bond between consenting adults through ancient tantric sex practices dating back at least five centuries that involve touching in certain ways and massage using coconut oil. It is an experience that followers say goes beyond a simple sex act.

“I never said there wasn’t sexy stuff happening, I never said there weren’t donations,” Elise said. “I have to make a living somehow.”

But she argued vehemently that prosecutors mischaracterized the payments as fees or money exchanged for sex, clinging to her argument that a true brothel would never depend upon mere donations and that actual prostitutes negotiate fees up front and up-sell clients, citing the testimony during the trial of well-known Nevada legal brothel operator Dennis Hof.
They are telling me I was part of the cesspool. No, we were part of the solution,” Elise said. “This thing that I ‘forced people’ is absolute bull crap.”

The prosecution’s arguments eventually prevailed after a four-month trial when jurors found Elise guilty in March of 22 prostitution-related charges stemming from temple operations in 2010 and 2011. A raid that followed a six-month Phoenix police investigation shut down the temple in September 2011.

Elise said she rejected an early plea offer of three months in prison, refusing to admit that she was guilty of any crimes and choosing instead to fight in court for her First Amendment right to freedom of religion. She said she remains confident that an appeals court will eventually exonerate her on constitutional grounds.

“I am a priestess. I am not a prostitute and I am not even a sacred prostitute. I am a priestess,” Elise said.

Stephens rejected a series of motions filed by Elise during a two-hour hearing held the day before the sentencing, including one that the court did not have jurisdiction in the case because of its religious and constitutional underpinnings. Elise again insisted that the “seekers” made donations, rather than paying fees for sex.
But Stephens said jurors heard her argument during the trial and “the jury did not agree. They considered the evidence submitted at trial. They heard it repeatedly.”

Stephens said she was bound to sentence Elise based upon the jury’s verdicts. The minimum sentence was 3.25 years in prison; the sentence meted out by Stephens nearly matched the prosecution’s recommendation and not Elise’s argument for 300 days of time served.

“I don’t believe you ever argued that prostitution is your religion,” Stephens said. “You have made your record. The court of appeals will consider it.”

Elise likened herself to a victim of the Spanish Inquisition and added, “They have done everything they can to hold me down like a rape victim.”