World

Self-help guru charged in sweat lodge deaths

Authorities have charged motivational speaker James Arthur Ray with three counts of manslaughter for deaths that happened after a sweat lodge ceremony he led in northern Arizona last year.
Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray faces three counts of manslaughter for deaths that happened after a sweat lodge ceremony he led in northern Arizona last year. ((James Ray International/Associated Press))

Authorities have charged motivational speaker James Arthur Ray with three counts of manslaughter for deaths that happened after a sweat lodge ceremony he led in northern Arizona last year.

Ray was arrested on an indictment Wednesday afternoon at his attorney's office in Prescott, Ariz., and was to be booked into the Yavapai County jail in Camp Verde, sheriff's officials said.

His bail was set at $5 million US.

The Oct. 8 sweat lodge ceremony was intended to be the highlight of Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event at a retreat he rented just outside Sedona. He told participants, who paid more than $9,000 each to attend, that it would be one of the most intense experiences of their lives.

About halfway through the two-hour ceremony, some began feeling ill, vomiting and collapsing inside the 38-square-metre structure. Despite that, Ray urged participants to push past their physical weaknesses and chided those who wanted to leave, authorities and participants have said.

Two people — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee — passed out inside the sweat lodge and died that night at a hospital. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., slipped into a coma and died a week later. Eighteen others were hospitalized.

One participant, Beverley Bunn, previously told The Associated Press that Ray did nothing to help the sick. Ray's attorneys have countered that he took all necessary safety precautions and wasn't aware of any medical problems until the ceremony was over.

Ray declined to speak with authorities that night, on the advice of his attorneys, public records have shown. Authorities said they quickly determined the deaths were not accidental and focused their investigation on Ray.

They conducted hundreds of interviews that reached into Ray's past ceremonies and events, including one in which a man fell unconscious during a 2005 sweat lodge ceremony at the same retreat.

The self-help superstar, who teaches people about financial and spiritual wealth, uses free seminars to recruit followers to more expensive events. His company, James Ray International, is based in Carlsbad, Ca.

Documents released in the investigation showed that some people lost consciousness and others suffered broken bones at past Ray-led events and that Ray largely ignored medical problems that arose.

In the weeks after the deaths, lawsuits accused Ray and the owners of the Angel Valley Retreat Center where the sweat lodge was held of negligence and fraud. Ray's publisher postponed two book releases, and Ray cancelled his appearances amid heavy criticism from survivors.

now