James Ray Arrested in Sedona Sweat Lodge Deaths

Spiritual leader charged three counts of manslaughter for sweat lodge deaths.

ByLEE FERRAN via logo
October 28, 2009, 3:49 PM

Feb. 3, 2010 — -- Controversial spiritual leader James Arthur Ray was arrested today and charged with three counts of manslaughter connected to the deaths at a Sedona, Ariz., sweat lodge in October.

The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office announced the arrest in a statement on its Web site.

"With the arrest of James Ray, Sheriff [Steve] Waugh hopes the familes of the three victims will now have some measure of closure to this tragedy," the post said.

Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman died following a ceremony in the sweat lodge led by Ray on Oct. 9.

Ray was "cooperative" with police and answered routing booking questions, officer Dwight Develyn of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office told ABC News. Bond was set for Ray at $5 million, the sheriff's office said.

Ray's lawyer, Luis Li, called the charges "unjust" and said that Ray would be proven innocent.

"This was a terrible accident -- but it was an accident, not a criminal act," Li said in a statement released after the arrest. "James Ray cooperated at every step of the way, providing information and witnesses to the authorities showing that no one could have foreseen this accident. We will now present this evidence in a court of law, and we are confident that Mr. Ray will be exonerated."

Brown, 38, and Shore, 40, both of whom paid nearly $10,000 to spend the week with Ray, died in the lodge.

Neuman, 49, spent more than a week in a coma and died Oct. 17. Eighteen others were injured.

Survivor Beverly Bunn told "Good Morning America" that even while people were collapsing, vomiting and gasping for air, Ray, who was leading the ceremony, urged everyone to stay inside.

More than 60 people were gathered inside the tent hoping to cleanse their bodies. But within the hour people began to collapse and vomit, Bunn said.

While people were not physically forced to remain in the tent, Bunn said Ray would chide them if they wanted to leave, saying weakness could be overcome.

James Arthur Ray Charged in Sweat Lodge Deaths

Days after the incident, Ray wrote on his Web site that for the families of the people who died, "the questions raised by the tragedy" needed to be answered.

"It's now clear I must dedicate all of my physical and emotional energies to helping bring some sort of closure to this matter," he wrote.

Andrea Puckett, daughter of victim Liz Neuman, told ABC News in October she held Ray accountable.

"I think he should take responsibility for his role in this incident," Puckett said. "Honestly, I think he deserves to be behind bars. I think that he was completely negligent and I believe that he is responsible for my mother's death."

Beverly Bunn, a participant who survived the sweat lodge ceremony, said Ray urged participants not to leave, even when people were passing out and vomiting.

In a statement to ABC News in October, an attorney for Ray called the deaths a "terrible accident" but distanced the self-help guru from accountability.

"The facts are that Mr. Ray was not the one who was responsible for the design, construction or maintenance of the sweat lodge," the statement said.

Before his arrest and in response to media reports that Ray's legal team deemed "filled with inaccuracies and poisonous innuendo," the team posted two documents known as "The White Papers" on Ray's Web site under a section called "Setting the Record Straight."

"The White Papers," addressed directly to Bill Hughes, the Supervising Deputy County Attorney, presents in more than 60 pages what amounts to a defense against criminal charges of any kind.

"Criminal charges would compound this tragedy, regardless of outcome," the document says in its introduction. "Despite the innuendo in various media accounts, Mr. Ray did not lead or pressure participants into making a choice they otherwise would not have made."

Ray has been criticized for refusing to give investigators a statement concerning the deaths and for hosting two events after the deaths before he canceled an event in Toronto.

"In the days following the terrible accident, I struggled to respond the right way," Ray said on his Web site.

It's a rare admission for a man whose meteoric rise in the self-help industry was largely based on knowing just what to say.

Ray's self-help star rose dramatically in 2006 with the best-selling book "The Secret," which preaches "The Law of Attraction," the idea that people can attract anything they want -- money, love, improved health -- through the power of thoughts.

"In simple terms, if you are constantly thinking, feeling and acting broke, then you're never going to attract prosperity into your life," Ray told ABC News in a previously unaired 2007 interview with Dan Harris.

Supporters Call James Arthur Ray's Seminars Life-Changing

In that interview, Ray defended "The Secret" against critics who asked if the victims of 9/11 or the Holocaust are to blame for simply thinking incorrectly.

"I know people of the Jewish faith and heritage who don't necessarily believe the Holocaust was bad," Ray said. "Now that might be shocking to you but I have people on record who have said, hey there's a lot of good things that came out of that, a lot of lessons, a lot of opportunities for the world. "

In free meetings Ray gives a taste of his teachings -- which include a mix of spirituality, motivational speaking and quantum physics -- in a pitch that urges attendees to sign up for his multi-day seminars. These seminars, like the one in Sedona, can cost thousands of dollars.

The seminars are a mix of lecturing based on various self-help teachings and activities such as walking on coals, breaking wooden boards and the now-infamous sweat lodge, which are meant to push personal limits, one attendee said.

Donna Fleming, 60, told ABC News in October she felt "taken" after Ray convinced her to pay $6,000 for two seminars.

"He's good. He's got charisma. He's just an unbelievably charismatic individual that really does sway a lot of people," Fleming said. "Ray is in it for the money and I have no question whatsoever that he realized he hit the goldmine when he realized he was the perfect fit for this industry."

Fleming said she walked out of the first of the two seminars she paid for in 2008 after an activity in which the participants dressed up as homeless people and wandered around downtown San Diego for four hours.

"I was angry, I tried to deal with that. I tried to find what possible theme could this be for me, and I probably realized flat out that I'd been taken for a substantial amount of money for an absolutely ridiculous experience," Fleming said.

Fleming filed a lawsuit in an attempt to get her money back but lost.

Supporter Undeterred by Sedona Deaths

But while Fleming said she was dissatisfied, she said she was "among very few people who had a problem with the experience." Dave Orton, who took part in the same activity during a different seminar in San Diego, said the "homeless activity" was eye-opening.

"I experienced what it was like to be a homeless person, people looking down on me because of my appearance," Orton told ABC News. "It does take you outside your comfort zone. It does put you in a place you're not used to. It's a place where you experience growth pretty rapidly."

Orton said it's thanks to Ray that he lives a life of "near constant gratitude" for what he has and that the price tag is more than worth it. Undeterred by the recent deaths, as of October, Orton planned to attend the Sedona event next year.

"The value doesn't even compare," he said. "To the people that say he's a fraud, I haven't actually thought of what I would say to them, it's so far out of what I see as reality. Have you tried growing yourself?"

For Fleming, the only thing that grew was her distrust of the self-improvement industry.

"I feel cured of self-help groups so that's something," Fleming said. "Maybe that's worth $6,000."

ABC News' Jay Shaylor contributed to this report.

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