Former James Ray Employee: Paramedics Mistook Sweat Lodge for 'Mass Suicide'

In an exclusive interview former employee said the self-help guru only watched.

December 9, 2009, 8:14 AM

Dec. 9, 2009— -- Melinda Martin, a former employee of self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who was at the Sedona, Ariz., sweat lodge where three people died two months ago, told ABC News when officials arrived on the scene that they mistook it for a mass suicide.

"When the paramedics arrived, and they came, the guys like, 'What happened here? Is this like a mass suicide?' he said to me. And I said, 'No, it was a sweat lodge gone wrong,'" said Martin in an exclusive interview with ABC's "Nightline." "There were people lying everywhere out. It was crazy. There was vomiting, you know, moaning and crying, and it looked like a mass suicide. It looked like people were on their way out. It was crazy."

Martin said sweat lodge participants were vomiting and fighting to stay alive outside the 400-square-foot makeshift tent, where Ray led more than 60 followers in a spiritual ceremony with fire-heated rocks and steam. The guests paid nearly $10,000 to spend the week with Ray at the retreat.

Martin, a former real estate agent, took a job with James Ray International Inc. about a year ago, after listening to some of Ray's motivational tapes.

"I had actually gone through one of his courses called '21 Days to Success for Coaching.' And it actually really helped me build up a business and build it from scratch and then sell it. So I actually got a great benefit from him.

Ray's message, featured in the best-selling book and DVD "The Secret," that you can get whatever you want through the power of your thoughts, resonated with Martin.

But when she went to work for Ray, Martin said she found him personally disappointing -- especially after she said she was told that employees were not allowed to address him directly.

Click here to watch the full "Nightline" report.

"James was on a pedestal, and he lived in Beverly Hills, and he very, very rarely came to the office," Martin told "Nightline." "And when he would come to the office, he was very quiet and didn't really talk to anyone. And when we would all have group dinners, he would have his assistants next to him. He didn't really like to interact with the rest of his employees."

During the so-called Spiritual Warrior event in Sedona, Martin said her role was to greet the guests and to help oversee exercises, including something called "breath work," where participants alter their state through hyperventilated breathing.

"It sort of tricks your mind. You go into an altered state," she said. "And people start screaming and yelling and flipping around. I was physically walking around and seeing how these people were -- were flailing around their arms were atrophied and -- and screaming and crying and people were having nightmares and they're thrashing this way and that way."

But that was just the beginning. It got even stranger, when Martin said that Ray organized a game about death -- based in part on the movie "The Last Samurai."

"James, his role was God, so he wore a white robe and he was God and no one was allowed to talk to God," she recalled. "I was an angel of death. And all of the volunteers ... we all had grim reaper costumes on."

The now-infamous sweat lodge ceremony took place on the fourth day of the workshop inside the crammed tent. Martin, who was stationed outside, said she first realized that something was going wrong when guests started streaming out.

"After the first round when the door opened and people came out, I was shocked. I was shocked at the condition of the people that came out. A girl comes out, and she was hysterical. She was crying, telling me, 'This is bad. This is bad. I don't like this. I want to go back to the way I was. Please, please. I don't like this. This is bad.'"

As the ceremony went on, the damage got worse. Martin claims there was no paid medical staff on site.

"I had another guy come out, and he was screaming at the top of his lungs. 'I don't want to die! Please don't let me die! Please! Please save me! I'm dying! I'm dying!' He was screaming so loud, and … I'm doing everything I can to put water on people and calm their -- their -- the heat, you know, just put water on them to bring the heat down, put towels on them, trying to warm them up, give them electrolyte water, do all the things that I was told that I would have to do, but amplify it by, you know, 1,000 percent, because now I was dealing with people in trances and saying they were dying and they -- their arm skin was gone."

Employee Claims Ray Did Not Help People Dying in Sweat Lodge

Martin said she wanted to call for help, but Ray's staffers told her no.

"They told me that that wasn't something that would be done, because in the past, 911 had been called, and James got very, very angry at the person who called 911, so that had already been quashed. So I was in the mode of taking care of people," she said.

What's more, Martin said she was also told not to even look alarmed. "And they told me, 'Melinda, get the look off of your face, because you're scaring people. You're going to make people think this isn't normal,'" she said.

Martin said that while people were being dragged out from the tent in front of him, Ray made no mention of stopping the ceremony. She said she was on the side of the tent when Ray exited the sweat lodge and saw the pandemonium outside.

"He came out, and he stretched his arms up, and everybody hosed him off, and he's like, 'Hey, thanks,'" Martin recalled. "I just stopped and I said, 'How can you walk out of there with all of these people are down and they're -- they looked near death, and you guys can walk out there looking like you just spent the day in the spa?' It was incredible to me."

"When he walked out and he made a right-hand turn as he went to go sit down and get a drink of water, the guy who had been screaming at me, saying he didn't want do, 'I'm dying! I'm dying! Please don't let me die!' James walked by him, and he goes, 'Hey, I died. I died, and I came back to life.' And James was like, 'Yeah, man,' gave him a high-five. You know, I think James didn't really realize to what extent all this stuff was going on," she said.

As Martin performed CPR on a dying woman, she said her boss simply stared.

"I look up, and he's standing right over my head watching. He's watching from a stand-up position. He didn't offer to help. He didn't say anything, nothing at all," Martin told "Nightline." "And he was like kind of just looking around. And I'm sure he was shocked, but so was I, but that didn't stop me from getting down on the ground and, you know, working and trying to get people back to life."

In response to Martin's comments, Ray's company said in a statement to ABC News that Ray tried to help, according to the information the company collected from employees and event participants during its private investigation:

"According to the signed statement of one participant, 'my impression was that James Ray was stunned about what was happening and was attempting to help as many people as he could. I do not feel there was any more James Ray could have done.' The signed statement of a second participant said that 'I realize that what has happened is a horrible tragedy, but I do not feel that James Ray is responsible for what has occurred.' Finally, the signed statement of a JRI employee indicates that 'the press reports stating that James abandoned the participants that night are completely false.'"

In his most recent public comments on the incident, Ray posted a statement on his Web site Nov. 30, 2009: "As you know, I've asked members of my team to travel to Arizona, meet with authorities there and provide all the information they have to offer. That process has gone on for the last two weeks, and we believe it's been helpful. Of course, if additional information is required, my team is ready to provide it in our continuing hope that the causes of the Sedona accident can be determined as quickly and authoritatively as possible."

However, Ray did not give a statement to police at the scene and then simply left town.

Several weeks after the deadly event Martin said she stopped receiving pay checks from the company.

"I'm really sad by this whole thing. I'm sad for [James Ray]. I'm sad for all the people," she said. "I'm also disappointed, you know, that he left. He didn't – he didn't – I was one of his employees, and he knew that I was down there in the trenches, helping people...He's chosen to just shut the iron gate on me, and he hasn't spoken to me at all. I'm kind of sad by that. I mean, it makes me very sad."

Ray hasn't spoken publicly since he abruptly cancelled a speaking event in Toronto in October. The police are still actively investigating the sweat lodge deaths as homicides.

Previous James Ray Event Turned Deadly

But even before the deadly Arizona incident, during another event Ray held, a participant, Colleen Conaway, jumped to her death from the third floor of a mall in San Diego.

Conaway, a technician at a dental plant in a tiny town in northern Minnesota, first discovered James Ray about six months before her death, according to her sister Lynn Graham.

In her first television interview, Graham told "Nightline" that Conaway came to believe that Ray could help her start her own weight-loss business. She was attracted by his promise to help followers build "harmonic wealth" in all areas of their lives.

In July, Conaway, who had never traveled much beyond her home, flew to San Diego for an exclusive, expensive Ray retreat, despite mild concern from her tight-knit family.

"We kind of talked about it, and we were like, well, it's a self-help seminar, what could possibly happen to her?" Graham said.

On her first day in San Diego, Conaway called home. Graham said her sister "was absolutely in heaven."

"She thought it was just the best trip ever. That was the last time any of us spoke to her," Graham said.

As soon as the event started, another participant, Andy Grant said Ray and his staff encouraged people to "play full on" -- to achieve a spiritual breakthrough.

"James' big thing is always saying, 'play full on,' the more you give, the more you'll get," said Grant. "How you play these games is how you show up in life. Everything we do, you'll learn more about yourself. But the big thing he stressed is play full on. If you throw it all out here for this weekend, you'll get the most out of it, and that's what we were all to do."

On Saturday at the event, Ray introduced an exercise where participants had to dress up as homeless people.

"About 300 of us are in the conference room, and James is on stage, and we've been talking about creating absolute wealth and he says, 'now we're going to go on an excursion.' People had brought in two piles of clothes -- one for men, one for women," said Grant. "There were a couple of guys, and he made them stand up, and he gave them dresses. He said, 'This is what you're going to wear, and we're going to be homeless. We're going down to downtown San Diego.'"

Martin recalled how followers had to strip themselves of identification, personal items and makeup.

"I was there when we -- we put grease in their hair and dirt on their face and we dropped them off on a bus in downtown San Diego, where they would walk around and try to survive or thrive as a homeless person," she said.

Graham was dumfounded.

"I can't imagine. All of these people that were on this outing were stripped of their purses, their IDs, their phones, their money. They had nothing. That is, to me, that's certainly putting everyone attending in harm's way," Graham said. "I just can't imagine why anyone, you know, a motivational speaker of any kind would do that to people, you know?"

Not long after the group was dropped off at this mall, Grant said he saw something unusual -- a woman on the third floor of the mall, outside on the balcony, who was teetering on the railing.

"She's a blond woman, and I think she's going to do a dive. I think there's some kind of act, related to a movie or something because I can't see the ground -- there's a bunch of kiosks and a staircase or something -- so I assumed there was an air mattress or something there. So I'm just waiting, watching for this woman's show. And I can see other people, there's kind of a crowd, looking at her. And then finally, she just lets go. And just falls forward. And there's this horrible sound of her hitting this metal roof, and this reverberation. And I realized there was no applause. And within minutes, two police cars pull up. And it hits me that this is no accident, this woman jumped."

According to the medical examiner's report, the woman was Conaway. Her body hit the roof of a tee-shirt kiosk and then fell to the ground. A group of children gathered for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle martial arts demonstration were looking on.

What Drove Conaway to Suicide?

Conaway died soon thereafter. Graham said that she had no idea what would bring her to do this.

"All I can say is she was at a seminar. What happened from that Thursday to that horrible afternoon on Saturday, I can't even comprehend. I don't know what happened. All I can think of is it's something horribly traumatic," she said.

Conaway's mother Marion said that it might be better for the family not to know what happened during those two days her daughter was at the retreat.

"We will never know, and sometimes I think it's better that we don't know," she said. "I just don't think we could handle it. I knew I couldn't handle going out to see her broken body laying on the floor after she jumped. I couldn't handle that. She was a beautiful gal."

Graham said that her sister had no history of psychological problems, but was $12,000 in debt to Ray.

Grant had some thoughts on how things could go so horribly wrong. Grant said that the techniques Ray employed during the session pushed him to discover "some things about myself that I didn't like."

"You can leave these with a sense of, if you're not doing everything James is talking about, and you're not going full gusto, and you're doing your critical six steps, and you're just go go go, that, 'oh, I'm just a big failure,'" Grant said.

Ray's company, James Ray International Inc., released a statement to ABC News that said, "There is no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Ray or JRI contributed to or could have prevented Ms. Conaway's tragic suicide."

But even after Conaway went missing, while staffers looked for her, the event carried on into the evening, where participants like Grant partied and put on skits.

"James was cracking up. A lot of the skits were making fun of him, always trying to sell you something, and upsell you. He was taking shots and laughing right along. It was a really fun night. There was no sense of anything being wrong," Grant said.

"It made me sad. She was laying in, you know, in a cooler...nobody even identified her for eight hours," Graham said. "I thought it was sad. There's no other way to say it, it was awfully sad. Sad for Colleen. Sad for us."

Back in Minnesota, Conaway's parents Marion and Art were called in the middle of the night by the medical examiner with news that their daughter had killed herself.

"You're just numb. You have no feeling. You're just numb, you can't believe it," Marion recalled.

At the conference in San Diego, the following day, Martin said she was confronted by Ray after she started asking questions to senior staffers about Conaway's whereabouts. She claims that Ray told her Conaway was fine and had "decided not to return to the event."

Neither Ray nor his staff announced Conaway's death to the other attendees of the conference; everyone attended a black tie party, where they cut loose seemingly without a care.

Conaway's family blames James Ray International Inc., for not monitoring people during the outing at the mall. They say that if the company had learned the lessons of Conaway's death, more tragedy could have been prevented.

"Then we find out a month later that three people died in that sweat lodge under the same James Ray International?" Marion said. "That's when you start wondering, why aren't those people being monitored? Why are they pushing them so hard? And what's that got to do with Harmonic Wealth?"

Months after the sweat lodge, some are now calling for more oversight of the lucrative self-help industry. "I just don't want anybody else hurt. I don't want anybody else dying because they go to a seminar that they believe is for their well-being or their betterment. We've got too many families hurting already," Marion said.

"We would have never, ever thought this would have happened to her from attending a motivational speaker or a self-help guru. ... It makes no sense to us," Graham said

The Conaway family says they were never called by James Ray International Inc., and that all they got from the company was a sympathy card in the mail a month after Conaway died. And no refund.

Ray's organization says they had no phone number for the family and claim they were not asked to repay the family.

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