Arizona Sweat Lodge: The Inside Story of James Ray's Fatal Retreat

Participants describe grueling activities leading up to fatal Ariz. sweat lodge.

June 25, 2010, 5:23 PM

June 28, 2010— -- It was supposed to be an intense six-day retreat, called the "Spiritual Warrior," the culmination of their guru's teachings, to be capped by an intense sweat lodge "re-birthing" on the final day.

Instead, for three of the more than 50 participants at the Sedona, Ariz., retreat -- mostly high-achieving professionals -- the spiritual journey would end in death, when a ceremonial ritual became too hot to bear. In addition to the three fatalities, about 20 people were hospitalized.

Guru James Arthur Ray, then one of the biggest names in the $11 billion self-help industry, faces charges in Arizona for three counts of manslaughter in the October 2009 deaths.

Watch the full story Tuesday on "Primetime: Mind Games" at 10 p.m. ET

His was a spectacular rise and fall.

While self-help has been around for decades, the movement exploded in 2006, when the publication of a modest book and DVD called, "The Secret" became a cultural phenomenon, with Ray as one of its featured speakers.

"That is such a seminal event in modern day self-help,'' said Steve Salerno, author of "Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless."

"What had heretofore been looked at just kind of new agey... stuff could now be mainstream."

The secret behind "The Secret" is something called, "The Law of Attraction."

"Everything that is coming into your life, you are attracting into your life,'' explains Bob Proctor, a self-help leader featured in the film, "The Secret."

"And it's attracted to you by the virtue of the images you are holding in your mind."

As "The Secret's" sales boomed, Ray was catapulted into the self-help stratosphere. His book "Harmonic Wealth" became a best-sellers, and he started popping up all over, on Larry King, as a judge at the Miss America pageant and on Oprah, who enthusiastically embraced"The Secret."

Ray preached the message that the universe is infinitely abundant -- a real-life Aladdin's lamp for anybody in the right mindset to rub at will.

"And the genie always says one thing, "Your wish is my command,'' said Ray, in "The Secret."

In an interview with ABC's Dan Harris in 2007, Ray said, "In simple terms, if you are thinking, feeling and acting broke, then you're never gonna attract prosperity into your life. Conversely, if you're constantly thinking, feeling, acting healthy and whole then you are going to attract and create that in your life."

On "Oprah," he said, "You've got to think it and act on it."

"The Secret" is filled with fables about people "attracting" things like bicycles, sports cars, and necklaces -- through the power of their thoughts.

James Arthur Ray, Arizona Sweat Lodge's 'Thought Leader'

Ray, who liked to call himself a "thought leader,'' lead his 50 or so followers last October through five days of intense limit-pushing exercises in the days leading up to the deadly sweat lodge incident. Participants paid close to $10,000.

On day one, Ray gathered his followers around and dared them to "Play full-on,'' according to Melinda Martin, a former realtor who had worked for Ray for about a year and coordinated the event.

Ray, she said, told the followers that in the past three years, 49 women had shaved their heads at the event, "'Who was going to be number 50?'" he said, as Martin recalled. And before he'd even completed his question, participants were running up the hill to find the scissors.

On the fourth day of the event, the group played a game inspired by the Tom Cruise film, "The Last Samurai,'' in which Ray played the part of "God." He was dressed in a white robe. No one was permitted to speak with him. His staff played Angels of Death, in black lipstick and grim reaper costumes.

Participants had to learn how to kill themselves in the way of the samurai. And once dead, they had to lie still. Kirby Brown, 38, one of the women who would die two days later, was killed early in the game, and suffered significant pain while playing dead, according to her mother, Ginny Brown.

After the Samurai game, most of the group was marched out into the desert for something called "Vision Quest,'' where each participant spent 36 hours alone, with no food or water, in a secluded spot in the desert.

Participants said these exercises were powerful and worth the discomfort.

"I got away from all the people, and I could be with nature, I could just sit there and actually contemplate things,'' said Brandy Amstel.

Another participant, Kristina Bivins said, "We're there to try to create better lives for ourselves, to look at whatever is holding us back, and to push through that stuff so that we can create a better, more successful life."

But Salerno, among others, believe these high-demand exercises can be manipulative. And dangerous.

These weren't the first risky activities at Ray events.

In Hawaii, in 2008, several participants playing "full-on" broke their hands after Ray asked them to punch through a brick.

No medical staff was there to help in Hawaii, said Brian Essad, an attendee at both the Hawaii conference and the Sedona Spiritual Warrior event.

And in San Diego, just months before the Spiritual Warrior conference, another group spent a day pretending to be homeless.

"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," said Martin.

But one woman, 46-year-old Colleen Conaway, from Minn., with no history of mental illness or depression, went to a shopping mall in her homeless outfit and jumped from a third story window, killing herself.

Someone from Ray's staff identified the body, but Martin says neither she nor any of the participants was told, and the group enjoyed a black tie dinner that night as if nothing had happened.

Inside the Arizona Sweat Lodge: 'It Was Like Breathing Fire'

At the Spiritual Warrior retreat in Sedona, the group was able to freshen up after their Vision Quest. And then Ray revealed the final challenge, the sweat lodge.

By all accounts the Spiritual Warrior sweat lodge included dozens of people, packed tightly around a large pit of hot rocks.

Ray began with some ceremonial chanting and it quickly became clear that the followers were in for something very hot and very intense.

"He said, um, and you know, you may feel like you're gonna die, but you're not. That's just your body reacting," said Brandy Amstel. "I trusted him 100 percent."

When Ray dumped the water on the rocks, "You could hear it sizzling, you could see the, the pit turn red,'' said Brian Essad. "And then, I just, I just remember almost seeing the, the steam just kinda roll. And it was just, it was like inhaling fire.

"I mean instantly difficult to breathe, 'cause I'm not used to breathing fire."

Ray repeatedly called for more stones.

"The only ventilation was the door, the one entrance and exit when it was open," says Yavapai County Sheriff Deputy Lt. David Rhodes.

Eyewitnesses say Ray was seated next to the tent's flap, so he could get fresh air when it was opened after each 15-minute session. Fresh air was a luxury many others did not enjoy.

It was not long before the trouble began.

One participant tripped and burned his arm on the stones. "His skin was gone, and the skin was just basically hanging off of his elbow," recalls Martin, who had been stationed outside the tent. "And I was trying to take care of him and his entire mind was - his mindset was getting back into there. He said I'm not done. I've got to go back in."

That man went back into the tent, but others started to stream out of the lodge in abject panic.

"It just looked like these people had been hit by a car or something. I mean, they were on their side -- laying on their sides, barely breathing. It was unbelievable. I've never seen people in such a bad condition.

Those still inside the sweat lodge tried to remain positive and heed Ray's catchphrase to "play full on."

But not everyone would make it out alive.

"People were coming out, uh, screaming, saying, you know, things like...I'm dying, I'm dying, please don't let me die, said Amstel.

Meanwhile, Essad says, Ray responded, "You're more than that, you can push through this."

Outside the sweat lodge, Amstel saw a friend collapsed on the ground. She says Ray's staffers told her to stand back.

"They were like, you know, you need to leave her alone, that's her experience, you don't wanna intrude on her experience, so you sit there and just be quiet," she said.

Many still inside the lodge disregarded what their own bodies were telling them. Among them, Kirby Brown.

Investigators later told Brown's mother that her daughter had been in distress for some time before she was removed from the tent.

At some point, someone called out, "Kirby isn't breathing, Kirby is having trouble breathing," Brown said she was told.

Fleeing the Arizona Sweat Lodge

She said Ray's response was, "We will deal with that at the end of the next round."

Eyewitnesses say it wasn't until about 20 minutes later that Brown was finally carried out. By then, she was completely unresponsive.

"He didn't direct anyone to help her," Brown said. "People were being pulled past him unconscious... and he continued this exercise."

"It was quickly becoming like a MASH unit," said Martin.

Martin says her fellow staffers told her not to call 911 because it would upset Ray. Eventually, however, someone made the call.

When paramedics arrived, they wondered if they'd stumbled upon a mass suicide, according to Martin.

When Ray finally exited the ceremony, he seemed not to be aware of the gravity of the situation.

"He stretched his arms up and was hosed off, Martin said. And he's like, 'Hey, thanks.' And his assistant came out, and they just looked amazing."

"I just stopped and I said, how can you walk out of there when all of these people…they look near death, and you guys can walk out there looking like you just spent the day in a spa?

Martin recalls that as she performed CPR on Kirby Brown, her boss simply stared.

"And I look up and he's standing right over my head watching. He's watching from stand-up position. He didn't offer to help. He didn't say anything. Nothing at all," she said, adding that she did not see Ray do anything to help anyone.

Ray's lawyers insist that 911 was called as soon as the emergency became apparent. Ray, they say, had been encouraging people to hydrate, and had a retired nurse on site.

However, when he was questioned by police at the scene, he refused to cooperate. He left the state within hours, while as many as 20 followers were still being treated for medical problems.

Kirby Brown, James Shore, 40, and 49-year-old Liz Neumann would all die after their sweat lodge experience.

After the Sedona tragedy, things started to quickly unravel for Ray. Five days later, he resumed his public speaking engagements. He become the target of criticism, and a couple weeks later he abruptly canceled a seminar in Toronto and announced he would forgo all future appearances.

In February, Ray was charged with three counts of manslaughter for his role in the deaths of Brown, Shore and Neumann.

Ray declined repeated requests by ABC for an interview, but his attorneys maintain his innocence. They argue that Ray never forced anyone to enter or stay in the sweat lodge, and that he took extensive precautions to prevent problems. They also state that participants were warned in writing and in person about the dangers.

"This was a terrible, terrible accident," said Luis Li, James' lawyer. "It wasn't a crime, Mr. Ray looks forward to his day in court."

Watch the full story Tuesday on "Primetime: Mind Games" at 10 p.m. ET