After Sweat Lodge Deaths, Will Self-Help Pause to Reconsider?

3 Arizona sweat lodge deaths resonate through world of self-empowerment.

ByABC News
June 28, 2010, 11:36 AM

Jun 29, 2010— -- Kirby Brown, a 38-year-old decorative painter from Los Cabos, Mexico, followed her self-help guru to a six-day retreat in Sedona, Ariz., last year, hoping for the ultimate in enlightening challenges to help her realize her dreams.

Instead, Brown died along with two others on the last day of the event, when a ceremonial sweat-lodge ritual went horribly wrong.

The leader of the ceremony, James Arthur Ray, 52, is currently awaiting trial on three counts of manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty.

Meanwhile Ray, a junior college dropout with a background in telemarketing, continues to peddle his beliefs -- for a price -- on his website.

Ray's case raises questions about how someone with so little formal training could attract followers who would trust him -- to their deaths. And, as Ray's past comes into focus, larger questions are bubbling up about the self-help movement and where its future may lie.

"He needs to be stopped," said Ginny Brown, Kirby's mother. "How many more people have to die before he is stopped?"

Ray declined repeated requests by ABC News for an interview, but his attorneys maintain his innocence. Ray never forced anyone to enter or stay in the sweat lodge, they argue, and he took extensive precautions to prevent problems.

His lawyers also say participants were warned in writing and in person about the dangers.

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

Ray's was a fast rise.

It began when Oprah Winfrey raved about a 2006 self-help book, "The Secret." Then Ray was featured in a film based on the book -- and he was catapulted to superstardom. What had heretofore been relegated to the new-age fringe quickly became mainstream.

Ray's book "Harmonic Wealth" became a best-seller. He was able to cash in on his popular seminars and buy a multimillion dollar home in Beverly Hills. He also amassed a cadre of B-list celebrity friends, such as Marla Maples and Hulk Hogan, said Hope Miller, a former employee.

Ray's approach "just seemed like a really practical way to pull a lot of things together for me," said one of his followers, Kristina Bivins. "It just resonated."

What resonated for Bivins, like many others, was James' interpretation of "The Secret," which practitioners say is based on a rule they call the Law of Attraction.