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

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

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.

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

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."

'The Secret'

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.

James Ray: 'Wealth and Harmony'

Simply put, "The Secret" says that one's wishes can be fulfilled by properly wishing for them.

Ray's adherents believed that by following him, and observing the Law of Attraction, they would grow rich. And Ray preached that message throughout his "Harmonic Wealth" and "Million Dollar Mindset" books, DVDs, and seminars.

"What I do now is teach people how to create wealth and harmony in every area of their life,'' Ray said in a 2007 interview with ABC.

"The Law of Attraction says 'like attracts like,'" Ray told his followers,"you lock into something…and BANG! You've got a Mercedes. And that's how it works."

Brandy Amstel, a filmmaker from Texas, incorporated Ray's teachings into her daily life. She used a "visioning board" to try to "attract" her life goals, like winning an Oscar.

"If those are the thoughts that you're having, then you're going to be attracting those things into your life," Amstel said.

Another follower, Brian Essad, who works in event production, was attracted to Ray because he wanted to take his finances to a higher level.

"I want to attract the money to my life that I'm entitled to and I deserve," Essad said, speaking with ABC News, near his vision board.

Essad had to reach deep into his pockets to attend several Ray events, scraping together the nearly $10,000 fee for the Sedona retreat. "That's a huge chunk of my yearly income,'' Essad said.

But Essad credits Ray with teaching him to be more responsible with his money, even if he admits that he now has less of it.

"I don't actually have enough cash in my account to pay all these bills,'' he told ABC. "So I'm just kinda putting out there what I need to attract the money I need to pay all these."

"Once they hook into you and they realize they have a live one, they just keep coming -- until they pump you dry," said Steve Salerno, author of "Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless."

Another guru featured prominently in "The Secret" is Joe Vitale, a self-described "metaphysician." Instead of running high-intensity seminars, he prefers to sell individual "Rolls Royce Phantom Mastermind" sessions.

For $7,500, Vitale spends three hours with clients tasting the good-life in his Rolls. He also markets his own margarita mix,"Fit-O-Rita," and another drink called "Youth Juice," and a sticker of a Russian doll, for wish fulfillment. List price: $39.

But on that horrible day in Sedona last October, three of Ray's followers who thought they were joining him in the desert to enhance their lives and fortunes died after the sweat lodge. Twenty others were treated at hospitals. For most participants, the five days preceding the sweat lodge incident had been filled with limit-pushing exercises, including a 36-hour solitary fast in the desert with no food or water.

James Ray: A Pied Piper?

"You trust a man like James Ray to show you those limits," said Salerno. "You trust the fact that he's not going to lead you over the cliff. These people become pied pipers."

The tragedy wasn't just a physical and emotional trauma. For Ray's followers, it was a philosophical crisis as well. After all, how could such a horrible thing happen to people practicing the Law of Attraction?

On Monday, ABC's Dan Harris put the question to Ray himself, on Ray's subscriber-only Internet radio show:

James Ray: So who do we have on the line, I apologize I don't have the name…but I know you are holding?

Dan Harris: Hi James. My name is Dan Harris, I am from ABC News. And my question is, If the Law of Attraction really works -- and you know how to use it, why have so many bad things happened to you and your followers?

James Ray: Well, you know Dan, um, Mickey, I think we need to flush Dan right, right on down the stream, because, um, that's -- that's not something that we are going to talk to here. And if you had been following along, you would recognize that part of going down the stream is getting in the rapids.

Ray: Holocaust Brought 'Opportunities'

Ray has a history of finding the unlikely bright side of tragedy -- even history's greatest tragedies.

Back in 2007, Ray tried to explain the Holocaust and 9/11 in an interview with ABC.

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

"I'm suggesting to you that there's every bit as much good in 9/11 as there was bad."

Ray has attracted critics.

"It sounds wonderful when you say, 'You can achieve anything you want in life,'" said Salerno. "It doesn't sound so wonderful when you say, 'If you don't achieve something in life it's because the universe is mad at you.'"

An Empire Unravels

Once charged in February by Arizona authorities, with three counts of manslaughter in the sweat lodge deaths, Ray spent weeks in jail until he was able to get his bail reduced.

Investigators said they found a suitcase full of prescription drugs, including steroids, in Ray's hotel room after the sweat lodge. Ray has said that he needed the steroids for a medical condition.

And while he stopped making public appearances soon after the Sedona retreat, Ray has continued to preach to his followers through regular blogging, videos on his website, DVDs and other products sold through the site. He also peddles a $97 monthly subscription to an Internet radio broadcast.

James Ray: Beverly Hills Mansion on the Market

Still, Ray spends most of his time behind the gates of his Beverly Hills home, now for sale for a negotiable $3.99 million.

Melinda Martin and several other former Ray employees say they left his company in disgust over the handling of the Sedona tragedy.

"I feel like he didn't live his integrity because... he's so busy... trying to keep the magic and trying to keep the spell going that I think that he's lost the sense, the common sense of humanity and compassion," Martin said.

Others are similarly disillusioned. Brandy Amstel, hospitalized after the sweat lodge, filed a civil lawsuit against Ray, which was recently settled on confidential terms.

"I won't do another James Ray program,'' she said. But she's not ruling out following another guru.

And there are "tons" to pick from, she said. "Other leaders that follow a code of ethics, that actually care about people."

Shanna Bowens, who was at the Sedona retreat, still believes in the Law of Attraction, but she's disavowed all self-proclaimed thought leaders: especially Ray. "I can't trust him and I'm not looking to him anymore for my personal journey," she said.

Despite all the controversy surrounding their self-help guru, many of Ray's followers are still listening.

Essad, who saw participants break their hands in a brick-bashing exercise at a Ray event in 2008, and who was also at the sweat lodge event, said he would go to another Ray event.

When asked why, he said, "Because of what I'm getting out of it. What I'm learning from it."

Bivins, too, still believes in Ray. "It's horrible what happened in the sweat lodge that three people died, but my life is better and I am so grateful for that and I'd do it again in a heartbeat..."

Salerno is skeptical.

"You have a lot of people in this culture who are searching for something, they are in the belief that if this doesn't do it the next thing will,'' he said. "There's this notion that if you believe enough if you stay with the program you will someday absolutely get to the Promised Land."

Kirby Brown's mother, Ginny Brown, hopes for regulation in the self-help industry. "I believe Kirby… would want that," she said. "I need to be her voice… And I think part of her voice is to say people need to be able to experience things and be able to be safe….and not be afraid of losing their life."

James Ray's trial for three counts of manslaughter is set to begin later this summer, on August 31, 2009.