Sweat Lodge Deaths: Regulate Self-Help Gurus?

James Ray pleads not guilty to manslaughter charges in sweat lodge deaths.

February 4, 2010, 3:12 PM

Feb. 4, 2010— -- James Ray once said, "I don't have bad days; I have challenges."

Appearing in court in Arizona today to plead not guilty to three charges of manslaughter, he is confronting what may be the biggest challenge of his life.

Ray, a self-help guru and motivational speaker, has made millions of dollars telling people how to better lead their lives. His attorneys insist he had no idea that people who died inside a "sweat lodge" he operated on Oct. 8, 2009, were so sick. They say the incident was a tragic accident, not a crime.

But the three deaths stemming from the ceremony are intensifying calls for government regulation of the $11 billion-a-year self-help industry based upon books, lectures, talk shows and radio shows. Critics say some self-help gurus essentially operate as unlicensed therapists, pushing vulnerable people into the danger zone.

For Ray, it's been a hard, harsh fall from his days on the couch at the "Oprah Winfrey Show," and as a contributing teacher to the monster hit book and DVD "The Secret," in which he and others argued that you can "attract" anything you want into your life through the power of your thoughts.

Former Ray employee Melinda Martin said Ray refused to stop the Oct. 8 ceremony inside a makeshift hut -- a so-called "sweat lodge" ceremony in which three people died and nearly 20 others were hurt.

Martin told ABC News that the scene looked as bad as a mass suicide.

"I happened to be on that side of the tent when James came out, stretched his arms up," Martin said. "Everybody hosed him off."

Self-Help or Manslaughter?

After taking part in the ceremony, Liz Neuman, 49, spent more than a week in a coma and died Oct. 17.

Kirby Brown and James Shore, two other participants, also died.

Neuman's daughter, Andrea Puckett, was glad there was an arrest in the case.

"I think this is a first step," Puckett told ABC News, "to really start to watch what people are doing when they're in this authority position and make sure that [such people are] regulated somehow."

But Ray's attorney, Brad Brian, in an exclusive interview with "Good Morning America," pointed out that Ray didn't force anyone to stay in the sweat lodge.

"The people who participate in these programs were intelligent, professional people," Brian said, "who signed disclaimers, who understood that this was going to be hot. They understood this was going to be difficult."

Critics say that argument ignores the psychological power so-called gurus can hold over their followers, as may be illustrated by the story of one man in the sweat lodge ceremony who burned himself after falling on one of the hot rocks.

"The skin was basically hanging off his elbow," Martin said. "He was sitting there, staring, not reacting to the burned arm, and I was trying to take care of him. His entire mindset was getting back into there. He said, 'I'm not done. I've got to go back in.'"

Tonight, Ray sits in jail, unable to post the $5 million bond, as more people ask whether what gurus like him are selling is self-help or something else entirely.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events