James Arthur Ray, Leader of Deadly Sweat Lodge Retreat, Found Guilty of Three Counts of Negligent Homicide
This broke a few hours ago; I’ve been working on it since the verdict was announced. And the verdict won’t bring back those three–Kirby Brown, James Shore, and Liz Neuman, who died needlessly and horrifically that night near Sedona, AZ, but it might save some other lives and make some other dubious New Age practitioners pause. Unfortunately, Ray dodged the big bullet, manslaughter, which could have carried a more serious payback.
Some say that this proves that The Law of Attraction did work in his case; that he really didn’t mean for this catastrophe to happen.
I disagree. James Arthur Ray, the son of a Oklahoma preacher, had had plenty of warnings about the lethal tightrope that he was walking, but like with other cult leaders, power and money went straight to his head.
Jurors deliberated a bit less than eight hours over two days. They began deliberating Tuesday, 16 weeks to the day after the trial began March 1 in Yavapai County Superior Court.
The sweat lodge was the culmination of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” retreat at the Angel Valley resort near Sedona, for which some 50 participants had paid up to $10,000 each to attend.
Participants in the sweat lodge gathered in a long, low, wood-framed structure covered with blankets and tarps. Stones were heated on a fire outside, then brought in by volunteers before each of eight roughly 15-minute rounds and placed in a hole near the center. Ray controlled the length and number of rounds, the number of stones used and how much water he poured over them to create steam.
Ray’s defense attorneys maintained that the deaths were a regrettable accident; that by not looking closely enough early on at potential poisons (like rat poison and pesticides) that may have been present, the state muffed its investigation; that Ray didn’t force anyone to stay in the sweat lodge; and that none of the more than 50 people at the event knew that the victims, Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman, were at risk of death.
Prosecutors argued that there was no solid evidence that organophosphates were present; that heat stroke was the obvious cause and best explained the symptoms reported in the victims and other participants; and that Ray was responsible because he controlled every aspect of the event, led participants to trust that the sweat lodge was safe, and didn’t halt the event when people were clearly suffering, passing out and having difficulty breathing.
More to the point, James Arthur Ray was a case study about how Americans have a tendency to easily place their trust in the Next Big Fad. Particularly, they place their trust in mostly white self-help gurus like Ray who cherry-pick aspects of certain Native American rituals and teachings without weighing what they actually were and how they were to be performed. And then these New Age gurus charged thousands of dollars for an experience that Native people would have safely given them for free.
And why shouldn’t they trust him? Ray seemed the embodiment of his own teaching that you can attract wealth into all areas of your life: charismatic, confident, fit and seemingly younger than his 51 years; the author of a New York Times bestseller; a star of the hit motivational book and DVD “The Secret”; a media darling who rubbed elbows with Oprah Winfrey and Larry King; the subject of a recent profile by Fortune magazine; and chief executive of James Ray International, which claimed $9.4 million in annual revenue and had just been named to Inc. magazine’s list of 500 fastest-growing private companies.
At seminar after seminar, Ray would recount how he had trekked to the Andes, the Amazon and other remote reaches to learn hidden teachings directly from normally inaccessible masters.
But those attending the Spiritual Warrior retreat did not know that Ray already was being accused of misappropriating and misusing others’ teachings without permission or proper training. They did not know that his claims to have been initiated into three shamanic traditions, gaining expertise in a variety of spiritual and esoteric teachings, were either exaggerations or questionable.
And they did not know that Ray’s way of running a sweat lodge violated the spiritual and safety practices of the Native American traditions he claimed to follow.
And it wasn’t just Native Americans he ripped off, although they were the most borrowed from and offended upon. Stanislav Grof, Hawaiian huna, and Peruvian Q’eros are just a few of the many individuals, religious traditions, and psychology schools who believe that James Arthur Ray misrepresented their teachings and/or rituals. In many cases, Ray needed certification, an apprenticeship or outright permission to practice all that he had learned, something that might take up to 20 or more years for him–a lifetime, really–to be considered a true teacher and adept. And few of his followers ever questioned his practices or credentials.
Years before the deadly 2009 ceremony, Ray “was approached several times by native leaders and told he was not trained to run Native American ceremonies,” said David Singing Bear, an Eastern Band Cherokee and Sedona resident who has run sweat lodges. Singing Bear said that Phillip Crazy Bull, a Lakota chief who died in 2006, spoke with Ray in 2005.
Such training matters for physical safety reasons as well as for spiritual authenticity, says R.J. Joseph, a Cree filmmaker and former Native American program director at Sedona’s Enchantment Resort.
“Desert people aren’t really vision-quest or sweat-lodge people; they’ve adopted those ceremonies from Plains Indians. So when you have a fast or vision quest, it’s generally in cooler climates. You certainly wouldn’t put anybody out in the desert for two days with no water. Not in the desert,” he said.
Almost every aspect of Ray’s sweat lodge was inauthentic, said Wambli Sina Win, a former Oglala Sioux tribal judge who has written about sweat-lodge practices.
“Whatever he led was not a sweat-lodge ceremony as I understand it,” she said. “He evidently learned bits and pieces and created a Frankenstein.”
To me, Wiconi Was’te, an Oglala Sioux sweat-lodge leader and shaman from Pine Ridge, S.D., said it all:
“In our way, if you get sick or you are unable to stay, you are encouraged to leave,” he said. “A wise spiritual man will tell people to step out. It’s not looked upon as bad.”
He said that as a sweat-lodge leader, “you are responsible for the lives of the people in there.”
While Ray’s attorneys insisted that the participants were free to leave if they got sick, the testimonies of the survivors belie that Ray allowed them to leave. Rather, there was pressure to stay, especially when they began to get sick. And part of the exercises involved bringing the participants into a kind of altered state, which would keep them from making decisions that would save their lives. (Survivors also told of being without food or water in the hot desert climate for hours on end.) Melinda Martin, a former employee of Ray’s told her story to ABC News in 2009 of what happened that awful night.
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.”
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.
It wasn’t normal.
Martin also claimed that at the ceremony, James Arthur Ray was wearing a white samurai robe and that she and the other assistants were wearing Grim Reaper outfits. While some may think that Ray’s samurai game came straight from a Tom Cruise film, it did not. It is an actual discipline that one must be certified to practice under safe, controlled conditions. The late George Leonard developed it. Ray was also approached by Leonard’s designated organization, Allied Ronin Leadership Training and Consulting, asking him to desist using The Samurai Game under the wrong circumstances, and they too, like the Native Americans, were given the brushoff.
It’s reasonable to assume that some of these entities may sue Ray’s already depleted business in the wake of the verdict, even if it is support of redressing copyright infringements. But for Native American religious practitioners, there are no such thing as copyrights; there is only moral outrage at what they feel is yet another assault by whites on the only thing that is left to them– their culture and spiritual lives.
A follow-up in Ray’s case next week will have the jury pondering aggravating circumstances. Ray is eligible for probation, and according to the Arizona Republic, “[...]faces a maximum of three years and nine months on each charge if aggravating factors are found – meaning he faces up to 11 years and three months, though maximum sentences are rarely imposed on first offenses. Aggravating factors include being convicted of more than one offense. There are also mitigating factors, such as Ray’s lack of prior convictions, that could reduce a sentence.
Any defense appeal would be made after sentencing. After the jury decides on the question of aggravating factors, the case will be sent to [Judge Warren] Darrow for sentencing.”
The jury will query three of the victims’ family members along with others to make their determination.
The families of the deceased as well as the survivors seem satisfied with the verdict. Kirby Brown’s family is said to be creating a non-profit organization that will educate people about the drawbacks and issues in the self-help industry, and encourage them to ask questions regarding this or that provider, and make an informed decision based on facts, not just feelings.
Kim Brinkley, a teacher in California, participated in the 2009 retreat and testified in Ray’s trial. She said she feels a sense of relief now that Ray is convicted and looks forward to moving on.
“My feelings on it are [that] James Ray was totally bogus. None of his credentials panned out,” Brinkley said. “We walked into that sweat lodge believing in his training, paid for his knowledge and wisdom, which was all false. Whether or not he goes to jail, somehow, this will force James Ray to take responsibility.”
Connie Joy, a disenchanted former Ray follower who wrote a book about his excesses, said she felt Ray would have been found guilty of manslaughter if the jury had been allowed to hear about injuries at earlier Ray events.
“So much information of prior events was not allowed to come in,” she said, “and if they had known about that, they might have seen what led up to (the sweat-lodge deaths).”
Nonetheless, Joy said she was grateful that Ray had been convicted. “I felt it was necessary for him to be held responsible for his actions,” she said.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to expand your horizons, to make yourself better and stronger within. However, it always takes others getting hurt or dying before people really get the word about some religious or self-help leader who makes the fatal mistake thinking that it is all about him/her and not about the people s/he is supposed to help. I’m sorry to say that Ray won’t be the first or the last to get hauled off to jail for his excesses, because this lesson, it appears, hasn’t yet been learned.
- Sweat Lodge Guru’s Homicide Verdict (thedailybeast.com)
- Trial of Ariz. sweat lodge guru nears end (cbsnews.com)
- The Oppressive Attitude of Christianity to the Canadian Native (aafwaterloo.wordpress.com)
- Self-Help Author Convicted in Sweat Lodge Deaths (newser.com)
- Doctor: Heat caused Ariz. sweat lodge deaths (seattletimes.nwsource.com)