PHOENIX (Reuters) – Police arrested self-help guru James Arthur Ray on Wednesday for the manslaughter of three people who fell ill during a ceremony in a “sweat dome” at a retreat in northern Arizona last year.
The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office said Ray was indicted on three counts of manslaughter relating to the deaths of James Shore, Liz Neuman and Kirby Brown on October 8 following the retreat near Sedona. His bond was set at $5 million.
Ray’s attorney, Luis Li, said that the charges were unjust and that Ray would be exonerated in court.
“This was a terrible accident — but it was an accident, not a criminal act,” Li said. “James Ray cooperated at every step of the way, providing information and witnesses to the authorities showing that no one could have foreseen this accident.”
The Oct. 8 sweat lodge ceremony was intended to be the highlight of Ray’s five-day “Spiritual Warrior” event at a retreat he rented just outside Sedona. He told participants, who paid more than $9,000 each to attend, that it would be one of the most intense experiences of their lives.
About halfway through the two-hour ceremony, some began feeling ill, vomiting and collapsing inside the 415-square-foot structure. Despite that, Ray urged participants to push past their physical weaknesses and chided those who wanted to leave, authorities and participants have said.
Two people – Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee – passed out inside the sweat lodge and died that night at a hospital. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., slipped into a coma and died a week later. Eighteen others were hospitalized.
Authorities said they quickly determined the deaths were not accidental and focused their investigation on Ray. They conducted hundreds of interviews that reached into Ray’s past ceremonies and events, including one in which a man fell unconscious during a 2005 sweat lodge ceremony at the same retreat near Sedona.
The self-help superstar who teaches people about financial and spiritual wealth uses free seminars to recruit followers to more expensive events. His company, James Ray International, is based in Carlsbad, Ca.
Survivor Beverly Bunn told “Good Morning America” that even while people were collapsing, vomiting and gasping for air, Ray, who was leading the ceremony, urged everyone to stay inside.
More than 60 people were gathered inside the tent hoping to cleanse their bodies. But within the hour people began to collapse and vomit, Bunn said.
While people were not physically forced to remain in the tent, Bunn said Ray would chide them if they wanted to leave, saying weakness could be overcome.
Before his arrest and in response to media reports that Ray’s legal team deemed “filled with inaccuracies and poisonous innuendo,” the team posted two documents known as “The White Papers” on Ray’s Web site under a section called “Setting the Record Straight.”
“The White Papers,” addressed directly to Bill Hughes, the Supervising Deputy County Attorney, presents in more than 60 pages what amounts to a defense against criminal charges of any kind.
“Criminal charges would compound this tragedy, regardless of outcome,” the document says in its introduction. “Despite the innuendo in various media accounts, Mr. Ray did not lead or pressure participants into making a choice they otherwise would not have made.”
Ray has been criticized for refusing to give investigators a statement concerning the deaths and for hosting two events after the deaths before he canceled an event in Toronto.
“In the days following the terrible accident, I struggled to respond the right way,” Ray said on his Web site.
It’s a rare admission for a man whose meteoric rise in the self-help industry was largely based on knowing just what to say.
In free meetings, like the one in Toronto, Ray gives a taste of his teachings — which include a mix of spirituality, motivational speaking and quantum physics — in a pitch that urges attendees to sign up for his multi-day seminars. These seminars, like the one in Sedona, can cost thousands of dollars.
The seminars are a mix of lecturing based on various self-help teachings and activities such as walking on coals, breaking wooden boards and the now-infamous sweat lodge, which are meant to push personal limits, one attendee said.
Donna Fleming, 60, told ABC News in October she felt “taken” after Ray convinced her to pay $6,000 for two seminars.