Self-help guru and author James Arthur Ray was found guilty of negligent homicide Wednesday for the deaths of three of his followers at a sweat lodge ceremony at the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat Center near Sedona, Arizona on October 8, 2009.
Court proceedings next week will determine whether Ray should face anywhere from probation to as long as 11.25 years in prison—the presumptive term is two years per offense for his three guilty counts. The verdict means Ray caused the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Liz Neuman, 49, or Prior Lake, Minnesota—but he is not guilty of the greater charge of reckless manslaughter, which could have resulted in Ray getting up to 37 years in prison.
The three victims were among 56 participants charged $9,695 each to participate in Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, in which 18 people were hospitalized for burns, respiratory arrest, kidney failure, loss of consciousness and dehydration. Brown died following the ceremony on October 17, after staying alive in a coma for more than a week.
Ray did not physically force people to remain in the tent, but he urged them to stay inside and scolded them to overcome their weakness.
“You will have to get to a point to where you surrender and it’s O.K. to die,” Ray said in a recording during the ceremony that was played at the trial, reported The New York Times.
Several witnesses recounted people collapsing, vomiting, violently shaking and experiencing delusions. They contend Ray heard and ignored the concerns.
Ray then fled the scene as his followers laid dying or injured. As the chaos unfolded, Ray initially marginalized his role in the ceremony to authorities, telling them that he was not in charge, said Prosecutor and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk.
The conviction of the 53-year-old spiritual leader came after a nearly four-month trial in Yavapai County Superior Court in Camp Verde, Arizona. Ray remained free on a $525,000 bond the day of his conviction, court judicial assistant Diane Troxell said.
CNN previously quoted Indian Country Today Media Network’s West Coast Editor Valerie Taliman in its story “Sweat Lodge Trial Fuels Native American Frustrations” and referenced her award-winning column on the “bastardized version of a sacred ceremony,” as Taliman calls it.
CNN cited Taliman’s response to Ray’s liability release, which told participants they may experience “physical, emotional, financial or other injuries” during the five-day personal spiritual quest in the wilderness without food or water, or in the sweat lodge unusually designed with plastic tarpaulins.
“Who does that? Only a huckster posing as the real thing,” she wrote.
Ray symbolizes the horror that this “new-age,” self-help trend purports, and the double standard is glaring, Taliman told CNN by phone.
“If an Indian man, a traditional person, killed people in a sweat lodge, he’d be in jail,” not free on bond, Taliman (Navajo) told CNN. “And if I went out, and I impersonated a Catholic priest, and charged people to attend ceremonies, they’d arrest me.”
Ray, who wrote the best-selling book Harmonic Wealth that enabled him to invest in his popular seminars and buy a multimillion dollar home in Beverly Hills, has capitalized off a traditional Indian ceremony.
“What right does Ray have to mimic, mangle, and manipulate Native ceremonies that have been carefully handed down among indigenous cultures over millennia?” Taliman wrote. “Ray does not own any rights to Native spirituality, because they are owned collectively by indigenous peoples and cannot be sold.”
Kirby Brown’s cousin and family spokesman Tom McFeeley responded to the Verde Independent by email after the verdict. “The outcome of this trial will never bring ‘closure’ to our grief,” McFeeley wrote. “There is not way to fill the enormous hole that Kirby’s death leaves in our family. Our hearts are forever broken by her death, just as our lives are forever blessed by her life.”