Release set for author in Arizona sweat lodge deaths
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A self-help author who led an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony that left three people dead is scheduled to be released from prison Friday.
James Arthur Ray will be freed from the state prison in Buckeye, near Phoenix, where he's been held under minimum security after serving 85 percent of his 2-year sentence on negligent homicide convictions.
The tragedy occurred after dozens of people traveled to a scenic retreat just outside Sedona in October 2009 for Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event.
The sweat lodge was touted as a hot structure in which participants could have powerful breakthroughs.
Things started going wrong about halfway through the 2-hour ceremony. When it was over, 38-year-old Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y., and 40-year-old James Shore of Milwaukee were dead and 18 others injured. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., slipped into a coma and died after more than a week in the hospital.
At trial, prosecutors said Ray ratcheted up the heat to dangerous levels, ignored pleas for help and watched as overcome participants were dragged out of the sweat lodge.
He was convicted of negligent homicide but the jury acquitted him of more serious manslaughter charges. He was sentenced to serve concurrent 2-year terms for each of the deaths. His appeal alleged that errors by the prosecution tainted the case.
Ray acknowledged he was responsible for the deaths, but offered no excuses for his lack of action as the chaos unfolded at the sweat lodge. He and his attorneys maintained that he wasn't aware people were dying or in distress, or he would have stopped the ceremony.
The defense centered on the possibility that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths.
None of the victims' families believes that 20 months was a sufficient sentence. And the family members have said that said they'd rather not see him in the self-help industry.
Members of Neuman's family meet regularly to talk about her and share memories and also to vent feelings of frustration and anger — a lot of which is aimed at Ray, said her daughter, Andrea Puckett. The birth of Puckett's two children and her brother's wedding are among the events made bittersweet by Neuman's loss, she said.
"Ideally, we don't want him (Ray) doing anything in the industry anymore," Puckett said. "I don't think he has the right to work with people. If he does move forward with that, I hope people become aware of what he did and he changes the way that he handles his seminars and his teachings."
Brown's mother, Virginia, has quit her full-time job to focus on the nonprofit group the family formed to help others avoid the tragedy they faced called SEEK Safely. This week, she was busy reaching out to people in the self-help industry asking them to commit to basic standards to ensure they are truthful, act with integrity and respect the people who choose to follow them — something she said Ray failed to do.
Brown wants her daughter's death to be used as a cautionary tale in an industry that is largely unregulated. She still wears her jewelry and the blue wrist bands they had made to commemorate Kirby Brown's adventurous life in which she wanted to expand her painting business and create a family of her own, Virginia Brown said.
One of Shore's best friends, Matt Collins, is on the board of directors for SEEK Safely. He expects that Ray will find a way to continue his teachings but doesn't want to see him profit off tragedy or what he might have learned in prison.
"Being in prison is probably a good place to reinvent oneself, hopefully for the better," he said. "I don't know whether he's capable of recognizing the damage that the families suffered."
Jon Ray and his wife will be at the prison Friday to greet James Ray, who will have to stay in Arizona for a few months under community supervision. He said the sweat lodge ceremony would have turned out differently had his brother known anyone was in harm's way. While James Ray has no intention of moving back into public seminars, Jon Ray said "he's definitely wanting to help people like he's always done."
Ray declined interview requests from The Associated Press.
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