A Utah jury convicted James Arthur Ray of negligent homicide in the deaths of three clients. The jury acquitted the author and self-help guru of more serious manslaughter charges. He could be sentenced to as many as 11 years in prison.
The survivors of one victim said they are creating a nonprofit group to monitor the self-help industry. As this episode shows, clients of self-help gurus stand to lose much more than money. The Federal Trade Commission receives and investigates many complaints against self-help, personal empowerment and personal wealth building programs. Unfortunately too many of the most successful pitchmen turn out to be frauds, or worse.
Today's stressful environment is causing many people to examine their lives and seek changes. People are constantly looking for answers and for someone to give them those answers. However, tragedy can occur when the wrong person controls the experiences and journey.
At one retreat, more than 50 people participated and meant to strengthen their bodies and minds. Instead, three people died, illustrating the tragedy that can arise from negligence, hunger for power and money.
James Arthur Ray was the host of the event that's receiving this negative attention. He is a self-help author and motivational speaker who became famous after his appearance in the movie and book "The Secret." After the success of The Secret, he attracted many fans and began to lead self-help programs promising people both spiritual and financial wealth. His recent five-day "Spiritual Warrior" course drew more than 50 participants who paid more than $9,000 each.
Ray's expensive retreats are meant to push people beyond their physical and emotional limits. The ''Spiritual Warrior'' event is arguably the most physical of Ray's events. In this retreat, the sleep-deprived participants engaged in a 36-hour fast during a ''vision quest'' in the nearby wilderness, then entered a makeshift sweat lodge outside Sedona, Arizona.
What Is a Sweat Lodge?
The use of sweat lodges is a Native American tradition used to help them with spiritual and physical cleansing. A traditional sweat lodge is a small dome-like structure made up of willow branches carefully tied together and covered in canvas. Heated rocks from a nearby fire pit are placed inside the lodge, and water is poured over them to create steam.
Part of Ray's retreat includes a spiritual cleansing exercise, attempting to replicate the Native American tradition of a sweat lodge. However, this particular sweat lodge didn't follow the Native American's safety measures. Native Americans use materials that "breathe", as opposed to Ray's plastic covered structure.
Also, Native Americans only permit between 8-12 people inside a sweat lodge at any given time. Ray's retreat was crammed full with 64 people. Lastly, Native Americans don't stay in a sweat lodge until they lose consciousness, as occurred in Ray's retreat.
Between 55 and 65 people were in the makeshift sweat lodge over a two-hour period and participants were highly encouraged to remain inside for the entire time.
On October 8th, after about two hours in this sweat lodge, Kirby Brown, 38, and James Shore, 40, were pulled out. An emergency call reported them without a pulse and not breathing. At least 20 other people were taken to hospitals with illnesses ranging from dehydration to kidney failure.
Brown and Shore died upon arrival at the hospital. Liz Neuman, 49, was in critical condition and died a week later.
Accident or Homicide?
Sheriff's investigators in Arizona's Yavapai County are treating the deaths as homicides and are investigating the cause while the autopsies are pending.
Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said the deaths of Brown and Shore weren't accidental. "A combination of circumstances led to the deaths," Waugh told reporters. "Whether or not we can prove a criminal case, that has yet to be determined."1
The investigation is focusing on the way the sweat lodge was built, that people got sick at Ray's previous sweat ceremonies, and that the medical care on site wasn't proper. Ray is the main focus of this probe and a search warrant was sent to his California-based company, James Ray International. Ray declined interviews from the sheriff's office on the night of the incident and escaped to California as people were rushed to the hospital.
Ray participated in a conference call with the retreat's participants and told them, "Remember all that we've learned and experienced and knowing by law of the universe that out of every apparent chaos comes a greater state of order, an order that never existed prior to the chaos,2 " he said, after asking those on the conference call to imagine themselves standing in a prayer circle.
However, he didn't comment or apologize for not being at the retreat center the morning after the deaths, saying "I hope you understand it certainly wasn't my wish not to be with you and bring you some kind of closure."3
The sweat lodge, labeled a "death trap," wasn't created safely and charges most likely will be brought against Ray. Whether his actions amounted to criminal negligence or recklessness are being investigated, and could be ruled as homicide.
Also, besides the criminal case, there are likely to be civil lawsuits by the families of the victims. Even if Ray didn't intend to harm anyone, he could still be found guilty in civil court for wrongful death if recklessness, carelessness, negligence or inadequate supervision contributed to the deaths.
Mr. Ray has responded to the tragedy through a message on his Web site postponing events scheduled for 2009 for 2010 to assist in the investigation.
1Associated Press, Sweat lodge deaths are now a homicide investigation, CBS 8, Oct. 16, 2009, available at http://www.cbs8.com/Global/story.asp?S=11324110 accessed Oct. 27, 2009.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How much variation is there under state law in categorizing events such as the sweat lodge deaths as crimes?
- Would criminal charges be more likely in one state or another?
- How do criminal and civil cases relate? Are crime victims and their families more likely to prevail in a civil case if a criminal case arising from the same events results in a conviction?
- In a case like this, can cultural or religious beliefs be used as a defense?