CAMP VERDE, Arizona (AP) – They came in search of spiritual enlightenment, using the U.S. sweat lodge as a way to break through whatever was holding them back in life.
James Arthur Ray told his seminar participants that it would be “hellacious” and that they would feel like they were dying, but would do so only metaphorically.
But three people did die following the October 2009 ceremony, and on Wednesday, Ray was found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide. He could have been convicted on an option of manslaughter, but the jury of eight men and four women decided on the lesser charge instead.
The conviction came quickly – after less than 10 hours of deliberations – following four months of testimony and hundreds of exhibits. Prosecutors asked that Ray be taken into custody immediately, but the judge denied their request.
The self-help guru faces a sentence ranging from probation to nearly 12 years in prison. But wherever he is headed, it will be a marked change for a man whose multimillion-dollar self-help empire landed him in the 2006 Rhonda Byrne documentary “The Secret,” on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Larry King Live.”
Ray used free talks to recruit people to expensive seminars like the Sedona retreat that led to the sweat lodge tragedy. Participants paid up to $10,000 for the five-day program intended to push their physical and emotional limits.
More than 50 people participated in the two-hour sweat lodge, a sauna-like ceremony typically used by American Indians to rid the body of toxins. It was meant to be the highlight of Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” seminar near Sedona, Arizona. Two people were pronounced dead at the scene; a third died after spending more than a week in a coma; 18 others were hospitalized.
Witnesses described the scene after the ceremony as alarming and chaotic – like a “battlefield” – with people vomiting and shaking violently, while others dragged “lifeless” and “barely breathing” participants outside. Volunteers performed CPR.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys disagreed over whether the deaths and illnesses were caused by heat or unknown toxins. Ray’s attorneys maintained they were a tragic accident. Prosecutors argued Ray recklessly caused the fatalities.
They relied heavily on Ray’s own words to try to convince the jury that he was responsible for the deaths.
“The true spiritual warrior has conquered death and therefore has no fear or enemies in this lifetime or the next, because the greatest fear you’ll ever experience is the fear of what? Death,” Ray said in a recording played during the trial. “You will have to get a point to where you surrender and it’s OK to die.”
Prosecutors said a reasonable person would have stopped the “abomination of a sweat lodge” when participants began exhibiting signs of distress about halfway through the ceremony.
The three victims were Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota. As the verdict was read, some of the victims’ friends and family members held hands and smiled.
“We’re satisfied that responsibility has finally been laid at Mr. Ray’s feet,” said Tom McFeeley, a cousin of one of the victims, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
“Justice was served in there,” said Neuman’s ex-husband, Randy Neuman.
Mika Cutler, whom Brown visited in Utah a week before the ceremony, said: “There was not a moment in my mind that I didn’t think he (Ray) was responsible for this tragedy.”
Ray quickly left the courtroom with his family after the hearing, and did not offer a comment.
Prosecutors have lined up nine witnesses to testify at a hearing next week that will determine whether any aggravating circumstances factor into Ray’s sentencing. Those include Ray’s position of trust with the defendants, and any emotional or financial suffering by the victims’ families, according to documents filed by prosecutors.