Self-help guru's empire rocked by sweat lodge deaths

Arizona police say the deaths of two people taking part in a sauna-like ritual were not accidental

James Arthur Ray took a group of more than 50 followers into a cramped, sauna-like sweat lodge in Arizona 10 days ago by convincing them that his words would lead them to spiritual and financial wealth.

The mantra has made him a millionaire. People routinely pack Mr Ray's seminars and follow the motivational guru to week-long retreats that can cost more than $9,000 (£5,500) per person. But Mr Ray's self-help empire has been thrown into turmoil after two of his followers died following their collapse in a makeshift sweat lodge near Sedona. Nineteen others were hospitalised. A homicide investigation is now casting a critical spotlight on Mr Ray's company.

On Thursday, the Yavapai county sheriff, Steve Waugh, said the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York, and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, were not accidental. "A combination of circumstances led to the deaths," Mr Waugh said. "Whether or not we can prove a criminal case, that has yet to be determined."

Mr Waugh said investigators are looking at the way the sweat lodge was built, the fact that people had fallen ill at previous sweat ceremonies led by Mr Ray, and questionable medical care on site. A relative of one victim accused Mr Ray of exhibiting a "godlike complex" during the event, and said the safety of participants had been recklessly abandoned. But dedicated followers say they fully trust Mr Ray to lead them through exercises that greatly improve their lives.

Critics point to the Sedona events as yet more evidence that Mr Ray is a huckster, who, like other motivational speakers, present their philosophies as a magic bullet to all of life's problems. "It's honing in on people's needs, their hopes and desires," said Rick Ross, founder of a virtual library of information on controversial groups . "That's how any good con man makes his mark."

Mr Ray has become a self-help superstar by packaging his charismatic personality and selling wealth. Those who first attend his free seminars hear a motivational mantra that promises they can achieve what he calls "harmonic wealth" – on a financial, mental, physical and spiritual level.

His technique is a combination of New Age spiritualism, American Indian ritual, astrology and numerology. The sweat lodge experience was intended to be an almost religious awakening for the participants. Sweat lodges, traditionally used by Native American Indian tribes, are claimed to be part of the healing process. Stones are heated up outside a lodge, brought inside and placed in a pail-sized hole. The door is closed, and water is poured on the stones, producing heat aimed at releasing toxins in the body.

Few details of what transpired during the two hours that participants were inside the 415 sqft lodge have emerged. Police are investigating whether Mr Ray or his staff may have been criminally negligent. Mr Ray, 51, grew up as the son of an Oklahoma preacher. He began honing his self-help business in the early 1990s. In a 2008 profile in Fortune magazine, he said 5,500 people paid for his seminars in 2007, and that his revenues went from $1m in 2005 to an estimated $10m in 2006.

Linda Jackson, of Brentwood, California, is already looking forward to an event Mr Ray has scheduled in the San Francisco Bay area later this year. The 59-year-old says Mr Ray has a rare gift which, coupled with charisma, power and a "walk the talk" attitude, only helps mankind.

David Rhodes, a sheriff's lieutenant, said investigators have spoken to most of the event's participants, but they are not sure how much of what they have heard is accurate. "You have two people who died in the presence of 50 other people, in an environment in which no one seems to understand what happened," said Mr Rhodes.

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin