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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Manchester

£27300 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Self-employed B2B Sales Consult...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Call Handler

£14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a Sales Ca...

Recruitment Genius: Support Worker

£14560 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers unique pers...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor