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

Felicia Fonseca,Bob Christie,Arizona
Sunday 18 October 2009 00:00

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.

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