Self-help guru arrested in Arizona sweat lodge deaths

Self-help guru James Arthur Ray was arrested Wednesday and charged with three counts of manslaughter in connection with an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony that left three people dead in October.

Ray was taken into custody at his attorney’s office in Prescott, Ariz., a sheriff’s spokesman said, and taken to the Yavapai County jail in Camp Verde. Bond has been set at $5 million. He is to appear in court Thursday.

The charges are linked to the last day of Ray’s five-day $9,695-a-person “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona, where he assembled about 50 people in a makeshift, sauna-like sweat lodge for about two hours.

When it was over, three people were dying. Eighteen others suffered burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest or kidney failure.

In a statement, Ray’s attorney called the charges unjust.

“This was a terrible accident -- but it was an accident, not a criminal act,” Luis Li said. “James Ray cooperated at every step of the way, providing information and witnesses to the authorities showing that no one could have foreseen this accident.”

Ray said he used the sweat lodge to show people they can gain strength and confidence by mastering physical discomfort. He had rented space at the Angel Valley Retreat Center several times over the last seven years for similar retreats.

For the “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, he promised to teach techniques that he says he “searched out in the mountains of Peru [and] the jungles of the Amazon.”

Beverley Bunn, 43, who attended the October session, told the Associated Press that she and more than 50 others had endured fasting and sleep deprivation when Ray led them into the sweat lodge ceremony, held in a 415-square-foot tent made of tree branches and plastic tarps.

Bunn said it became unbearably hot when Ray poured water over hot rocks, filling the tent with steam.

Some participants began to appear ill after about an hour, she said, but Ray did not seem concerned. Bunn said he sat inside the tent door, leading the group in chants and prayers, while some people vomited and gasped for air and others lay on the floor.

When someone lifted the back of the tent to let in fresh air, Ray demanded to know where the light was coming from and who had committed the “sacrilegious act,” Bunn said.

James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., died that night in a hospital. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., slipped into a coma and died a week later.

Authorities launched a homicide investigation and questioned hundreds of people. Yavapai County sheriff’s spokesman Dwight D’Evelyn said he did not know whether anyone else would be arrested in connection with the incident.

D’Evelyn said investigators interviewed the man who had been hired to build the sweat lodge for the October retreat and two previous retreats. D’Evelyn said the man told them that at each of the ceremonies he had assisted with, people emerged in medical distress.

In a post on Ray’s website in December, his legal team said retreat participants signed a comprehensive release form “that spelled out that the activities could include a sweat lodge with tight, enclosed spaces and intense temperatures.”

“Those who chose to participate in the sweat lodge, and in any other event at the Retreat, did so voluntarily and after having been informed of the risk,” they wrote.

The legal team said Ray told participants, “You are not going to die, you might think you are, but you’re not going to die,” but that “these words were never meant to be taken literally.”

In a January interview with New York Magazine, Ray said he did not know anything was wrong until the ceremony ended.

“Someone came up to me and said that there were some individuals that were having problems on the back side of the lodge,” Ray told the magazine. “I did everything I could to help. I held people’s hands, I stroked their hair, I talked to them, I held IV for the paramedics.”

Ray soared to New Age celebrity in recent years after appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Larry King Live” and “Today.” He appeared in the 2006 film “The Secret,” which postulated that success came to those who willed it, and wrote several books, including “Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want.”

Over the last decade, he traveled the world giving free self-help lectures, during which people were encouraged to sign up for paid events such as retreats.

Since 2001, more than 14,500 people have paid to attend his seminars and retreats. In September, Ray’s Carlsbad, Calif.-based business was ranked as one of America’s fastest-growing private companies.

On Wednesday, John Curtis, of Asheville, N.C., a critic of the $11.3-billion self-help industry and founder of the website Americans Against Self-Help Fraud, welcomed the news of Ray’s arrest and said he hoped it would prompt new scrutiny of an industry that he says preys on troubled people.

“I see it as the proverbial 9/11 for the self-help movement,” Curtis said. “I hope we’ll see a greater degree of accountability.”

Correll writes for The Times.

Times staff writer Scott Kraft contributed to this report.