Self- Help Guru Gets 2 Years In Prison For Arizona Sweat Lodge Deaths

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- The self-help author who led an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony that ended with three deaths was sentenced Friday to two years behind bars - not enough for the victims' family members, who earlier in the day yelled at James Arthur Ray and said he was "not worthy to spit shine" the victims' shoes.

A judge handed down three, two-year prison terms to be served concurrently and ordered Ray to pay more than $57,000 in restitution.

"I find that the aggravating circumstance of emotional harm is so strong and such that probation is simply unwarranted in this case," Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow said.

Authorities immediately took custody of Ray, who will serve his time with the state Department of Corrections.

Ray was convicted on a trio of negligent homicide charges earlier this year in the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn.

Family members of the three lashed out at Ray earlier Friday while asking the judge to hand down the maximum sentence of nine years in prison. They said they were appalled that Ray continued to deliver self-help messages through the Internet while he faced criminal charges.

"There was nothing you could teach Liz, James or Kirby about honor, integrity and impeccability," said Neuman's cousin, Lily Clark, drawing from Ray's principle teachings. "But they could have taught you a lot. They were born spiritual warriors, and you are not worthy to spit shine their combat boots."

Neuman's daughter, Andrea Puckett, later said she doesn't believe Ray grasps his role in the deaths, and called the sentence a joke.

"It's very frightening the control he has over people and his mentality," she said. "That's not going to change."

The victims' families also have blasted Ray for offering no solace for their loss until recently.

In asking for leniency, Ray told the judge he would have stopped the ceremony had he known people were dying or in distress. But he offered no excuses for his lack of action as chaos unfolded outside the structure at a retreat near Sedona.

"At the end of the day, I lost three friends, and I lost them on my watch," Ray said, standing before the victims' families. "Whatever errors in judgment or mistakes I have made, I'm going to have to live with those for the rest of my life. I truly understand your disappointment in my actions after, I do. I'm disappointed in myself."

Ray will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence. That comes out to almost 600 days, taking into account the credit he received for 24 days served. That's roughly the amount of time he's been out of jail on bond since his arrest early last year.

The courtroom was silent as the sentence was handed down. The victims' families held hands and braced for a decision, as did Ray's parents and brother.

Ray's family offered their condolences to the victims' families in a statement following the sentencing hearing and asked if they'd find forgiveness in their hearts.

"We were fortunate enough to meet with James after the sentencing," said his brother, Jon Ray. "He was in good spirits and said this would give him the opportunity to help people in prison that need it."

Defense attorneys said they would appeal, likely on the grounds that errors by the prosecution tainted the case.

County Attorney Sheila Polk hoped Ray would get the maximum and believed she had made a strong case for accountability, justice and deterrence. But, she said, "certainly some prison time over probation is better than no prison at all."

Ray originally was charged with manslaughter, but jurors rejected that he was reckless in his handling of the ceremony that highlighted Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event. Ray's attorneys suggested that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths, but jurors said that theory was not credible.

Ray's motivational mantra drew dozens of people to the retreat with a promise that the sweat lodge typically used by American Indians to cleanse the body would lead to powerful breakthroughs. When the victims' families discovered something went wrong, they said Ray made no attempt to identify people in the hospital.

Participants began showing signs of distress about halfway through the two-hour sweat lodge ceremony. By the time it was over, some were vomiting, struggling to breathe and lying lifeless on the ground. Brown and Shore were pronounced dead. Neuman slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness. She died more than a week later at a Flagstaff hospital.

"He did some good, but this is about what he didn't do," said Shore's mother, Jane Shore-Gripp. "He had the opportunity to save three people, and he didn't."

The trial was a mix of lengthy witness testimony and legal wrangling that lasted four months. Witnesses painted conflicting pictures of Ray, with some describing him as a coach who encouraged participants to do their best to endure the heat but never forced them to remain in the sweat lodge.

Others said they learned through breathing exercises, a 36-hour fast, and a game in which Ray portrayed God that they dare not question him, and they lost the physical and mental ability to care for themselves or others.


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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by Cynthia Location: Greenville, NC on Nov 19, 2011 at 07:08 AM
    First clue the whole thing was not legitimate: He charged money for it. Real "medicine men / healers" NEVER charge money. Second clue: This ceremony is sacred among Native Americans. This is not something you learn by taking a class and becoming qualified. It takes years and years of committment, study and guidance from elders who have learned from their elders. Sadly this has cast a shadow over the sacred Inipi Ceremony - a ceremony that truly is spiritual and cleansing.
    • reply
      by Audra on Nov 19, 2011 at 11:23 AM in reply to Cynthia
      Thank you for being educated, Cynthia. At least some people understand what's wrong here.
  • by Audra Location: SoCal on Nov 18, 2011 at 09:23 PM
    I am soooooo sick of these charlatans. It's bad enough that people make money off of portraying my culture (and poorly), but when people start getting hurt and dying... No, the punishment handed down is not nearly enough in this case.
    • reply
      by Adult on Nov 19, 2011 at 06:12 AM in reply to Audra
      They were adults. He didn't force them. No common sense anymore. Always have to blame someone else when someone does something stupid.
      • reply
        by Audra on Nov 19, 2011 at 11:24 AM in reply to Adult
        You've missed the entire point.
  • by MoMO Location: WHichards Beach on Nov 18, 2011 at 08:39 PM
    I bet he was sweating when they read that verdict !
  • by YES! on Nov 18, 2011 at 08:34 PM
    'Bout time!
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