The Sweat Lodge Murders
This case is quite different than most that I do here. This is a case where I do not believe malice was intended but arrogance and greed is likely what caused the crime that was committed. This was not a perpetrator that was angry at another person and set out for revenge. This was a perpetrator who seemingly got too big for his britches so to say and likely developed a scheme that cost him the least amount to produce with the greatest amount in return financially.
It is unclear just where, how or when exactly James Ray became known as a motivational or self help “guru” but it appears that he began to become famous or infamous in the field around 2000. It seems that much of his “teachings” were spiritual based and it appears that throughout the 2000's there was several incidents in which criticism of his methods were raised. Those incidents ranged from complaints of lack of training to safety issues to lack of trained professionals on sight. But, it appears that they were all what appeared on the surface as minor issues that were settled quickly and although I so no specifics on it I would gander to guess there was money exchanged. Prior to October of 2009 when the most serious of accidents occurred there had been one other death and a few serious injuries reported. At some point Ray had incorporated the idea of the sweat lodge into some of his seminars. At least one serious injury at a sweat lodge was recorded in 2005 in which a man had passed out and required hospitalization. But again, it seems there were those devoted to his teachings and it does not seem that the prior incidents had garnered much publicity, if any at all.
In October 2009 about fifty people were participating in a five day retreat with James Ray's company in Sedona Arizona. This retreat was called the “Spiritual Warrior.” Many of these people paid up to $10,000 for their participation. Ray had stated that the sweat lodge portion of the retreat was to take place on October 8th and that it was all but based or shall we say inspired by Native American traditions. Thirty six hours before the start of that portion the participants were to fast. They were left in the desert with only a sleeping bag although it was reported that for an additional $250 they could also have a poncho. On the morning of the sweat lodge portion the participants were fed a breakfast buffet and then taken to the lodge. The “lodge” itself was simply a wood frame covered with tarps and blankets where once inside the participants would sit shoulder to shoulder while hot rocks were doused with water.
It is unclear just how long people were to stay inside the sweat lodge or how long it was before people began having issues. It was reported that those who attempted to leave were chastised and all but bullied to return, being called weak and the like. By the time it was over however, two people would die inside the tent (one of which had been attempting to rescue others), one would die in the hospital a week later after never regaining consciousness and another eighteen would would require medical treatment from their injuries. Their ailments would include severe burns, dehydration, breathing issues, kidney failure and extreme elevated body temperatures.
The victims at the site were identified as thirty-eight year old Kirby Brown and forty year old James Shore. Shore had rescued at least a few of the other victims and it was said he went back in to help Brown but neither of them were able to escape. The remaining victim was forty-nine year old Liz Neuman who remained in a coma until she passed away on October 17th.
This was not something that Ray could just hide under the covers or pay off and ignore, and it seems he knew that right away. When authorities made it to the scene Ray refused to talk to them and almost immediately he left Arizona completely. He would later claim that he had left because he was “scared.” To be fair, I believe him. I have little doubt that as he watched the scene unfold and learned of the injuries and deaths his level of fear rose, as it should have. He was watching his career and maybe his life crumble before his eyes. What I do not believe from Ray is any sort of empathy he has expressed, but to be honest there has been little of that expressed. It seems that what words of sympathy he has expressed over the years is solely for the means of self preservation.
Investigators looked into the situation and one of the first things they discovered was the construction of the lodge had not been approved nor had there been any applications for building permits. It had also been constructed by a local company and not a Native American group as Ray and purportedly told his “guests.” Investigators not only found these somewhat minor issues but they also determined that they had failed properly maintain the safety of the members of the retreat, nor did they provide adequate medical treatment on site.
On February 3, 2010 James Ray was arrested and charged with three counts of manslaughter. He spent a few weeks in jail until his bail was lowered and was released to await trial. His trial began in May of 2011. After a month long trial the jury decide to acquit him on the manslaughter charges but did find him guilty of three counts of felony negligent homicide which was a lower charge than manslaughter. Family members and surviving victims were appalled when in November of 2011 a judge sentenced him to serve two years on each count but allowed the sentences to run concurrently, meaning all at the same time. After serving twenty months in prison James Ray was released in July of 2013.
There were at least three lawsuits filed against James Ray pertaining to this incident. The first was filed by the family of Liz Neuman for wrongful death just a few weeks after she passed away. The second was filed by two survivors that had suffered injuries. I was unable to determine if these cases have been settled in any way. The third was filed by a Native American Tribe in which they claimed Ray's actions and his claims of following Native American traditions violated the Sioux Treaty of 1868. That case was dismissed in 2010 when the courts determined that Ray was providing a “service” and the treaty pertained to “goods,” of which this did not qualify.
Ray's release from prison did not forbid him from continuing in the career in which he had felt he had prospered in and in November of 2013 he apparently tried to do just that. First on the agenda was to try and fix his image but it sounds as if prison had taught Ray nothing and he wanted things done on his terms. One of his first interviews took place on the Piers Morgan show and it was said that there was a stipulation that he was to be the only guest on the show which obviously prevented others from criticizing him on air. It was later reported that soon after the interview Morgan's manager became Ray's also.
The families of his victims have never shied away from letting their feelings be known. Kirby Brown's mother is widely known for making sure people know that because of Ray's actions her daughter was “cooked to death.” And, it seems families of his other victims and his survivors are just as critical, in fairness, as they should be in my opinion.
By late 2016 Ray was said to be complaining that his felony conviction prevented him from moving on with his life and was hindering his livelihood as he could not travel internationally. He filed with the Arizona courts asking that his conviction be set aside. In January of 2017 a judge ruled on this. The judge lifted the restrictions that prevented Ray the right to vote, run for office or serve on a jury but he would not sit the conviction aside, the one thing Ray really wanted to allow travel. According to the judge he felt that not enough time had passed since the crime to warrant such an action. Ray inquired to the judge asking what the judge thought was a proper time limit for him to try again but the judge did not have an answer for him. His victims and their families attended the hearing protesting Ray's request and have vowed to continue to do so each time he files.
As I said in the beginning I do not find this to be a normal true crime case. I honestly do not think that James Ray intended on people dying nor did he anticipate the actions that happened on October 8, 2009. But, I do believe his greed and his ego got in the way of making proper decisions. It is quite possible that the Arizona weather, combined with the tactics used contributed or created this tragedy but in the same respect it was the responsibility of Ray to ensure the safety of his participants, people who trusted his judgment. Sadly they misplaced their trust.