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Identities of Arizona sweat lodge victims disclosed

October 11, 2009|Associated Press

PRESCOTT, ARIZ. — Two people who died after sitting for hours in an Arizona spiritual resort's sauna-like sweat lodge were identified Saturday as a 40-year-old Wisconsin man and a 38-year-old New York woman.

James Shore of Milwaukee and Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y., died Thursday night after being overcome in a sweat lodge during a spiritual cleansing ceremony. Nineteen others were taken to area hospitals, suffering from burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest, kidney failure or elevated body temperature. Most were soon released, but one remained in critical condition Saturday.

Authorities haven't determined what caused the deaths and illnesses, but ruled out carbon monoxide poisoning.

Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said Saturday that his detectives were focusing on self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray and his staff as they tried to determine whether criminal negligence played a role in the deaths. Waugh said Ray refused to speak with authorities and had left the state. No charges have been filed.

"We will continue this investigation down every road that is possible to find out if there is culpability on anybody relative to the deaths of these individuals," Waugh said.

He said it could be three to four weeks before they knew whether criminal charges would be filed.

The resort is owned by Michael and Amayra Hamilton, who have declined to comment.

Ray's most recent posting on his Twitter account said he was "shocked and saddened" by the tragedy.

"My deep heartfelt condolences to family and friends of those who lost their lives," he wrote. "I am spending the weekend in prayer and meditation for all involved in this difficult time; and I ask you to join me in doing the same."

Ray's company, James Ray International, is based in Carlsbad, Calif. His publicist, Howard Bragman, declined Friday to speak about the deaths, and didn't return a Saturday call from the Associated Press.

Ray rented the Angel Valley Retreat Center just outside scenic Sedona to hold a five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat that promised to "absolutely change your life."

Ray has held similar retreats at the resort in the past. Participants, whose ages ranged from 30 to the 60s, paid between $9,000 and $10,000 to attend this year's event.

Between 55 and 65 people were crowded into the 415-square-foot sweat lodge during a two-hour period that consisted of eight 15-minute rounds and various spiritual exercises led by Ray, Waugh said. After each round, the flap to the crudely constructed structure was raised to allow more heated rocks to be brought inside.

Authorities said participants were highly encouraged, but not forced, to stay in the lodge the entire two hours.

The participants had fasted for 36 hours, then ate a breakfast buffet on Thursday morning. After various seminars, they entered the sweat lodge lightly dressed at 3 p.m.

Two hours later, a woman dialed 911 to say that two people, whom Waugh identified as Brown and Shore, did not have a pulse and weren't breathing.

A nurse hired by Ray was directing rescue efforts, including CPR, when emergency crews arrived, Waugh said. Shore and Brown were pronounced dead when they arrived at a hospital.

Autopsies were conducted Friday, but the results were pending additional tests.

Sheriff's Lt. David Rhodes said authorities were looking into whether there was a lag time between the first signs of medical distress and the emergency call.

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