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Arizona sweat lodge deaths are investigated as homicides

The two deaths during a session led by self-help expert James Arthur Ray were not accidental, authorities say.

October 16, 2009|Associated Press

PRESCOTT, ARIZ. — The deaths of two people during a sweat lodge ceremony led by self-help expert James Arthur Ray are being investigated as homicides, authorities said Thursday.

Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said the deaths last week of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee were not accidental.

"A combination of circumstances led to the deaths," Waugh said. "Whether or not we can prove a criminal case, that has yet to be determined."

Waugh said investigators were looking at the way the sweat lodge was built, the fact that people had fallen ill at previous sweat ceremonies led by Ray and questionable medical care on site. Authorities have said a nurse hired by Ray was directing rescue efforts, including CPR, when emergency crews arrived.

Ray is the primary focus of the inquiry but others are being investigated too, the sheriff said.

Ray's spokesman, Howard Bragman, said the sheriff's use of "homicide" to characterize the investigation was irresponsible and a rush to judgment.

"I find it very interesting the police are trying to escalate the case in the media, and frankly I think the escalation should be in getting the facts," he said. "We have one goal, and that is to find out what happened so that it never happens again."

Ray led more than 50 people into a makeshift sweat lodge at a rented retreat outside Sedona on Oct. 8. After about two hours, Brown and Shore were pulled out. Nineteen others were taken to hospitals, and one remains in critical condition.

Ray is "a motivational speaker who tried his hand at very dangerous physical things, and it was reckless," Brown's cousin and family spokesman Tom McFeeley said. The sheriff's announcement, he said, "doesn't surprise us in the least."

Ray declined to be interviewed by the sheriff's office on the night of the incident and has not spoken with Arizona authorities. He hired his own investigative team to determine what went wrong, and Bragman said the team and Ray's attorney were cooperating with the sheriff's investigators.

A search warrant was served Wednesday at Ray's Carlsbad, Calif.-based company, James Ray International. Deputies were looking for medical records of those attending the Sedona retreat, documents on the sweat lodge's construction and use, and any warnings of health risks, Waugh said.

The motivational speaker, author and self-help guru offers clients the promise of spiritual and financial wealth. The five-day "Spiritual Warrior" course during which the deaths occurred had about 50 participants who paid more than $9,000 each.

Ray held a telephone conference call with many of the participants on Wednesday, according to people on the call.

A recording was made and transcribed by one of the listeners, said McFeeley, who also listened in and provided the transcript to the Associated Press.

During the call, Ray stressed the importance of eating healthful food, exercising, resting, meditation and surrounding themselves with "like-minded individuals."

Ray asked those on the call to imagine themselves standing in a prayer circle. He stopped short of apologizing to participants for not being at the Angel Valley Retreat Center the morning after the deaths, saying, "I hope you understand it certainly wasn't my wish not to be with you and bring you some kind of closure."

Bragman confirmed that the call had been held.

Sheriff's Lt. David Rhodes said he had no comment on the call but that detectives had the transcript.

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