US self-help guru convicted for deaths

2011-06-23 17:04

Camp Verede - They came in search of spiritual enlightenment, using the US sweat lodge as a way to break through whatever was holding them back in life. James Arthur Ray told his seminar participants that it would be "hellacious" and that they would feel like they were dying, but would do so only metaphorically.

But three people did die following the October 2009 ceremony, and on Wednesday, Ray was found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide. He could have been convicted on an option of manslaughter, but the jury of eight men and four women decided on the lesser charge instead.

The conviction came quickly - after less than 10 hours of deliberations - following four months of testimony and hundreds of exhibits. Prosecutors asked that Ray be taken into custody immediately, but the judge denied their request.

The self-help guru faces a sentence ranging from probation to nearly 12 years in prison. But wherever he is headed, it will be a marked change for a man whose multimillion-dollar self-help empire landed him in the 2006 Rhonda Byrne documentary The Secret, on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live.

Ray used free talks to recruit people to expensive seminars like the Sedona retreat that led to the sweat lodge tragedy. Participants paid up to $10 000 for the five-day programme intended to push their physical and emotional limits.

More than 50 people participated in the two-hour sweat lodge, a sauna-like ceremony typically used by American Indians to rid the body of toxins. It was meant to be the highlight of Ray's "Spiritual Warrior" seminar near Sedona, Arizona. Two people were pronounced dead at the scene; a third died after spending more than a week in a coma; 18 others were hospitalised.

Tragic accident

Witnesses described the scene after the ceremony as alarming and chaotic - like a "battlefield" - with people vomiting and shaking violently, while others dragged "lifeless" and "barely breathing" participants outside. Volunteers performed CPR.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys disagreed over whether the deaths and illnesses were caused by heat or unknown toxins. Ray's attorneys maintained they were a tragic accident. Prosecutors argued Ray recklessly caused the fatalities.

They relied heavily on Ray's own words to try to convince the jury that he was responsible for the deaths.

"The true spiritual warrior has conquered death and therefore has no fear or enemies in this lifetime or the next, because the greatest fear you'll ever experience is the fear of what? Death," Ray said in a recording played during the trial. "You will have to get a point to where you surrender and it's OK to die."

Prosecutors said a reasonable person would have stopped the "abomination of a sweat lodge" when participants began exhibiting signs of distress about halfway through the ceremony.

The three victims were Kirby Brown, aged 38, of Westtown, New York; James Shore, aged 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, aged 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota. As the verdict was read, some of the victims' friends and family members held hands and smiled.

No comment

"We're satisfied that responsibility has finally been laid at Mr Ray's feet," said Tom McFeeley, a cousin of one of the victims, said in a telephone interview.

"Justice was served in there," said Neuman's ex-husband, Randy Neuman.

Mika Cutler, whom Brown visited in Utah a week before the ceremony, said: "There was not a moment in my mind that I didn't think he (Ray) was responsible for this tragedy."

Ray quickly left the courtroom with his family after the hearing, and did not offer a comment.

Prosecutors have lined up nine witnesses to testify at a hearing next week that will determine whether any aggravating circumstances factor into Ray's sentencing. Those include Ray's position of trust with the defendants, and any emotional or financial suffering by the victims' families, according to documents filed by prosecutors.

  • Karoobloed - 2011-06-23 18:09

    Most human beings seem hard wired to believe in something irrational. And Oprah Winfrey and the rest of the grandiose New Age Religion brigade will happily fulfill that role for the rationally challenged.

      Rev. H-Cubed - 2011-06-23 18:33

      Reason and logic are only as precise as the available input, and given that the universe comprises far more that is unknown than that which is known, it would be irrational to assume that we have sufficient input to consistently arrive at an accurate logical conclusion. That is why we have evolved faith. Faith allows us to act in the absence of available fact. It impels us to explore new territory, even in spite of all logic to the contrary. It would not be rational to deprive ourselves of such an invaluable gift. Logic can explain our discoveries, and quantify their benefits and uses, but invariably it is faith that guides us to the discovery in the first place.

      Alfred - 2011-06-24 07:39

      @ Rev.Cubed Lets see reason and logic has brought us a round earth, a heliocentric solar system, explained seasons, landed us on the moon, discovered the atom, explained chemical reactions, bought us electicity and electronics, the pathogenic theory of disease, explained stars and galaxies, gravity, the structure of the universe, evolution, biology medicine, engineering, etc., etc. If you believe something to be true without evidence, without proof, then you can believe in anything and everything, no matter how absurd and ridicules. What other criteria could one possibly use to determine the truth of something. Yes there is a lot that is unknown but the only way to discover this knowledge is the scientific method. Name one piece of knowledge that faith has brought us. Faith has brought us nothing but misery; burning at the stake, witchcraft, superstition, ghosts, demons, gods, devils, evil spirits, magic spells, voodoo, religious fundamentalism, creationism, denial of evolution, denial of medicine, denial of vacinations, denial of global warming, denial of contraception, denial of Aids, etc., etc. Faith is irrational, faith is just plain stupid.

      Rev. H-Cubed - 2011-06-24 19:21

      The earth was round, in a heliocentric solar system long before our reason and logic. My point is that, before we had any proof that this was the case, it took an act of faith to even consider exploring a possibility that was widely held to be, at the time, irrational and illogical. Every single new thing is discovered or invented in this fashion - from a simple, fundamental BELIEF that it is possible, before any proof exists. This is not a theory, this is fact. As for the "atrocities of faith" you catalogue, let us not forget that identical atrocities have been committed in the name of "the scientific method". Google "Tuskegee Experiment" for one example. Read the accounts of one Dr Mengele's activities for another. Piltdown Man also illustrates the possibilities created by "rogue practitioners". The phenomenon is not limited to religion. Furthermore, every "religious" war has been fought with weapons and technology provided by engineers and scientists. The burden of blame is shared equally, I'm afraid. Please do not confuse faith with dogma. Faith is akin to energy, dogma is akin to the devices people construct to employ the energy. Some people build unsafe or malevolent devices. That is not the fault of the energy.

  • Jeff - 2011-06-23 18:41

    Gurus. cults, religions - none of them to be trusted. People, think for yourself.

      Martin du Plessis - 2011-06-23 21:46

      Well, i see groups like these, cults and so on, as places where people feel they BELONG. there are MANY people out there who cannot live properly untill they feel they are part of a bigger whole, part of some sort of society that brings meaning and importance to their lives, people who would mould their own lives, no matter how drastically, to "fit in" somewhere. These are the people these cults and self-help type groups usually target, with some success, too. It is usually these people who have a psychological inclination to drug abuse on various levels as well (As opposed to a genetic inclination which is being brought to light more and more these days) and many of the people who join these kinds of groups usually have SOME kind of history with drug abouse, however small. Telling them to "think for themselves" really doesn't work, or even compute for these people. It's sad really.

  • Marcel - 2011-06-24 14:01

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