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Misuse of Sweatlodge results in 3 deaths in Arizona
Sunday, December 06 2009
 
Written by Associated Press,
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Story.jpgJames Arthur Ray, motivational speaker, author and self-help guru offers clients the promise of both spiritual and financial wealth if they sign on to his programs. But the five-day “Spiritual Warrior" course that 50 participants paid more than $9,000 each at attend, ended in 3 deaths and twenty one people being taken to the hospital.

Ray had rented the Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona, Arizona. The culmination was the sweat lodge ceremony that ended in tragedy. Ray led more than 50 people, both men and women,  into a makeshift “sweat lodge” on Oct. 8. After about two hours, Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee were pulled out of the sweat lodge unconscious, and nineteen other people were taken to hospitals.
Liz Neuman, a 49-year-old from Minnesota dieda week later at a Flagstaff hospital. She suffered multiple organ damage during the sweatlodge and was in a coma before she died.

Neuman was among more than 50 people crowded inside the sweat lodge run by Ray. An emergency call two hours after they entered the lodge reported two people not breathing.

Twenty-one people were taken to area hospitals with illnesses ranging from dehydration to kidney failure.  Brown, and Shore died upon arrival at a hospital. Authorities haven’t determined what caused the deaths. Autopsy results on Brown and Shore are pending further testing.

Before entering the sweat lodge the group had engaged in a 36-hour fast during a “vision quest” in the nearby wilderness and afterwards were served a breakfast buffet, authorities said.

Texas resident Beverley Bunn is the first participant in the tragic incident to speak out publicly about the events that led up to the deaths. The 43-year-old told the AP in a series of interviews that by the time the sweat lodge ceremony began, the participants had undergone days of physically and mentally strenuous events that included fasting. In one game, guru James Arthur Ray even played God, said Bunn.

Within an hour of entering the sweat lodge on the evening of Oct. 8, people began vomiting, gasping for air and collapsing. Yet Bunn says Ray continually urged everyone to stay inside. The ceremony was broken up into 15-minute “rounds,” with the entrance flap to the lodge opened briefly and more heated rocks brought inside between sessions.

“I can’t get her to move. I can’t get her to wake up,” Bunn recalls hearing from two sides of the 415-square-foot sweat lodge. Ray’s response: “Leave her alone, she’ll be dealt with in the next round.”

By that time, Bunn had already crawled to a spot near the opening of the sweat lodge, praying for the door to stay open as long as possible between rounds so that she could breathe in fresh air.

At one point, someone lifted up the back of the tent, shining light in the otherwise pitch-black enclosure. Ray demanded to know who was letting the light in and committing a “sacrilegious act,” Bunn said.

The account marks a significant revelation in the investigation because it portrays Ray as driving participants to stay in the lodge despite signs all around him that the situation had gone horribly wrong. Until now, few details had surfaced about Ray’s actions inside in the sweat lodge.

Ray led the group in chants and prayers during the ceremony, Bunn said. People were not physically forced to stay inside but chided by Ray if they wanted to leave as he told them they were stronger than their bodies and weakness could be overcome.

Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said the deaths were not accidental they are being investigated as homocides, “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.”

Brown’s cousin and family spokesman Tom McFeeley said, “[Ray is] a motivational speaker who tried his hand at very dangerous physical things, and it was reckless.” The sheriff’s announcement that the deaths are being treated as homocides, he said, “doesn’t surprise us in the least.”

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

Investigators are looking into the construction of the sweat lodge and the fact that people had fallen ill at previous sweat ceremonies led by Ray. He is the primary focus of the inquiry but others are being investigated too, the sheriff said.

Records obtained by The Associated Press showed local fire officials responded to the same retreat for a person who fell unconscious during a Ray-led sweat ceremony in 2005.

A search warrant was served  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.

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