Self-help guru pleads not guilty to manslaughter charges

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Alicia Barron By Alicia Barron
By Alicia Barron By Alicia Barron
By Alicia Barron By Alicia Barron

CAMP VERDE -- Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter in connection with three deaths at a sweat lodge ceremony in Northern Arizona last year. Ray's bond is set at $5 million.

Ray, 52, was taken into custody at his lawyer's office in Prescott Wednesday afternoon, and then booked into the Yavapai County Jail in Camp Verde. Shortly before 9 a.m. Thursday, Ray -- cuffed, shackled and clad in an orange jump suit -- was taken to the Yavapai County Superior Court.

The arrest and charges stem from an Oct. 8 ceremony in which three people -- James Shore, Kirby Brown and Lizbeth Neuman -- died.

In addition to the three deaths, 18 more people got so sick they had to be hospitalized.

The ceremony was the culmination of a five-day event called "Spiritual Warrior," which took place at a retreat Ray rents near Sedona. Between 55 and 65 people took part I that event at a cost of more than $9,000 each.

The "cleansing ceremony" took place in a makeshift sweat lodge. According to authorities, Ray encouraged people to stay inside the sauna-like enclosure, even after several of them started feeling ill.

"Each and every one of them, they were told that to succeed you need to see this through to the end and if you don't you will have failed this activity," said Ted Schmidt, who represents Sidney Spencer, a 59-year-old Patagonia woman who nearly died in the sweat lodge. She was sitting in the back row of the sweat lodge, next to Shore, Brown and Neuman.

"I think [the way Ray has handled the situation] has really added insult to injury," Schmidt said. "This tragedy was clearly his fault, his responsibility, yet he's taken not one iota of responsibility for it.

"What's conspicuously absent  from everything you've heard from Mr. Ray's attorney is any discussion whatsoever about what he did and what transpired inside the sweat lodge. The facts that support these criminal charges -- substantially support them -- are derived from multiple witnesses in the sweat lodge who all say the same thing."

People who took part in the event said some participants were vomiting and a few passed out in the sweltering heat. Witnesses said the self-help guru responded by ordering more hot rocks.

In comments to New York Magazine published in late January, Ray said while he felt "horrible" about the incident, he was not aware that anybody was having medical issues until after the two-hour ceremony.

Ray's attorney says criminal charges are not warranted.

"The charges are unjust and we will prove it in court," said Luis Li of Munger Tolles & Olson LLP, in a statement sent to 3TV. "This was a terrible accident – but it was an accident, not a criminal act. James Ray cooperated at every step of the way, providing information and witnesses to the authorities showing that no one could have foreseen this accident. We will now present this evidence in a court of law, and we are confident that Mr. Ray will be exonerated."

Survivors of the incident tell 3TV they're pleased with the arrest, and glad Ray is being held responsible.

"[This is] verification of what I've been saying since the beginning," said Beverly Bunn. "The truth is the truth and now the truth is being told and the truth is coming out."

Some survivors, however, aren't sure about the possibility of Ray serving prison time.

"As furious as I am, and as much as I am demanding accountability, I have mixed feelings about him sitting in prison for the rest of his life," said Shawna Bowen.

One of the survivors told 3TV she met with a group of others who took part in the event and was surprised to learn that even after the deadly incident, many continue to support Ray.

If convicted, Ray could face between nine and 37 years in prison. The minimum sentence per count is three years; the maximum is 12 1/2.