Self-help author speaks out about sweat lodge deaths

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX (AP) -- A self-help author who spent nearly two years in prison for the deaths of three people following a northern Arizona sweat lodge ceremony said he's still shocked and remorseful about what happened.

"There's no greater pain than attempting to help people and they get hurt. It's horrible," James Arthur Ray told CNN on Monday night in what the station touted as his first interview since being released from prison.

"I'm very sorry and remorseful about what happened. I wish I could change that," Ray added. "It's not easy to live with. That anguish has continued every single day."

Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman of Prior Lake, Minn., died following the October 2009 ceremony Ray led near Sedona. Eighteen other people were injured.

Ray was convicted in 2011 on three counts of negligent homicide and served 20 months in prison. He also was required to spend time in Arizona on community supervision, which ended on Oct. 12.

Ray, for the first time, explained why he left his followers when they started falling ill.

"I was scared," he told CNN, "My lawyer told me to get out of there."

Family members of sweat lodge victims said Ray's interview was tough to watch.

"I don't see how he thinks he's fit for a leadership role.  He abandoned everybody when they needed him most," Bryan Neuman told 3TV.   Neuman's mother, Liz, passed away in the hospital following the sweat lodge.

"He was concerned with self-preservation.  He said it was just him being a human, but I've been with lots of humans who, if I was unconscious, would have stopped to help me," Virginia Brown told 3TV.  Brown's daughter, Kirby, died at Ray's event in 2009.

Brown and other families have created, a non-profit organization.  Seek  works to educate the public about the unregulated self-help industry, and to get self-help leaders to commit to a list of ethics and promises.

Ray appealed the verdicts but later dropped the challenge, saying he wanted to avoid the possibility of a retrial and re-sentencing.

Sweat lodges are commonly used by American Indian tribes to cleanse the body and prepare for hunts, ceremonies and other events. They typically hold no more than a dozen people, compared with the more than 50 people inside Ray's ceremony in Arizona.

The ceremony involves stones heated up outside the lodge, brought inside and placed in a pit. The door is closed, and water is poured on the stones, producing heat aimed at releasing toxins in the body. In traditional ceremonies, the person who pours the water is said to have an innate sense about the conditions of others inside the sweat lodge, many times recognizing problems before they physically are presented.

Prosecutors and families of the victims said Ray ratcheted up the heat in the Arizona sweat lodge to dangerous levels, ignored pleas for help and watched as participants were dragged out of the tent-like facility.

"I didn't know that anyone was in a life-or-death situation. I was totally shocked," Ray told CNN. "It was my event. I designed it."

"I've done this for a number of years, and we've never had anything close to this. I had systems in place and the system broke down," he said. "I'm responsible."

Ray said he has lost "everything" because of the tragedy and he has "no intention of ever doing another sweat lodge."