Sweat lodge victim's mother laments Ray's charisma

The Daily Courier, Arizona/November 9, 2011

Prescott -- "I assumed, foolishly, that everything he said was true. Maybe if I had been a little more skeptical, my daughter would be alive."

More than two years after her daughter perished in a Sedona sweat lodge, Virginia Brown once again testified in court, this time during the presentence hearing for James Arthur Ray.

Judge Warren Darrow will sentence Ray, who was found guilty on three counts of negligent homicide, on Nov. 18. The sentencing possibilities range from probation to as long as nine years in prison.

Mrs. Brown's daughter Kirby, along with James Shore and Liz Neuman, died after a Ray-led sweat lodge ceremony in October 2009. She told the court Wednesday she was at first impressed with Ray when she and Kirby attended an event the motivational speaker and author put on in Jersey City earlier in 2009.

"Mr. Ray is an incredible speaker," she said. "He's charismatic, he's intelligent, he presents in a very cogent manner. His energy on stage is electric."

So convincing was he at that initial encounter, she said, that she purchased a weekend event for her husband that very night.

But even then she began to have doubts about the "law of attraction" that was the basis of Ray's teachings.

"The implication is that you can create your own reality," she said, adding that her professional sensibilities - she is an educator and therapist - was disturbed when Ray allowed people to delve too deeply into their personal issues in front of a large crowd.

And when she learned, not from Ray or his people but from a state trooper in New York, that Kirby had died in a sweat lodge in Sedona, every bit of information that followed prompted her to analyze what had taken place, including what Ray's qualifications and motivations really were.

After convicting Ray of the homicides in June, a jury found that the emotional harm from the deaths is a possible aggravating factor for sentencing. This week the state, led by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, is working to further convince Darrow that Ray deserves the maximum allowable sentence.

Earlier in the day, Margaret Clancy, a former Ray client, completed her testimony with a wish that some kind of regulatory agency existed to oversee the self-help industry.

"There should be some kind of regulation," she said, "and certain standards that have to be met."

Yavapai College Professor Steve Pace, who serves as the school's director of risk management for field activities, testified in general terms about what precautions a leader should take when conducting an experiential activity. Those precautions, he said, should include taking note of "near misses."

The prosecution has repeatedly maintained that Ray's sweat lodge ceremonies, which he began conducting in 2003, became progressively more dangerous, and caused more people to experience distress with each passing year.

"If you have something happen over and over again," Pace said, "you would think that there is something wrong with the practices."

But Tere Gingerella, who worked as Ray's director of operations from 2002 through 2005 and agreed that two of the sweat lodge ceremonies had resulted in medical issues, said she believed Ray truly cared for the people who came to him for guidance.

"He was able to connect... with the individuals that came to his events," she said. "I don't like to think that I have negative opinions of James."

Mrs. Brown is scheduled to continue her testimony today. The hearings will continue next week with defense witnesses who will testify on Ray's behalf.

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