Prescott -- Self-help entrepreneur James Arthur Ray was sentenced Friday to two years in prison for the deaths of three people at a sweat-lodge ceremony he led near Sedona, punishment years less than what relatives of the victims had hoped for.
Ray received a two-year term for each of the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38; James Shore, 40; and Liz Neuman, 49, but Yavapai Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow issued concurrent rather than consecutive sentences. He also ordered Ray to pay $57,000 in restitution to the families of the three victims.
"Justice doesn't feel like it's been served," said Andrea Puckett, Neuman's daughter. She and other family members of Brown, Shore and Neuman said they had hoped to see Ray serve the maximum sentence he could have received on the three convictions of negligent homicide, which was nine years.
"Hopefully, it will be long enough for him to recognize all the damage and pain that could have been prevented had he paid attention to their pleas for help," said Jane Shore Gripp, Shore's mother.
The families' disappointment was echoed by American Indian activists upset about what they view as Ray's appropriation and misuse of the sweat-lodge ceremony, which they see as sacred.
"Now, he's a convicted felon; let the word go out to others," said Marvin Youngdog, a Lakota elder who traveled from Pine Ridge, S.D., to watch the sentencing.
Ray, while being led away, declined to comment after the verdict. But his attorneys, who had asked for probation, said they will appeal both the sentence and his conviction.
Before he was sentenced, Ray, speaking directly to the victims' relatives and then to the judge, tearfully begged forgiveness and promised that he would never conduct a sweat lodge or other physically dangerous activity again.
"I'm so sorry. And I know that nothing I could say or do is enough," he said, his voice cracking and thick with emotion. "There's not one single day that passes that I don't relive the moments of that night in my life, asking what I missed, what I could have done differently. I didn't know. I didn't know that anyone was dying or in distress. I wish to God I would have. I would have stopped immediately."
In a comment echoed by other relatives, Ginny Brown, Kirby's mother, said afterward: "It's too bad he didn't say those words two years ago. I accept his apology, but it doesn't bring Kirby back."
Speaking to Judge Darrow before the sentencing, family members repeatedly criticized Ray for not previously taking responsibility for the deaths at the October 2009 ceremony he led at the Angel Valley resort near Sedona.
The event had been intended as the culmination of a five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat, but during the ceremony, many of the 50 participants became disoriented and ill. Brown and Shore passed out and were left unnoticed inside the sweat lodge for 20 minutes after the event ended. They died of heat stroke. Neuman died nine days later of massive organ failure at a Flagstaff hospital.
"Does he still not realize it was too damn hot?" shouted Ginny Brown, staring at Ray, who avoided eye contact. "Please, take him off the market," she begged Darrow. Brown and her husband spoke movingly about how devastating their oldest daughter's death continues to be for them and said that their unconscious daughter had no choice about leaving the sweat lodge.
"It was James Ray's free-will choice to add rocks to every round to make it hotter, to make it more challenging. He wanted to teach people things; I understand that," said Brown, in tears. "But he ran this event. He was responsible, and he didn't stop it, and he didn't take care of his people."
Lily Clark, Neuman's cousin, said that she has suffered from wishing she had persuaded Neuman to not take part in Ray's event but that her cousin had felt obligated to help as a volunteer.
"There was nothing you could teach Liz, James or Kirby about honor, integrity or impeccability," she told Ray bitterly, repeating words he used before the ceremony to urge participants to stay inside the sweat lodge.
Robert Brown, Kirby's brother, testified in a recorded video, saying, "Mr. Ray can deal with nine years in prison while the rest of us are left to deal with forever."
Family members had been especially angry about Ray's seeming indifference after the event, saying that neither he nor his staff called. They said they found out what happened either from police or from calling around to area hospitals on their own after hearing news reports. Ray's mother, Joyce Ray, said Thursday that her son had wanted to contact the families but had been advised not to by his attorneys.
Before the sentencing, Sheila Polk, Yavapai County prosecutor, said Ray "led the life of a pretender, and there are predictable consequences when one leads a life of pretense."
Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide in June, following a nearly four-month-long trial. During the trial, Ray's attorneys had tried to characterize the deaths as a tragic, unavoidable accident and had tried to convince jurors that some unknown toxin might have caused the deaths. But jurors didn't believe that theory, as several said in subsequent media interviews.
During the trial, Darrow had severely limited prosecutors' efforts to introduce testimony about prior sweat lodges and other events led by Ray at which participants were injured. But after releasing the jury, in the pre-sentencing phase, Darrow allowed greater latitude to both sides.
Prosecutors made the case that Ray had ignored plenty of warning signs that his events were becoming dangerous and that his stated desire to become the world's first "self-help" billionaire led him to become increasingly careless at his events, a contention disputed by Ray's defense team.
Ray's attorneys, supporters and family called to the stand this past week had asked for Ray to receive probation. They cited his lack of a prior criminal record, said he had not intended for anyone to die, and attested to what they termed his good character and community service.
His attorneys also argued that Ray posed no risk to society, is remorseful and is needed to help take care of his mother, who is fighting cancer. Ray's attorneys had asked Darrow to allow Ray to remain free on bail pending the outcome of their planned appeal of his conviction, but Darrow declined.
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