Phoenix - Even as a boy, self-improvement guru James Arthur Ray was fixated on money and spirituality.
The son of an Oklahoma preacher recalls in his 2008 book, Harmonic Wealth, that his family was so poor they had to live in the church office.
"The hardest part of my childhood was reconciling how Dad poured his heart into his work, how he helped so many people and yet he couldn't afford to pay for haircuts for me and my brother," Ray wrote.
Ray, whose followers spend thousands of dollars to attend his wealth and mysticism seminars, is a primary focus of a homicide investigation into three deaths related to a sweat-lodge ceremony he led at a retreat near Sedona, Ariz., on Oct. 8, Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said.
Scant details from the scene
Sheriff's authorities say 55 to 65 people attending the program were crowded into the 415-square-foot, crudely built sweat lodge during a two-hour period. Participants paid between $9,000 and $10,000 for the retreat.
The participants had fasted for 36 hours as part of a personal and spiritual quest in the wilderness, then ate a breakfast buffet before entering the sweat lodge around 3 p.m. A 911 call two hours later said two people weren't breathing. Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died upon arrival at a hospital. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., died more than a week later.
No one has been charged in the incident. Ray, 51, declined to comment for this story.
Supporters say the charismatic leader teaches money and spiritual strategies that have improved their finances and relationships.
"I have really grown tremendously outside of who I was," said Hermia Nelson, a New York businesswoman who attended retreats near Sedona in 2007 and 2008.
"I don't think James is a reckless person or the organization was negligent. They take very seriously these types of events," Nelson said.
A few days following the Sedona retreat, Ray spoke during a seminar in Marina del Rey, near Los Angeles.
"This is the most difficult time I've ever faced," he told the crowd of about 200 on Oct. 13. "I don't know how to deal with it, really."
How Ray built his own wealth
Ray started his business, James Ray International in Carlsbad, Calif., in 1992, working for years in relative obscurity as one of many self-improvement teachers in an industry that last year generated $11.3 billion, according to Marketdata, a research firm.
By 2005, revenue from Ray's books, conferences and seminars reached $1.5 million, spokesman Ryan Croy said.
In 2006, Ray appeared in The Secret, a popular documentary in which he and others promoted the philosophy that positive thinking makes good things happen. He also appeared on Oprah.
Last year, according to the company, revenue hit $9.4 million.
Ray holds free two-hour workshops across the U.S. and Canada. The 41 events so far this year attracted 10,913 people, according to his company. From that group, 1,752 people enrolled in Ray's two-day Harmonic Wealth Weekend, which costs $1,297 a person and is the first of six programs in his Journey of Power Experience. Croy said 3,281 people attended Journey of Power events between August 2008 and August 2009.
John Curtis, an Asheville, N.C., professor who operates the Americans Against Self-Help Fraud website, said people who turn to self-improvement gurus are typically intelligent, but seem to voluntarily abandon rationality.
"There's a fear of leaving it, and there's a fear among the group of saying, 'The emperor is naked.' "
Steven Gunter, a professor of evangelism at Duke University, said the Sedona tragedy cannot be written off as a misfortune.
"You really can't simply call it an accident," he said. "You can call it misguided."
Contributing: Joanne Dawson and JJ Hensley of The Arizona Republic; the Associated Press