Beyond Sweat Lodge: James Ray's Controversial World

Ray Postpones Self-Help Events Following Sedona, Ariz., Sweat Lodge Deaths, Victim's Family Calls for Arrest

ABC News/October 29, 2009

When dozens of fans and supporters for James Arthur Ray showed up for one of his events in Toronto Wednesday night, they were greeted by a handwritten sign saying the event had been canceled.

At the time no explanation was given, but one of Ray's former mentors, Bob Proctor, apparently convinced Ray to cancel the seminar just hours before it was scheduled to start, ABC News has learned.

In a post on his Web site today, Ray said he is postponing the rest of his events for the year to help "get to the bottom" of the incident in Sedona, Ariz., earlier this month in which three people died after attending one of his seminars in a sweat lodge.

"These families deserve to have the questions raised by the tragedy answered as quickly and authoritatively as possible," Ray writes on the Web site. "It's now clear I must dedicate all of my physical and emotional energies to helping bring some sort of closure to this matter."

But for at least one of the victims' families, closure is not enough - the family wants Ray held accountable.

"I think he should take responsibility for his role in this incident," Andrea Puckett told ABC News. Puckett's mother, Liz Neuman, died days after she slipped into a coma as a result of dehydration during an event called "Spiritual Warrior" in the sweat lodge. "Honestly, I think he deserves to be behind bars. I think that he was completely negligent and I believe that he is responsible for my mother's death."

Beverly Bunn, a participant who survived the sweat lodge ceremony, said Ray urged participants not to leave, even when people were passing out and vomiting.

In a statement to ABC News, an attorney for Ray called the deaths a "terrible accident" but distanced the self-help guru from accountability.

"The facts are that Mr. Ray was not the one who was responsible for the design, construction or maintenance of the sweat lodge," the statement said.

Ray has been criticized for refusing to give investigators a statement concerning the deaths and for hosting two events after the deaths before the canceled event in Toronto, but his latest statement could signal a newfound cooperation with authorities.

"In the days following the terrible accident, I struggled to respond the right way," Ray said on his Web site.

It's a rare admission for a man whose meteoric rise in the self-help industry was largely based on knowing just what to say.

'The Secret' to Self-Help Fame

James Arthur Ray's self-help star rose dramatically in 2006 with the best-selling book "The Secret," which preaches "The Law of Attraction," the idea that people can attract anything they want - money, love, improved health - through the power of thoughts.

"In simple terms, if you are constantly thinking, feeling and acting broke, then you're never going to attract prosperity into your life," Ray told ABC News in a previously unaired 2007 interview with Dan Harris.

In that interview, Ray defended "The Secret" against critics who asked if the victims of 9/11 or the Holocaust are to blame for simply thinking incorrectly.

"I know people of the Jewish faith and heritage who don't necessarily believe the Holocaust was bad," Ray said. "Now that might be shocking to you but I have people on record who have said, hey there's a lot of good things that came out of that, a lot of lessons, a lot of opportunities for the world. "

Supporters Call Seminars Life-Changing. Critics Call Foul.

In free meetings, like the one in Toronto, Ray gives a taste of his teachings - which include a mix of spirituality, motivational speaking and quantum physics - in a pitch that urges attendees to sign up for his multi-day seminars. These seminars, like the one in Sedona, can cost thousands of dollars.

The seminars are a mix of lecturing based on various self-help teachings and activities such as walking on coals, breaking wooden boards and the now-infamous sweat lodge, which are meant to push personal limits, one attendee said.

Donna Fleming, 60, told ABC News she felt "taken" after Ray convinced her to pay $6,000 for two seminars.

"He's good. He's got charisma. He's just an unbelievably charismatic individual that really does sway a lot of people," Fleming said. "Ray is in it for the money and I have no question whatsoever that he realized he hit the goldmine when he realized he was the perfect fit for this industry."

Fleming said she walked out of the first of the two seminars she paid for in 2008 after an activity in which the participants dressed up as homeless people and wandered around downtown San Diego for four hours.

"I was angry, I tried to deal with that. I tried to find what possible theme could this be for me, and I probably realized flat out that I'd been taken for a substantial amount of money for an absolutely ridiculous experience," Fleming said.

Fleming filed a lawsuit in an attempt to get her money back but lost.

Supporter Undeterred by Sedona Deaths

But while Fleming said she was dissatisfied, she said she was "among very few people who had a problem with the experience." Dave Orton, who took part in the same activity during a different seminar in San Diego, said the "homeless activity" was eye-opening.

"I experienced what it was like to be a homeless person, people looking down on me because of my appearance," Orton told ABC News. "It does take you outside your comfort zone. It does put you in a place you're not used to. It's a place where you experience growth pretty rapidly."

Orton said it's thanks to Ray that he lives a life of "near constant gratitude" for what he has and that the price tag is more than worth it. Undeterred by the recent deaths, Orton plans to attend the Sedona event next year.

"The value doesn't even compare," he said. "To the people that say he's a fraud, I haven't actually thought of what I would say to them, it's so far out of what I see as reality. Have you tried growing yourself?"

For Fleming, the only thing that grew was her distrust of the self-improvement industry.

"I feel cured of self-help groups so that's something," Fleming said. "Maybe that's worth $6,000."

On Ray's Web site, he promises the events will be back up and running "once the essential work that must be done on the Sedona tragedy has been completed." No criminal charges have been filed in relation to the Sedona deaths.

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