Kirby Brown's tennis shoes sit on the patio outside the front door of her home in San Jose del Cabo's Gringo Hill. A "to do" list rests on her office desk. There's a squeaky toy sitting on her dog's bed, and her riding saddle is slung over a post next to the front door, ready to go. It's as if she had just stepped out to run to the store. You half expect her to come bounding back in with a story to tell, her deep blue eyes twinkling with excitement in typical Kirby fashion. It's an eerie site to behold just months after her tragic death.
News of Kirby's death on October 8th in an Arizona sweat lodge while attending a seminar lead by self-help guru James Ray made international headlines and sent a shock wave through the Los Cabos community. This January 8, Kirby is finally coming home as her family and friends gather for a series of memorial events to celebrate her indomitable spirit and spread her ashes at one of her favorite surfing spots. For those who knew her, it is still hard to believe she's gone.
Kirby's friends describe her as a free-spirited woman who wasn't inhibited by the social mores that governed the crowd. She was a seeker who pushed herself constantly toward personal growth. According to friends in San Jose, Kirby strove constantly to be a better artist, a kinder, more generous, and aware person; to live a fuller life. In her eulogy, her brother Bobby, describes her as a "free spirit, a woman of constant action, a force of energy, a truly passionate soul."
Kirby was an integral part of the ex-patriot community in San Jose where she had a successful faux-finish painting business that she was looking forward to expanding when she returned to Cabo after a summer of travel. She was also an extremely social person. Her mother, Ginny, recalls that when she first came to visit Kirby in Los Cabos 10 years ago, she realized that all the musicians knew Kirby and were enamored with her. She remembers accompanying her daughter to watch a band perform at Havana Supper Club one night. "As soon as the music started Kirby got up to dance," she recalls, laughing at the memory. "She pulled everyone she could out on the dance floor with her. After the second set began and the crowd was up and dancing, Kirby picked up the musicians' tip jar and worked the crowd for tips for the hard-working artists. Those musicians made double the money when Kirby was in the audience."
An avid surfer, Kirby loved the sea and was a nature enthusiast with concern for the environment. In the months before she left Cabo for what would be the the last time, she dedicated herself to establishing recycling options in the community. Her roots here in Mexico were firm and strong, which makes her eternal absence so hard to fathom.
Prior to the events that lead to her death, Kirby was planning her life, and her agenda was more than full. During the summer of 2009 she attended the weddings of her two sisters in New York, as well as the christening of her infant nephew. She returned to Cabo in August to move into a new home she decorated with her extensive collection of art, books and accessories before a quick trip to visit friends in Moab and then on to Sedona. Kirby planned to drive to Minnesota following Ray's workshop for a Venetian plaster class related to her painting business, then on to a painting job in San Francisco
James Ray's message attracted Kirby, who attended several of his more benign seminars before signing up for the "Spiritual Warrior" workshop in Sedona. Ray's supporters claim he teaches money and spiritual strategies that have improved their finances and relationships, and more than 10,000 people attended various types of seminars Ray offered in 2009. Never particularly materially-oriented, Brown lived her life to the fullest, without fear of not having enough. The $10,000 price tag for the Spiritual Warrior seminar didn't seem to bother her. For believers in Ray's tagline of "creating harmonic wealth in all areas of your life," it may have even seemed a bargain. According to those who survived, the five-day workshop began with classroom work, after which the 60 participants were told to shave their heads in a symbolic gesture representing rebirth -- a new beginning. Kirby was hesitant, and held off on cutting her hair for a day, then gave in, cropping her long blonde locks close to the scalp. She may have been under pressure from Ray's staff and other participants to conform -- and to obey.
Following the head-shaving there was more classroom time where participants were encouraged to forego sleep because there was too much work to be done. They were encouraged to keep journals documenting their experience. Next came a 36-hour vision quest alone in the desert with no food, water or warm clothing – although participants were offered the opportunity to purchase a $250 poncho from Ray's staff, and this in addition to the $1300 they had paid for lodging. Ray did not participate in this event.
When the group returned from the desert, they played a game that seems to embody the atmosphere of the entire retreat In this game, Ray dressed in a white robe and declared himself God, while his "dream team" staff, dressed in black clothes and makeup, played the angels of death. Ray gave orders and if participants did not do precisely as instructed, the angels of death would "kill" them and they would be forced to lie motionless on the ground and pretend they were dead. At this point two women became fed up with Ray's decidedly unconventional techniques and quit the seminar. They had to fight with staff to be allowed to leave. Those that remained were treated to a meager buffet breakfast then asked to burn the journals they had been keeping. Kirby kept two journals. She burned one, and the other is currently in the hands of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office as they are considering charging Ray with homicide for the events that would happen next.
According to Rick Ross, a noted expert on cults and controversial movements, Ray's techniques were similar to those employed by cult leaders. "Sleep deprivation, diet and physical exhaustion apparently were components he used to break people down," Ross told Baja Pulse. "Though I don't consider the Ray seminars a "cult," many of the calculated coercive persuasion techniques the self-help guru reportedly employed to manipulate people are in the same category of methodology frequently used by cult leaders," Ross stated. "He appears to have used cult-like techniques to garner a devoted following and then exploit them for personal profit."
Ray's next move was to order his sleep-deprived, malnourished and dehydrated flock into a 400 square-foot sweat lodge cobbled together out of tarps and blankets. No building permits exist for said structure. Ray positioned himself by the door, the only place where fresh air could enter, in order to control who went in and out. Kirby sat near the back of the lodge, next to James Shore, a 40 year-old man from Milwaukee and Liz Neuman, a 49 year-old woman from Minnesota. None of them would survive. At intervals of 15 minutes rocks that were heated in a fire outside the sweat lodge were brought into the tent and water was poured over them. Soon temperatures inside the lodge reached upwards of 120 degrees. Anyone who asked to leave was chided and ridiculed by Ray, who encouraged other members of the group to ostracize them for being weak. As time dragged on and minutes turned into hours, conditions inside the lodge turned deadly. Ray seemed oblivious to the danger. People began to cry out to Ray, telling him that they couldn't breath. He suggested they dig into the dirt floor and take a breath from the dirt. Participants began vomiting, which Ray told them was all part of a spiritual purging process. Kirby's neighbor, Shore, managed to help some of those who were suffocating out of the tent, but eventually lost consciousness himself. During these moments Kirby was drawing her last breath. Survivors recall a traumatic scene of people stumbling out of the tent in a stupor and falling in the fire pit outside, burning themselves severely, yet still reentering the sweat lodge on Ray's orders.
When it became apparent that people were dead or dying, a 911 call was placed, but it would be 20 minutes before paramedics would arrive due to the remote location. Beverly Bunn, an orthodontist and Kirby's roommate during the seminar, tried to assist Ray's staff in reviving those who had lost consciousness.
"I told them about 10 times, 'I know CPR, I know CPR," Bunn said in a heart-wrenching interview on national television. "They kept pulling me away and pulling me away," she recounted as she broke into tears. Paramedics reportedly mistook the scene for that of an attempted mass suicide.
Ray seemed detached and didn't offer to help anyone, says former employee Melinda Martin "He came out and he stretched his arms up and everybody hosed him off and he's like, 'Hey thanks!'… and it really stopped me in my tracks. I just stopped, and I said, 'How can you walk out of there with all these people down, and they just looked near death, and you guys can walk out there looking like you just spent the day in the spa,'" Martin says.
Bunn concurs with Martin. "Ray pretty much abandoned all of us," she says. "He left us there to figure out what was going on. After the incident he never came back."
James Ray did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, although in a statement he counters that "press reports stating that James abandoned the participants that night are completely false." In a separate statement issued three days after the tragedy, Ray expresses his "deepest heartfelt condolences," adding that "because there are so many more questions than answers at this time I believe it inappropriate to comment further until we know more."
Ray has recently put his mansion in Beverley Hills up for sale ($5.4 million) and has postponed all seminars for 2009.
James Shore and Kirby Brown died that day, and 18 others were hospitalized, including
Liz Neuman a personal friend of Ray's who had been on his "dream team". Neuman suffered massive organ failure and lay in a coma for eight days, accruing a hospital bill in excess of $300,000 before she died on October 17. Ray never went to the hospital or contacted her family.
Ray did not contact Kirby's family until five days after her death. He sent her parents a check for $5,000 . Kirby's parents were appalled and the check remains uncashed
Kirby's friend Lisa Brusseau blames Ray for Kirby's death. "My husband and I were feeling (and still are) so angry and horribly sad about losing one of our very best friends. We felt compelled to try to make sure this person, James Arthur Ray, never again holds another seminar of any kind," she told Baja Pulse. Brusseau, who owns buildings just down the street from Ray's corporate headquarters, had a series of banners made, which read "Be accountable James Arthur Ray. You were trusted by our friend Kirby Brown and now she and two others are dead." Ray's attorneys have contacted the Brusseaus requesting that the banners be taken down.
"When we learned that someone at the sweat lodge called out, 'We can't get her to move, she is not breathing' and James Ray's pathetic response was, ‘Leave her alone, we'll deal with her in the next round', we knew this was a criminal event," Brusseau states. "The Sedona sweat lodge incident was a gross negligence act on the part of James Arthur Ray fueled by his large, selfish ego. It is our great hope to see him behind bars and that he never makes another dime from devoted followers who could end up paying with their lives just as Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman had to."
Native American tribes expressed outrage that their traditional cleansing ceremony has been hijacked by so-called spiritual leaders, and the Oglala Lakota Nation has filed a lawsuit against Ray. It is likely others will follow, although the Browns won't say whether they are considering litigation. "I don't want to crucify James Ray," says Kirby's mother Ginny, "but now that Kirby no longer has a voice I want to speak for her and make sure this never happens again."
Living with Loss
Toward this end, the Brown family intends to create a foundation in Kirby's honor to help regulate the self-help industry. The Brown family feels it is a matter of consumer protection. "Today, there is a guarantee for just about everything you pay for," Ginny points out. "This does not currently extend to the self-help industry. People should be able to go on spiritual quests and not have their lives endangered."
She is advocating proper training and background to conduct such seminars, as well as medical training and availability, especially when people are pushing their physical limits." Ray reportedly had little more than a Tupperware box of band-aids and did not take medical histories of participants to insure that they were in good physical condition.
Although wrestling with their own grief, the Brown family is also very concerned about those who survived the sweat lodge. "These people were frightened, traumatized, and not getting any help," says Ginny. They don't know who to trust to help them process the experience."
The Brown's hope that the upcoming memorial services will help them through the grieving process, and invite all who knew and loved Kirby to attend.
"It is very hard for us to imagine our family and future without Kirby, and especially difficult at this time of year. As a family, we have agreed to allow ourselves to grieve, but not to allow the grief to swallow us whole," Ginny says. "That is not what Kirby would have wanted. She would have wanted us to live with vitality the way she lived. She would want us to get on the wave and ride it in rather than drown in the grief."