Guru says he's being tested by AZ retreat deaths

Associated Press/October 14, 2009

Los Angeles - The man in charge of a spiritual retreat last week in Arizona that left two people dead after they were overcome in a sweat lodge said Tuesday night he is "being tested" by the tragedy and has hired his own investigators to try to determine what went wrong.

The comments from self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray came during a seminar he held at a hotel in Marina del Rey, near Los Angeles. Ray broke down in tears as he addressed the deaths.

"This is the most difficult time I've ever faced," Ray told the crowd of about 200. "I don't know how to deal with it really."

An audience member asked Ray to describe what happened at the retreat, but he declined, saying only that he has hired his own investigative team and is cooperating with authorities.

"We're looking for answers," he said. "I'm as frustrated and confused as other people are."

Ray added that he wrestled with whether to go through with Tuesday's seminar, which he said was scheduled weeks before the sweat lodge deaths.

"My advisers told me, 'Don't do that. You don't know who'll show up. They're going to eat you alive,'" he told the audience. But he said it was important for him to keep his commitments.

"I'm grieving right now," said Ray, who received a standing ovation at the end of the seminar. "I'm grieving for the families."

Ray led a group of more than 50 people last week through a five-day program at a resort near Sedona, Ariz., intended to push people beyond their limits. The course included a Thursday sweat lodge ceremony, which ended tragically in the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee.

Nineteen other people were hurt, and one remains in critical condition.

Ray's comments followed a demand earlier Tuesday from a spokesman for Brown's family for more accountability from Ray.

Tom McFeeley, Brown's cousin and family spokesman, called on Ray to assure that the retreat's participants "were not mistreated and not put in a reckless situation.

"He was someone people believed in, people paid good money to get his advice," McFeeley said. "It's a person we all wanted to believe had our best interest in mind. Quite simply, that didn't happen."

McFeeley also said he is concerned that Ray exhibited a "godlike complex" during the event that might have kept people from opting out of activities Ray acknowledged could cause "physical, emotional, financial or other injuries."

Ray's spokesman, Howard Bragman, declined Tuesday to address McFeeley's concerns.

Fire department reports released Tuesday show the incident wasn't the first involving a sweat lodge ceremony at the resort, the Angel Valley Retreat Center. Verde Valley Fire Chief Jerry Doerksen said his department responded to a 911 call in October 2005 about a person who was unconscious after being in a sweat lodge.

Angel Valley resort owner Amayra Hamilton confirmed that Ray was leading the sweat ceremony during the 2005 event. Ray's spokesman declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office continued to investigate last week's ceremony to determine if criminal negligence played a role in the deaths or illnesses. Sheriff's spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said Tuesday that authorities have not yet spoken with Ray.

No charges have been filed.

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 Thursday night. Participants paid between $9,000 and $10,000 for the retreat. They were highly encouraged, but not forced, to remain inside for the entire two hours, authorities said.

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, who authorities said were Shore and Brown, had no pulse and weren't breathing.

Autopsies on Brown and Shore were conducted, but the results are being withheld pending additional tests. Carbon monoxide poisoning was ruled out as a cause of the deaths and illnesses.

A statement released by the family of Liz Neuman, who remains in critical condition at the Flagstaff Medical Center, said she is in a coma and doctors are working to stabilize damage to multiple organs.

Two others remained hospitalized. Fire officials said the victims exhibited symptoms ranging from dehydration to kidney failure after sitting in the sweat lodge.

Officials say the sweat lodge, built specifically for the five-day retreat, lacked the necessary building permit.

Resort owners Amayra Hamilton and her husband, Michael, asked Tuesday for prayers in hopes that something positive would come out of what they said was a tragic and unexpected event.

Following Tuesday night's seminar, attendee Darren Sakurai of Los Angeles said he left with a good impression of Ray's message.

"The fact that he showed up says a lot about the man," Sakurai said.

Fonseca reported from Sedona, Ariz.

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