Bond lowered for guru in Ariz. sweat lodge deaths

The Associated Press/February 25, 2010

Flagstaff, Arizona - An Arizona judge has lowered the bond from $5 million to $525,000 for a motivational speaker charged with manslaughter for the deaths of three people, clearing the way for his release as early as Friday.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow issued the ruling Thursday, a day after a bond reduction hearing in James Arthur Ray's case ended. Ray has pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter stemming from a sweat lodge ceremony he led near Sedona in October.

Darrow said Ray can post cash or a secured appearance bond, and ordered that he surrender his passport. Ray also cannot organize, supervise or conduct any sweat lodge ceremonies or other activities that might physically harm others.

The order does not restrict Ray from travel in the United States or specifically from conducting self-help seminars he built a business on, but he must first provide a written itinerary to his attorneys and to the court upon request.

One of Ray's attorneys, Luis Li, said in a statement that he was pleased the bond was reduced and that Ray "looks forward to his day in court."

Darrow has said a trial date would be set at the next hearing, scheduled in mid-March.

Yavapai County sheriff's spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said Ray likely would be released Friday, once his passport is surrendered.

The bail is less than the $1.5 million that prosecutors had contended was appropriate to ensure Ray's appearance in court. A spokeswoman for the prosecutors' office declined to comment on the bond, citing fair trial rights.

Ray's attorneys had asked that he be released without bail or that bond set at a minimum. They argued he could not afford even a $1 million bond, isn't a flight risk or a threat to public safety and has no criminal record.

Hermia Nelson, 45, said she and others have been holding conference calls and prayer circles in support of Ray's release and was hopeful that he now might speak out about his side of the story and continue his teachings.

"His teachings absolutely need to go on, in whatever form I'm sure it will become clear down the road what that will be," said Nelson, of New York.

The mother of a woman who died following the sweat lodge ceremony said Ray's very words are harmful and questioned how a man who publicly bragged about his wealth and his ability to teach others to become wealthy couldn't afford the $5 million bond.

"I'm shocked that what had been asked for wasn't within his means based on everything he said he had and who he was," said Virginia Brown from her home in Westtown, N.Y. "Was he lying then or is he lying now?"

Exactly much money Ray has was the focus of the bond reduction hearing that stretched over two days.

A witness for the prosecution testified that Ray was worth a "conservative" $2.4 million and questioned why some of his money was unaccounted for.

Ray's attorneys said he had nothing to hide and voluntarily submitted financial documents to authorities. Ray's financial controller testified that much of his boss's money has gone to legal fees and creditors, and that his net worth was negative $4.2 million.

Ray's arrest came four months after he led a sweat lodge ceremony that was supposed to be the highlight of his five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat. Instead, three people died - Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. - and 18 others were hospitalized.

Prosecutors allege Ray recklessly crammed more than 50 people inside the 415-square-foot sweat lodge, a small heated enclosure used in traditional American Indian ceremonies to cleanse the body.

Many participants have said Ray chided them for wanting to leave, even as people were vomiting, getting burned by hot rocks and lying unconscious on the ground.

Ray's attorneys have called the deaths a tragic accident and said he took all the necessary precautions and immediately tended to the ill.

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