Former Carlsbad couple detail James Ray's self-help operation

The San Diego Union-Tribune/March 20, 2011

Camp Verde, Arizona - Josh and Megan Fredrickson were true believers in James Arthur Ray, drawn almost instantly to the promise of wealth and well-being the self-help guru offered to anyone willing to listen and pay.

So when Ray offered them jobs at his growing Carlsbad headquarters in 2004, the couple jumped at the opportunity to move from Minneapolis to work beside the man who had been leading them on what they called "the journey."

"We haven't looked back since," Josh said a few years later. "It kind of became, you know, labor of love kind of thing."

Those dreams ended on Oct. 8, 2009, at a spiritual retreat near Sedona, Ariz. Three people died and more than a dozen others got sick after being overcome by heat during a sweat-lodge ceremony Ray performed with the help of the Fredricksons and others from his company.

Josh Fredrickson, 31, is scheduled to testify against his former boss during Ray's manslaughter trial, which began three weeks ago and is expected to last four months.

Ray, a former La Jolla resident, and his lawyers contend the deaths were accidental, possibly caused by exposure to an unknown toxin.

Prosecutors gave Fredrickson immunity in hopes he would provide a behind-the-scenes look at what they allege was Ray's reckless behavior leading to the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, James Shore, 40, and Elizabeth Neuman, 49.

"That kind of testimony can be extremely damaging," said Melvin McDonald, a former U.S. attorney for Arizona who now defends high-profile suspects. "They can give a picture from the inside that wouldn't be seen otherwise."

McDonald has watched Ray's case unfold and said the guru's former employees will be vital to showing whether he ignored signs the sweat lodge was dangerous and pushed his followers, who paid as much as $10,000 to be there, beyond the tipping point.

"The closer the witness is to the target defendant, the more damage he can do," McDonald said.

Attempts to reach Josh and Megan Fredrickson last week were unsuccessful. Megan, 32, was also given immunity but is not listed as a prosecution witness. By phone from Alabama, where the Fredricksons now live, relative Karen Tatham described Josh as "a loving person … wonderful person." She declined to say anything else.

The couple, however, gave extensive interviews to Yavapai County, Ariz., sheriff's detectives in 2009 and 2010, and those public records shed light on their involvement with Ray, 53.

The couple began to follow him and attend his conferences in 2001. A freelance web designer, Josh Fredrickson set up a site to sell Ray's motivational products. The Fredricksons got a cut of the proceeds. Eventually, Ray took notice.

In late 2004, he offered the couple full-time jobs in California. The San Diego area "seemed like an ultimate place," Josh told investigators.

Megan quit her job at Best Buy corporate headquarters. They found a place in Carlsbad and went to work for James Ray International, where they made a fraction of what they were earning before but were happy.

The first sign of trouble came in 2005 at an Arizona retreat Ray called "Spiritual Warrior."

As part of the event, Ray put together a sweat-lodge ceremony at the Angel Valley camp, where the retreat was held. The lodge was a round structure, built with a low ceiling and a pit in the center where hot rocks smoldered while people meditated around it.

Ray gave a speech to the 20 or so attendees, Fredrickson said. He told them the space inside is sacred, so be respectful. It's dry, so drink plenty of water. And get ready, because it's going to be hot.

"He says you'll feel - when the steam hits - you'll feel like you're suffocating," Fredrickson said. "He says you may feel claustrophobic. He says you may feel like your skin's melting off."

The Fredricksons knew people were going to be weak from the intense heat. But they didn't expect what happened near the end of the ceremony.

One participant came out of the lodge yelling nonsense and swinging his fists wildly in the air.

No one at the event had medical training, Fredrickson said. There was confusion about what to do. Finally, someone called 911.

Paramedics put the man on oxygen and took him to the hospital, where he recovered. During the investigation into the 2009 deaths, detectives said they discovered the man had been diagnosed with heat stroke.

Megan Fredrickson told investigators she remembered hearing people complaining of the heat that night. She said Ray would tell them to work past it. It was "like very much a coach would do, you know, encouraging," she said.

After that, the staff talked about how they could avoid problems in the future.

The Fredricksons said the company added towels, water and chairs outside the sweat lodge. Josh Fredrickson said the company paid for some of the staffers to get CPR training.

None of that prevented the chaos that erupted at the Spiritual Warrior retreat in 2009.

The Fredricksons were among the staffers in the sweat lodge with Ray. Before the ceremony ended, Josh helped a woman exit the lodge after she began to feel faint.

As Fredrickson attended to her, he said, his wife came out, feeling weak and needing water. Soon, the whole group came streaming out. Some were stumbling and struggling, but Fredrickson said that was "typical" after the intense ceremony.

"The first indication to me that anything was wrong was somebody yelled for a medic," he told detectives. He followed the sound of the voice. He saw Shore and Brown lying on the ground, receiving CPR. It was the moment he knew "something is horribly wrong here," he said.

Someone called 911 and the scene quickly was flooded with paramedics and police.

Fredrickson saw Ray wandering amid the chaos. The self-help leader appeared to be in shock. "I don't recall him instructing or talking to anybody," Fredrickson said.

Fredrickson's devotion to Ray and the sudden way it all came to an end will likely play a role when he testifies, McDonald said.

"You might find a lot of disillusionment in him," he said. "That kind of witness can be more compelling."

Nick Martin is a freelance writer in Phoenix.

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