At the temple of James Arthur Ray

James Arthur Ray was on track to become the first new-age billionaire, thanks to his self-help teaching and promises of personal transformations. So how did three people end up dead on his watch in the Arizona desert?

Guardian, UK/July 8, 2011

"Start living in harmony right now, and know that everything you want is within your reach."

That was the message Beverley Bunn and Kirby Brown both heard when they attended a Harmonic Wealth Weekend run by James Arthur Ray, a popular American self-help teacher, motivational speaker and author. They went separately to the event, in May 2009, in San Diego, California, paying $1,300 each, after reading Ray's book, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret Of Attracting The Life You Want. Bunn, then 43, was an orthodontist from Dallas, Texas; Brown, 38, was a decorative painter and surfer living in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

"I knew I had some shortcomings in different areas of my life and I thought I needed something to give me a new perspective or put me on a different path," Bunn says. "From what I had read and heard, I felt that James Ray might be the one."

Bunn and Brown first glimpsed each other as they went to sign up for another Ray event, Spiritual Warrior. Spiritual Warrior was a five-day workshop to be held in early October 2009 in Arizona. Although the cost of the course was very high – $9,700, plus travel and accommodation – Ray promised it would be transformational. Bunn and Brown (who used her life savings to pay) felt lucky they were allowed to sign up: Spiritual Warrior was Ray's pinnacle event, usually reserved for those who had completed all of the other courses in his Journey of Power Experience programme, which cost more than $20,000.

Since 2003, Ray had held Spiritual Warrior at the Angel Valley retreat, six miles south-west of Sedona, Arizona, on 70 acres of high desert land. Sedona, the heart of the American new age movement, is in a beautiful setting, amid red sandstone that glows a rich orange in the desert sun.

When Bunn arrived at Angel Valley, late in the afternoon of Saturday October 3, she had a surprise. One of the first people she saw was Brown, whom she immediately recognised from the Harmonic Weekend. Bunn and Brown decided to room together.

"She was such a cool person," Bunn says. "Kirby's an artist, but she's an artist in many different ways. Definitely a free spirit. She was really strong. She was working really hard on herself and she was frustrated at times. She was so beautiful and always had a smile on her face no matter what." Brown, an avid surfer, was in excellent physical health, Bunn adds.

The two women were excited by the prospect of the profound personal transformation they were promised. In 2009, Ray was the brightest and most influential star in the new-age firmament. He had been catapulted into public consciousness on the back of The Secret, the inspirational new age DVD and bestselling book. Written by Rhonda Byrne, an Australian television producer, The Secret became a phenomenon after it was featured by Oprah Winfrey on her TV show in February 2007.

"Have you heard about it?" Winfrey asked her millions of viewers, holding up a copy of the book. "My guests today believe that once you discover 'the secret', that you can immediately start creating the life you want, whether it's getting out of debt, whether it's finding a more fulfilling job, even falling in love. They say you can have it all, and, in fact, you already hold the power to make that happen." The Secret has gone on to sell more than 20m copies worldwide. Among Winfrey's guests that day was Ray, one of the "teachers" featured on the DVD.

What was "the secret"? Byrne claimed to have "traced the secret back through history" and to have discovered the so-called "Law of Attraction", a kind of spiritualised version of "the power of positive thinking". The essential thrust of The Secret – which Byrne pieced together from a variety of mystic and spiritual traditions, with a heavy dose of Christian Science and American boot-strappism thrown in – was that, through our thoughts and intentions, we can attract the lives we want and deserve. By practising the "Law of Attraction", we can take control of our destinies and attract wealth, rewarding relationships, career fulfilment and good health. "Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency," Byrne wrote. "As you think, those thoughts are sent out into the universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency."

The Secret appealed especially to professional, middle-class American women, who were turned off by traditional religion yet felt a yearning for a personal, non-denominational spirituality. Sentiments such as, "You are the creator of you, and the law of attraction is your magnificent tool to create whatever you want in your life", resonated with them. They weren't concerned with critics who wondered about the flipside: how people, even children, who suffer illness, violence, untimely death or other misfortune might have "attracted" that.

James Arthur Ray rode The Secret's slipstream. He appeared on Winfrey's show again, on Larry King and on numerous other television and radio programmes. By 2009, Ray was at the apex of his success and influence. Two of his books, Harmonic Wealth and The Science Of Success had made the New York Times bestseller list. He was represented by the William Morris Agency.

Ray was on the road for 200 days a year, preaching his very American gospel of success, of harmonic wealth. It wasn't just his message that resonated so powerfully; it was his charismatic presence and delivery. The goodlooking, athletic, 6ft tall Ray would roam the stages of large halls and convention centres, a new-age revivalist preacher, pumping rock music and precepts for positive living. He would reference apparently ancient wisdom from different spiritual traditions, throwing out homilies intended to make people challenge their beliefs and their ideas about themselves. Many people offered powerful testimonials about the transformative effect Ray had had on their lives.

By 2009, his company, James Ray International, based in southern California, was making close to $10m a year. He would soon be making much more than that, he believed, as the natural successor to first-generation new-age stars such as Deepak Chopra. Ray told followers he planned to become the first new-age billionaire. In March 2009, Ray bought a 7,234 sq ft house in Beverly Hills for $4m.

Ray was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the son of a protestant minister at the Red Fork Church of God. He said he grew up in poverty, that his parents couldn't even afford to buy him a baseball glove or pay for his haircuts. "How could a loving God keep me from cub scouts on account of not being able to afford a uniform?" he later wrote, coming to the conclusion that wealth and spirituality were not mutually exclusive.

Ray dropped out of junior college, joining AT&T, the phone company, as a telemarketer, then as a sales manager teaching sales techniques. Ray said he began searching for more, reading about quantum physics, studying with a Peruvian shaman, with Amazonian witch doctors and a Hawaiian kahuna, travelling to the Egyptian pyramids. Finally, he said, he fell into a deep depression and wandered in the Sinai desert for 10 days, finding himself in the cave where Moses is said to have rested before receiving the Ten Commandments.

"That is where it all came together for me," he wrote, "where the final pieces of harmonic wealth and the quantum physics material I had studied for a decade took form."

When Beverley Bunn arrived at Angel Valley for the Spiritual Warrior retreat, she was relieved to find she had a fellow traveller in Kirby Brown. But, as she signed in, Bunn was troubled to be greeted by a member of Ray's so-called "Dream Team" of helpers, who held a pair of scissors. As a way of showing their commitment to transformation, Ray wanted each "Warrior" to shave off their hair. Bunn initially balked at this, as did some others, including Brown, who had always been proud of her long, brown hair.

The 56 people on the retreat spent the first two days listening to lectures by Ray. Ray made them watch clips from The Last Samurai, the Tom Cruise movie about an American who has to embrace the Samurai culture in Japan. On the third day, Ray made everyone play what he called the Samurai Game.

"James played God," Bunn says. "He had on a white robe with a gold belt. You couldn't talk to God. If you talked to God, he killed you."

One of those who tried "talking to God" was Brown, who asked if she could use the toilet. Ray screamed, "Die! Die!" at her until she fell to the ground, not allowed to move for hours. She was so desperate to urinate, she later said, that she had to hold back vomit.

Before the Samurai Game, Bunn went up to Ray and told him that, as 40 out of the 56 people had already done, including a reluctant Brown, she would shave her head. "I don't give a fuck what you do," Ray snapped. "Shave your head. Don't shave your head. It doesn't really matter." Bunn says this retort stunned her, and made her even more concerned about what she had come to see as Ray's egotism and arrogance.

"The way we were treated was really bizarre," she says. "After paying $10,000, we were told, 'You can't talk to James unless you are told you can. He doesn't eat with you. If he drives by in the golf cart, you're not allowed to wave at him or acknowledge him or say hi.' "

After the Samurai Game finished, around midnight, the Warriors were led out into the desert for what Ray called a Vision Quest, which he said was a Native American spiritual tradition. Each person had to stay in a 10ft circle, and was not allowed any food or drink for 36 hours. After two nights in the desert, they returned to Angel Valley for breakfast early in the morning of the final day of the retreat, 8 October.

Ray then gathered them all together to talk about the last event, a sweat lodge, based on another Native American ceremony that he said he had studied. A traditional sweat lodge is a small, tented area, which, like a sauna, is taken to a high humid heat as water is poured over hot stones. During a lodge, usually with six to 10 people, a Native American shaman will lead the participants, chanting and helping people deal with the altered states they may go through.

"It will be the most intense experience, the most intense heat that you've ever experienced in your entire life, I guarantee that," Ray told them. "You will feel as if you're going to die. But you see the true spiritual warrior has conquered death and therefore has no fear and no enemies in this lifetime or the next, because the greatest fear that you'll ever experience is the fear of what… death. You will have to get to a point where you surrender and it's OK to die."

"When I saw the sweat lodge, it concerned me because I thought it was going to be more like a teepee shape with ventilation at the top," Bunn says. "This was a low dome covered with plastic tarps and blankets. I was worried we were going to suffocate, but I thought he must know what he's doing because he'd done it before."

Some 56 people were crowded into the sweat lodge, which was less than 5ft high in the middle and just 30 inches at the sides, and about 24ft across, with only one exit. It was completely dark. Ray started chanting and pouring water on to the red hot rocks that were brought into a pit in front of him.

Bunn says that by the second 15-minute round, when one man began staggering around, in danger of falling into the pit of hot stones, it was becoming clear that "this was really heavy duty". By the fourth round, the intense heat and lack of air were more than Bunn and others could bear.

"I said I needed to get out, and other people were saying they were having trouble," Bunn recalls. "But James kept saying, 'You can get through this. It's mind over matter. Ignore what your body is telling you.' "

During the fifth round a disoriented man began screaming and yelling after he fell into the pit, badly burning his arm.

"People started vomiting," Bunn says. She saw an unconscious woman being dragged out. "Then James Shore, who had helped pull the woman out, came back to his place, next to Kirby, and shouted, 'She's not breathing! I can't get her to move!' Everyone was yelling.

"James went really ballistic and shouted, 'Everybody quiet down! I'm in charge here! The door is now closed and this round has now begun and we will deal with that at the end of the next round.'" Ray continued the ceremony for the full eight rounds, continuing to admonish people not to leave.

At the end of the eighth round, after some two hours, it was obvious that Ray's transformational sweat lodge had become a tragedy. A number of people were unconscious inside, others were being dragged out, vomiting and foaming at the mouth.

"There was a lady in front of me, unconscious," Bunn says. "We were pushing and dragging her towards the door. That's when I passed Kirby, and I heard this snorting sound coming from her. I didn't know if she was passed out or asleep, but it was a really bizarre gurgling, snorting sound.

"Once I was out, I saw a woman called Sidney on her side, barely breathing, not responding to anything, her eyes rolled back in her head, mucous coming out of her nose and mouth. A lot of other people couldn't walk or anything. Their motor skills were gone.

"I saw this other lady and she was on her side passed out. No one was with her and her arm was turning blue. I started helping her, and I rolled her over and her eyes were rolled back in her head, but she was breathing. Then I walked to the next person and he was unconscious. I rolled him over and he was breathing, but he opened his eyes and all the blood vessels had burst in his eyeballs. Another man was yelling, 'I've had a heart attack! I've had a heart attack!'

"A woman was screaming, 'James Ray! I want to fuck James Ray! James, why did this happen? James, I love you! I want to fuck you!' She was going crazy. People were holding her arms and legs.

"I started looking for Kirby, but I couldn't find her anywhere," Bunn continues. "I looked in the tent and I could see they were doing CPR on James Shore. His stomach was going up and down, up and down. Then I saw Kirby's stomach going up and down. They were doing CPR on her, right next to James." Both were foaming at the mouth and had turned purple.

"Ray was standing about 10ft from where they were doing CPR on Kirby and James," Bunn says. "I looked to see if there was any expression on his face, any kind of emotion, but he just stood there the entire time. He never helped anybody. He never did anything. He just stood there."

Ambulances and paramedics arrived. "One of them asked, 'What happened here?'" Bunn recalls. "We said it was a sweat lodge and she said, 'You people are fucking idiots.' That's exactly what she said. Shortly after that, the helicopters started flying in."

Nineteen people were taken to hospital suffering from heat exhaustion, some with kidney failure. Kirby Brown and James Shore, a 40-year-old father of three who worked for an internet company, died that day. Liz Neuman, 49, a divorced mother of three, was in a coma for more than a week before she died. Autopsies attributed the deaths to heat stroke and organ failure.

Police from the local sheriff's department arrived at Angel Valley around 6pm. "When I asked [his assistant] where James was, he told me that he was up at the main building eating dinner," Sgt Frank Barbaro said. "I thought this was interesting since emergency medical services was airlifting and transporting subjects at this time."

After talking to his lawyer, Ray refused to answer any questions. He didn't talk to any of the survivors. The following morning he took the first flight out of Arizona. A few days later he was back on the road, preaching.

"I've taught that we're all going to have adversity and we can't run from it," Ray told followers at an event in Denver. "I've certainly learned a lot in the past 10 days."

About a week after the deaths, Ray held a conference phone call with followers and survivors. One of his aides told them that she had spoken with a "channeller" who said that those who had died "were having so much fun that they chose not to come back". When Ray was later asked whether, "in some divinely or cosmically ordained way, this was the victims' time to die?" he replied: "I don't think I am qualified to answer that."

About five days after Kirby Brown's death, Ray called her parents. "He said, 'This is the most awful thing that has ever happened to me in my life,' " Ginny Brown, Kirby's mother, recalled. He sent the family a cheque, marked "Honor of Kirby", for $5,000.

"Considering Kirby paid $9,700 to be there, plus room and board, a $5,000 cheque was just an insult," Tom McFeeley, Kirby's cousin, says. "The Browns were smart enough to know that if they cashed that cheque, to pay for even a portion of the funeral expenses they had incurred already, bringing her body back, that would have been a legal settlement."

As the authorities and others started looking more closely at Ray, it became evident that a lot of his claims were untrue. People with whom he said he had studied and worked insisted he had lied about it. The Peruvian shaman with whom he claimed to have studied turned out to be a tour guide. Even his claims of childhood poverty were undermined by people who grew up with him. Ray was also denounced by Native Americans for abusing their rites and traditions. Some years before the 2009 tragedy, Ray had been "approached several times by native leaders and told he was not trained to run Native American ceremonies", said David Sitting Bear, a Cherokee Indian who lives in Sedona.

In February 2010, James Arthur Ray was arrested and charged with three counts of manslaughter. "This was a terrible accident, but it was an accident, not a criminal act," Ray's attorney said.

Ray went on trial at the beginning of March this year. His defence claimed that the deaths and other illnesses may have been caused by organophosphate, a poison used to kill rats at Angel Valley. Ray, who did not take the stand, tweeted quotes from his books throughout the trial. On 22 June, a jury found Ray not guilty of the three manslaughter charges, but guilty of three lesser counts of negligent homicide. He could face 11 years in prison.

The families of Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman are relieved at the verdicts, although Brown's family says "the outcome of this trial will never bring 'closure' to our grief".

"As the horrific details of the three deaths emerged in this trial, we realised that the potential danger posed by 'self-help' gurus extends well beyond James Ray," say the Browns. "Since Kirby's voice has been for ever silenced, her family will now speak for her. We have launched a not-for-profit organisation, Seek (Self-help Empowerment through Education and Knowledge) to educate the public about the self-help industry. We will work to protect those desiring personal growth by exposing scam artists and frauds."

Since the tragedy, Beverley Bunn has also had time to think about what happened, and about James Arthur Ray. "James Ray preaches that thoughts, feelings and actions are all connected," she says. "That was true in his own life. James Ray has a criminal mind and that led to criminal consequences."

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