Two years later: Sweat lodge tragedy teaches lasting lessons

The Daily Courier/October 7, 2011

Sedona -- The world learned about the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat Center two years ago today, and not in a way that owners Michael and Amayra Hamilton could ever have dreamed or desired. On that same day, the families of James Shore and Kirby Brown discovered that their loved ones had perished in a sweat lodge ceremony led by James Arthur Ray, a speaker and author who has since been convicted of negligent homicide but still remains free on bond, at least until his Nov. 18 sentencing date. A third victim, Liz Neuman, died nine days later.

Tom McFeeley, Kirby Brown's cousin, said the family plans to hold a memorial today - one that will be more private than one they conducted a year ago, and one that is shrouded by the fact that Ray's court proceedings are not yet complete.

"It's going to be small and it's going to be intimate - just family," McFeeley said. "Everybody's trying to move on with their lives, but there's still things going on, and that makes it hard to let go."

Many members of the victims' families have complained about the numerous delays that have postponed Ray's sentencing, originally scheduled for late July, at which time he could receive anything from a term of probation to nine years in prison. It has been up to Judge Warren Darrow to balance their constitutional rights as victims with Ray's rights as a defendant.

"The delays have been a difficult part," McFeeley said. "At some point your patience gets tested."

At Angel Valley, on the banks of Oak Creek near Sedona, the site of Ray's sweat lodge is now the center's Garden of Transformation, Amayra Hamilton said.

"We feel that a memorial site (which was the name used for this location's configuration last year on this date) refers to the tragedy," Amayra said. "When terrible things happen, we choose to find what positive things can come out of what happened, what we can learn from it.

"We feel that if people want to make a transformation in their lives, this garden is the place to do that."

Surrounding the agate-and-crystal-topped pit that once held the hot rocks of the sweat lodge ceremony are a host of young evergreens the Hamiltons hope will grow in stature as the memories of that day become less intense.

"When people come to Angel Valley, they recuperate, they become quiet," Amayra said. "In becoming quiet, they receive insights, make connections with their inner self, with spirit."

But "the impact of the event is not over yet," Amayra said, adding that business at the retreat center, which offers everything from quiet individual escape to holistic services that include vortex experiences, grief transformation and belief counseling, is slowly returning but still below expectations.

The Hamiltons said they hosted Ray's Spiritual Warrior seminars for several years as a business venture, but that both they and Ray had already decided to move the event elsewhere as the crowds Ray was bringing were pushing the center to capacity. Michael Hamilton said the tragedy opened his eyes in an unexpected way.

"Doing things only for money," he said, "is the old way. After what happened, we realized that everything we had worked for could be gone in the snap of a finger.

"The aftermath has been a journey of integrating the darkest dark and the lightest light for me. I had to ask myself, 'When did I give my power away? How could this happen on our land?'"

The Hamiltons announced Thursday that they would host a gathering Saturday at Angel Valley, writing, "We trust that those who need to be here will be here."

Connie Joy, author of "Tragedy in Sedona," donated some of the trees the Hamiltons planted at the sweat lodge site. She is upset on two fronts: that Ray's legal proceedings are not yet complete, and that he is still sending her emails offering products and services, despite their strained relationship.

"The man has not stopped," she said. "He's still trying to sell me stuff.

"When this trial started, never in my mind did I think we would be here at the two-year anniversary. I just feel like it's such a limbo. I want this to be resolved."

Joy said that, if nothing else, her experience with Ray has taught her to be a more cautious consumer.

"I'll never say it won't happen again, but since then, when I've had people trying to sell me something, it isn't going anywhere."

As have the Joys, the Brown family has grown from the tragic experience, McFeeley said. Another cousin died a few months ago in a construction accident, leaving Kirby's parents, George and Ginny, once again in the role of pillars of strength.

"George and Ginny have been great examples," McFeeley said. "I can't imagine going through that without going through what we went through two years ago.

"It's made us better people, helped us care about what matters. It doesn't eliminate any pain but it helps us do things."

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