Negligent Homicide: The Case of the Sweat Lodge Guru

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Tom Tingle / Pool / AP

James Arthur Ray, left, and his attorney, Thomas Kelly, right, stand in the courtroom of Judge Warren R. Darrow, at the Yavapai County Courthouse, Camp Verde, Arizona, June 22, 2011.

It was one of the more unusual crime scenes in American history. The slumping, tarpaulin-covered sweat lodge had disgorged dozens of victims onto the red dirt near Sedona, Arizona. Some were burned, some were unconscious, others were in various stages of organ failure. Two were already dead, and a third would later die at the hospital.

What had happened was immediately clear to first responders: these unfortunates, all of whom had paid nearly $10,000 to participate in a weeklong Spiritual Warrior retreat, had stayed in an overheated, overcrowded sweat lodge for far too long. But it would take more than 18 months to decide who was ultimately responsible for the deaths. On Wednesday, an Arizona court convicted James Arthur Ray, 53, the telegenic New Age guru who led the retreat, of three counts of negligent homicide.

"I'm satisfied with the verdict," says Beverly Bunn, a Texas orthodontist who survived the sweat lodge that evening and who testified in March against Ray. "He knew people were in trouble, and he ignored all the warning signs. He chose to just continue pushing and pushing."

In the end, it was that drive that was Ray's undoing, both on the retreat and during the ensuing trial. At the time of October 2009 deaths, he had built a self-help empire out of his seminars, books, and DVDs. He had been a guest on Oprah and made a cameo in The Secret. He had gone from coach to guru to international brand. And for signature events like the Spiritual Warrior week, his followers got a double dose of the Ray brand: he dictated how much they ate and drank (not much), the pace of their activities (grueling) and how they should respond to the increasingly intense demands of the retreat (by agreeing time and again to "play full on"). Ray hectored his charges constantly about facing their demons and not submitting to fear; some of those speeches were recorded and became incriminating evidence at the trial. Jurors needed less than 12 hours to decide that Ray was the architect of the evening and, ultimately, the one who was accountable for the suffering. He faces up to 11 years in prison. Sentencing is later this month.

It was a verdict that at least some of his former followers hoped for. They had felt betrayed because Ray had left the scene — and ultimately the state — on the night of the sweat lodge (he says he was told by investigators to steer clear). He later infuriated survivors when, instead of an apology, he sent a sort of compensation check for $5,000 — about half of the retreat's tuition — to the family of Kirby Brown, one of the women who died, to cover some funeral costs. He tried to continue his business unabated, but later settled into a half-seclusion in his Los Angeles mansion, continuing to market new web videos about Harmonic Wealth and defend himself on his website. "He lost his compassion for human life," says Bunn, who continued to receive his email blasts, which she would forward in disbelief to her lawyers. "It was all about James Ray: bigger, better, more extreme."

And yet: while the sweat lodge deaths were particularly tragic, James Arthur Ray was no outlier. He was one of any number of polished pitchmen (and women) selling their own housebrand of self-help to a very hungry market. After the sweat lodge deaths, TIME sent me on what ended up being a year-long journey through the self-help industry, including a stop in Angel Valley, where the deaths happened. I found the U.S. is still full of seminars, programs and training courses that will gladly take your money and replace all those ineffectual thoughts you currently have with brand new thoughts they've sold you. It's a dangerous gambit, with or without heated rocks, and Ray's verdict won't completely change that.

A few hours after the verdict was announced, I reached Amayra Hamilton, who runs Angel Valley with her husband, a New Age minister named Michael. They are still under a court order, she says, which prevents them from talking about the case. But they are writing a book about their experiences, and if it's anything like the many conversations I had with Amayra in the months after the deaths on her property, the book will probably argue (gently) that some good came out of the sweat lodge deaths, in the form of a new consciousness: you don't need a guru to improve your life. You just need to know yourself better.

As for Bunn, she got a more concrete message from her experience with Ray. "I flew straight from Sedona to a church," she says. "I was with my friends. I met with a pastor and gave my life to Christ. I got baptized two days after that." She doesn't feel a great need to grant forgiveness just yet to the man she followed into that sweat lodge 18 months ago. "James Ray," she says, "is where James Ray deserves to be."