Self-help guru and ex-con James Arthur Ray is trying not to let the 2009 deaths of three people at his Arizona sweat lodge extinguish his once-promising motivational-speaking career.
On Friday, Ray is scheduled to return to Phoenix for a “one night only” question-and-answer session called “A Night of Solutions.”
“James will sit down, no pitch, no script,” according to his website. “Armed only with his intellect, his vast experience, and the wisdom to answer questions, he will mentor and reveal to you the answers to the things that are holding you back.”
The family of 38-year-old victim Kirby Brown is disgusted by Ray's attempted comeback.
“It is offensive, and it’s upsetting to me because I think he’s still dangerous,” says Ginny Brown, Kirby’s mother. “This is criminal behavior that caused these deaths — this was no accident. So, from our point of view, we cannot sit by after our daughter’s death and just allow the events that caused the situation to go unanswered.”
Kirby Brown was one of 75 people who attended Ray’s disastrous weeklong self-help retreat near Sedona in October 2009. During a sweat lodge ceremony, held in a makeshift tent draped with tarps, temperatures soared past 200 degrees.
Suffering from heatstroke, several participants vomited and passed out. Instead of ending the ceremony, Ray ratcheted up the heat and encouraged people to “surrender to death” to survive, witnesses later testified at Ray's trial in the deaths.
At least 15 participants became ill and were hospitalized. In addition to Kirby, James Shore, 40, and Lizbeth Marie Neuman, 49, died.
In November 2011, Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years in prison. Since his release more than two years ago, Ray has shunned the spotlight. Although he has continued to take on private clients and teach online courses, he has rarely spoken in public — until recently.
“We would hope that after what happened he would approach a second chance differently than how he approached his first chance,” says Tom McFeely, Kirby’s cousin. “But that doesn’t appear to be the case, and that’s why we are so concerned.”
To help educate the public about the dangers of the unregulated self-help industry, the Brown family has launched a nonprofit organization called SEEK Safely.
The Browns say they aren't surprised that Ray is returning to the lucrative self-help industry.
“This is exactly what we expected . . . it’s not a surprise to anyone in the family,” McFeely says. “It’s what he perceives to be his calling.”
Before the deadly sweat lodge ceremony, Ray was a prominent, Oprah-endorsed public speaker who charged more than $10,000 a person for seminars. At the height of his career, thousands across the globe adhered to his teachings.
Since the sweat lodge deaths, most of his followers have abandoned Ray, says Rick Ross, a cult expert and de-programmer who consulted with the prosecution on Ray’s case.
“But there are still die-hard followers who insist on following him,” he says. “Why anyone would want to take training from such an individual is deeply questionable.”
Financially, Ray has struggled since his release from prison. He lost his home and now lives in a condominium in Los Angeles. In 2013, he was ordered to pay restitution and fines of more than $94,000 but since has declared bankruptcy.
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And although he once courted press attention, Ray now seems media-shy.
The media is not invited to attend Friday’s seminar at an undisclosed location. Attendees will learn of the location only after purchasing a $200 ticket. New Times reached out to Ray, but he did not respond to request for comment.
During previous speaking engagements Ray has reportedly spoken at length about the sweat lodge deaths. While he says he is remorseful, the Brown family says Ray never personally apologized to them.
“He doesn’t acknowledge that his actions caused this. He’s sorry that it happened to him. He’s sorry that he was incarcerated," says Ginny Brown. "He doesn’t care. What he does care about is the money."