APNewsBreak: Guru vows no more sweat lodge events

AP News
Posted: Sep 21, 2011 4:41 PM
APNewsBreak: Guru vows no more sweat lodge events

A self-help author convicted of negligent homicide expressed extreme remorse for the deaths of three people following an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony he led and vowed never to conduct another one, a probation officer wrote in a presentence report obtained by The Associated Press.

James Arthur Ray said he's hopeful a Yavapai County judge sentences him to probation, while prosecutors say he deserves the maximum nine-year sentence for senselessly robbing three families of their loved ones.

A jury convicted Ray on three counts of negligent homicide in late June, and he's set to be sentenced Oct. 6 _ two days short of the second anniversary of the ceremony that was meant to be the highlight of his weeklong "Spiritual Warrior" retreat near Sedona.

Ray told the probation officer that he was responsible for the sweat lodge but that he is not a threat to society. He said he wanted to apologize to the victims' families but he hasn't been allowed to contact them, nor did he think it was appropriate to do so at an earlier time.

"This is horribly tragic," he said in the report, which hasn't been released publicly. "I have been holding these events for years. I warn people in advance. I could never have imagined that this type of thing would happen."

Prosecutors and the victims' families have said Ray ignored signs that people were in distress, starting about halfway through the two-hour ceremony in a makeshift tent heated with hot stones. When it ended, two participants were dead and a third died more than a week later. Eighteen others were hospitalized, yet others emerged with no major problems.

The families of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 48, of Prior Lake, Minn., said neither Ray nor his staff contacted them about the deaths. Neuman's family said they scoured the Internet for information when they heard something went wrong, eventually giving a physical description of Neuman to a Flagstaff hospital, where she was listed as a Jane Doe.

"He abandoned his followers when they needed him the most," said Neuman's son, Bryan. "He has shown absolutely no remorse, no compassion and no humanity. I didn't know monsters like Mr. Ray even really existed until after this tragedy."

In letters that prosecutors want considered at sentencing, friends and family of the victims described Ray as a sociopath who blatantly disregarded repeated concerns. Brown's brother said he cannot move past the images of his sister gasping for breath and, like others, struggles to explain the deaths to his small children.

"How does a father answer this? How does a father not answer this," said Shore's friend, Matt Collins. "James Ray has compromised so many people through his negligence. Perhaps my family has no place when compared to his (Shore's) children and widow. But if my hurt is any indication ... well then their pain is of a degree I cannot even begin to imagine."

Brown's close friend, Deborah Goldstein, pleaded with Judge Warren Darrow to remove Ray "from his path of destruction.

"A lenient sentence for Ray is merely a demerit, and I fear it will allow him to quickly re-establish his trajectory, putting more lives in harm's way, and motivating countless other charlatans waiting in the wings to mislead _ or even worse _ push the limits of their potential disciples," she said.

Along with the maximum prison sentence, prosecutors also want Darrow to order Ray to pay $67,000 in restitution to the victims' families and almost the same amount to reimburse the state for witness travel costs, fees and expenses.

Ray's attorneys have submitted more than 135 letters to Darrow, some of which were written before Ray's conviction, touting the benefits they've seen in their own lives as a result of Ray's teachings. The 53-year-old saw his personal and professional life shatter following the ceremony, his supporters said, and he deserves a chance to rebuild.

Ray said that he won't hold another sweat lodge ceremony or any other potentially dangerous activity, but he should be held responsible for his actions, the probation officer wrote.

The defense is set to call up to 19 people to testify in support of Ray at a hearing next week that was rescheduled after one of his attorneys suffered a heart condition last weekend. Prosecutors can then offer rebuttal testimony.

If sentenced to probation, Ray has asked that he be allowed to carry it out in California where he and his parents live. His risk of reoffending was listed as medium to low in the presentence report.

"Incarceration is useful when the person is dangerous to others, but James is the opposite," said Jim Cathcart, of Newbury Park, Calif., who has known Ray for nearly 20 years. "He is a force for good. His decisions in this situation were a grave error, not an accurate reflection of his character. Please don't put him into `the system' and darken his soul."

John Watkin said he has seen Ray agonize over the deaths and struggle to understand the cause _ never once complaining about what was lost in his own life.

"This is a good, decent, caring man who somehow found himself inside a nightmare with no way out," he said. "I know that James will attempt to find whatever lessons can be learned from all this and will apply them to himself before he begins to think about what his future may bring. And I know that he will never spend a day without thinking of those three people who died."