A self-help author's acknowledgement that he was responsible for the deaths of three people in an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony was something the victims' family members had hoped for long ago. But the court action wasn't about apologies for them; it was about accountability.
As James Arthur Ray stood before them and tearfully begged for forgiveness Friday, they looked to a judge to sentence Ray to the maximum nine years in prison on three counts of negligent homicide. What Ray received was two years for the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn.
"This doesn't bring Kirby back. This doesn't bring back James or Liz," said Brown's mother, Virginia. "But certainly time in prison is a deterrent and will serve as a warning to the self-help industry."
Neither prosecutors nor the families believed the sentence was sufficient for a man who they say ratcheted up the heat in the October 2009 sweat lodge to dangerous levels, ignored pleas for help and watched as participants were dragged out of the sweat lodge.
Ray said he would have stopped the ceremony had he known people were dying or in distress. But he offered no excuses for his lack of action as chaos unfolded outside the structure at a retreat near Sedona.
"At the end of the day, I lost three friends, and I lost them on my watch," Ray said, standing before the victims' families. "Whatever errors in judgment or mistakes I have made, I'm going to have to live with those for the rest of my life. I truly understand your disappointment in my actions after, I do. I'm disappointed in myself."
Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow gave Ray three, two-year sentences to be served concurrently and ordered him to pay more than $57,000 in restitution. He said the "emotional harm is so strong and such that probation is simply unwarranted in this case."
Ray will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence. That comes out to almost 600 days, taking into account the credit he received for 24 days served. That's roughly the amount of time he's been out of jail on bond since his arrest early last year.
The courtroom was silent as the sentence was handed down. The victims' families held hands and braced for a decision, as did Ray's parents and brother.
Afterward, authorities immediately took custody of Ray, who will serve his time with the state Department of Corrections. Ray's family offered their condolences to the victims' families in a statement following the sentencing hearing and asked if they'd find forgiveness in their hearts.
"We were fortunate enough to meet with James after the sentencing," said his brother, Jon Ray. "He was in good spirits and said this would give him the opportunity to help people in prison that need it."
Defense attorneys said they would appeal, likely on the grounds that errors by the prosecution tainted the case.
County Attorney Sheila Polk hoped Ray would get the maximum and believed she had made a strong case for accountability, justice and deterrence. But, she said, "certainly some prison time over probation is better than no prison at all."
Ray originally was charged with manslaughter, but jurors rejected that he was reckless in his handling of the ceremony that highlighted Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event. Ray's attorneys suggested that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths, but jurors said that theory was not credible.
Ray's motivational mantra drew dozens of people to the retreat with a promise that the sweat lodge typically used by American Indians to cleanse the body would lead to powerful breakthroughs. When the victims' families discovered something went wrong, they said Ray made no attempt to identify people in the hospital nor offered them any solace for their loss until recently.
They lashed out at him in court Friday, their voices echoing through the courtroom, saying they were appalled that he continued to deliver self-help messages through the Internet while he faced criminal charges.
"There was nothing you could teach Liz, James or Kirby about honor, integrity and impeccability," said Neuman's cousin, Lily Clark, drawing from Ray's principle teachings. "But they could have taught you a lot. They were born spiritual warriors, and you are not worthy to spit shine their combat boots."
Neuman's daughter, Andrea Puckett, said she doesn't believe Ray grasps his role in the deaths, despite his apology and called the sentence a joke.
"It's very frightening the control he has over people and his mentality," she said. "That's not going to change."
Participants began showing signs of distress about halfway through the two-hour sweat lodge ceremony. By the time it was over, some were vomiting, struggling to breathe and lying lifeless on the ground. Brown and Shore were pronounced dead. Neuman slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness. She died more than a week later at a Flagstaff hospital.
"He did some good but this is about what he didn't do," said Shore's mother, Jane Shore-Gripp. "He had the opportunity to save three people, and he didn't."
The trial was a mix of lengthy witness testimony and legal wrangling that lasted four months. Witnesses painted conflicting pictures of Ray, with some describing him as a coach who encouraged participants to do their best to endure the heat but never forced them to remain in the sweat lodge. Others said they learned through breathing exercises, a 36-hour fast, and a game in which Ray portrayed God that they dare not question him, and they lost the physical and mental ability to care for themselves or others.