YAPAVI COUNTY, ARIZONA — On October 8, 2009, motivational speaker James Arthur Ray led 55 disciples into a wooden structure covered with heavy tarps and insulated blankets beneath the blazing desert sun just south of Sedona, Arizona.
Two of the participants never left. A third died nine days later. Eighteen others had to be carried out and hospitalized for severe burns, dehydration, delirium, kidney failure, breathing malfunctions, near-fatal fevers, and other maladies.
The ersatz Native American sweat-lodge ceremony was part of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” event in which Ray challenged his followers to endure extreme physical hardships by using the power of their minds. For this privilege, the Spiritual Warriors on hand had paid nearly $10,000 apiece.
After days of head-shaving, laying absolutely still outside, and other boundary-pushing tests, Ray advised his followers to “play full-on” by undergoing a hyper-intense “Vision Quest” just prior to entering the sweat lodge.
For 36 hours then, the Spiritual Warriors sweltered by day and froze at night in the desert with no food, no water, and only a sleeping bag for shelter — although Ray did offer Peruvian ponchos for an additional $250.
When the heat came down on Ray, and the Warriors became casualties or corpses, Ray hightailed it Arizona. He refused to speak to anyone and wrote only that he needed time alone for “prayer and meditation.”
Authorities informed the self-help guru that they would be needing him for a bit more than just that.
Born in 1957, James Arthur Ray grew up the son of a preacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He respected his father’s vocation, but not dad’s paycheck. Ray addressed the topic his 2008 best-seller Harmonic Wealth: The Secret to Attracting the Life That You Want, writing:
“The hardest part of my childhood was reconciling how Dad poured his heart into his work, how he helped so many people and yet he couldn’t afford to pay for haircuts for me and my brother. How could a loving God keep me from Cub Scouts on account of not being able to afford a uniform?”
Seeking the answer to so cosmic a question, Ray came across the New Thought movement, a philosophy based on “the Law of Attraction” — that is, your thoughts and state of mind are directly responsible for your circumstances and the state of your life — and began building a self-help empire in the late 1990.
While New Thought first came about in the 19th century, it stuck a huge chord in 2006 via the Oprah Winfrey–endorsed book and documentary, The Secret.
James Arthur Ray appears as an on-camera expert in The Secret, stating that abundance is everywhere, you just have to rub the magic lamp of positive thinking, “and the genie always says one thing, ‘Your wish is my command!’”
Ray used this notion to run highly lucrative seminars that, even before the sweat lodge, resulted in medical issues. Most injuries were along the lines of broken bones from quasi-martial-arts board-breaking exercises.
In early 2009, though, a stunt in which Ray’s followers pretended to be homeless for a day culminated with one woman, who had no history of mental illness, killing herself by jumping from the third floor of a shopping mall.
That very evening, Ray reportedly hosted the other homeless-challenge participants in a black-tie dinner and never mentioned the suicide. That tragedy also apparently didn’t impact plans for the deadly desert event ahead.
The sweat lodge investigation immediately uncovered an array of horrific missteps. Ray had never obtained a permit for the structure and hired non-union, non-Native-American builders to construct the lodge. No medical professionals were on hand.
Worse, Ray made a conference call to some of the survivors in which a “channeler” claimed to have contacted the deceased participants and that “they were having so much fun out of their bodies, they didn’t want to return.” One recipient recorded the call, and the tape was later played in court.
Police arrested Ray for three counts of negligent homicide on February 3, 2010. The court set his bail at $5 million, which was reduced to $525,000.
After a massive court proceeding in which 34 witnesses testified, Ray’s trial ended on June 22, 2011. The jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced Ray to two years in prison.
Ray did his time and got out in July 2013. That following November, he appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Live and announced he’d be going back into the self-help business. He’s apparently been leading less risky seminars ever since, as no injuries have been reported — so far.
In 2017, Ray’s attorneys filed a motion to have his conviction set aside and to restore the civil rights he had prior to being a felon. A judge tossed it out.
Regardless, James Arthur Ray hasn’t let that one setback slow down his reestablished career. On the other hand, those three sweat-lodge participants remain dead.
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Main photo: James Arthur Ray [Arizona Department of Corrections]