James Arthur Ray will serve 2 years in prison for sweat lodge deaths
PRESCOTT - James Arthur Ray, the motivational speaker who fell from superstar to inmate, is on his way to prison, sentenced to two years' incarceration for causing three deaths at an October 2009 sweat lodge ceremony near Sedona.
Judge Warren Darrow sentenced Ray Friday to three concurrent terms of two years each for causing the heat-related trauma that killed Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and Los Cabos, Mexico, James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, and Liz Neuman, 48, of Prior Lake, Minn. He made a lengthy statement in which he pointed out the numerous legal issues that clouded the case from its inception.
"There were events in the case that may have hindered the process," Darrow said, later adding that he was secure in his decision not to grant the term of probation Ray and his attorneys had asked for.
"My basic decision," he said, "does not rest on my concern over the legal issues. Mr. Ray, when a person has your incredible abilities to gain people's trust, there are a lot of responsibilities that go along with that.
"I find that the aggravating factor of emotional harm is so strong that probation is not warranted in this case."
By statute, Ray will serve at least 85 percent of that sentence, less the 24 days he spent in the county jail after his arrest in February 2010. In all, he is set to serve at least 19 months.
Ray, who sat silent through the long months of his trial, made a lengthy, tearful statement to the court before the sentence was announced, apologizing to the victims and to his own family and giving a glimpse of what his thought process has been since the tragedy he failed to prevent.
"There's not one single day that passes that I don't relive the moments of that night," he said. "I didn't know anyone was dying or in serious distress. I wish to God I would have. I would have stopped immediately if I had known.
"At the end of the day, your honor, I lost three friends and I lost them on my watch. I truly understand your disappointment in my actions. I'm disappointed in myself and I don't have any excuses.
"I take full responsibility for the pain and the anger and the confusion it caused and I'm sorry."
After watching Ray being led from the Yavapai County Courthouse in handcuffs, some of the victims' family members and friends shared their thoughts on the long ordeal that has come to a close.
"There are no winners today," said Virginia Brown, Kirby's mother. "No sentencing can bring our daughter back, or bring Liz or James back. But at least this will be a deterrent, to Mr. Ray and to others who might think about putting people at risk. The judge referred to common sense and there was surely a lack of common sense here."
Mrs. Brown said she and her family will continue to work on the fledgling website, SEEK Safely, which they hope will serve as a repository for information on practitioners in the self-help industry.
"I think this is what my daughter would have wanted," she said."
James Shore's mother Jane said she was disappointed that the sentences were not consecutive, and reflected on what her son would have to say about the result.
"He would say he was robbed of being father to his children," she said. "That's the worst thing of all, that those kids don't have a father."
Liz Neuman's cousin Lily Clark said she also believes the sentence will act as a deterrent.
"I hope other selfish self-help gurus will take this as fair warning that this can happen to them," she said.
Clark also had a message for her cousin.
"Liz," she said, "I did my best to take care of your kids and your family when you couldn't do it yourself."
Two of Kirby Brown's friends, Mika Cutler and Deborah Goldstein, while somewhat dissatisfied with the sentence, were glad that the court had sent a message.
"I'm just really glad that this drama is over so all the families can move on and focus on positive things other than this drama that he created," Cutler said.
"I'm a little disappointed," Goldstein said. "But no matter what the judge determined, (it) will not bring our loved ones back."
The Native American community has had an interest in the case from the beginning, especially as it involved a violation of their traditions, not only in that Ray conducted the ceremony without qualifications, but because he charged money for it.
"I started feeling better when he said he would never do a sweat lodge again," said Sheryl Joaquin, who also provided a statement from the traditional nations (see related story).
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said she too was disappointed with the sentence, but deferred to Darrow's judgment.
"Two years is a disappointment with the magnitude of what happened," Polk said. "But the person who had that decision to make made the call he thought was appropriate.
"I think the sentencing as a deterrent is important, especially in this industry, which is so unregulated. This case serves as a strong deterrent to businesses who would be so careless as to cause people to die."
Ray's local attorney, Tom Kelly, said the case was a challenge both for its length and complexity, as well as for an unexpected ingredient.
"I've tried a lot of cases and I've listened to the pain and sorrow expressed by many victims," Kelly said. "But these victims, because they're all so educated and articulate, were able to express their pain and sorrow in an unusually strong manner.
"I've never tried a case this long," he said, referring to the almost two years of trial and pretrial proceedings, "and I don't ever want to again."
Ray's family was somber but upbeat after the sentencing, making plans to return to their homes in San Diego and Kansas City. They think Ray is strong enough to endure his prison experience.
"We want to express our condolences to the victims' families again and hope they can find forgiveness in their hearts," said Ray's brother Jon. "We were fortunate enough to meet with James after the sentencing. He was in good spirits and said this would give him the opportunity to help people in prison who need it."
Judge Darrow, who spent nearly two years refereeing a consistently contentious adjudication, has announced that he will retire early next year. In an email, he wrote a brief summation of his thoughts on a decade on the bench.
"I cannot overstate my appreciation for the opportunity I have been given to serve in this position of profound responsibility," he wrote.
Ray's attorneys have indicated they will appeal his conviction. They have 20 days to file a notice of their intent to do so.