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Motivational Speaker Charged in Sweat Lodge Deaths

Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray has been indicted on manslaughter charges that could land him in prison and bring down his self-help empire.

Ray was arrested Wednesday in Prescott, Arizona, on three counts of manslaughter for the deaths of three people following a sweat lodge ceremony he led last year. His bond has been set at $5 million, and his first court hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Ray's attorneys is calling the charges unjust and says he is confident that his client will be exonerated in court. If convicted, he faces a minimum of 3 years and a maximum of 12 1/2 years on each count.

"This was a terrible accident, but it was an accident, not a criminal act," Ray attorney Luis Li said. "James Ray cooperated at every step of the way, providing information and witnesses to the authorities showing that no one could have foreseen this accident."

The 52-year-old, who has been a guest on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' and 'Larry King Live', has built a multimillion-dollar empire as a self-help guru with his motivational speaking and books.

His teachings have been described as "including a mix of spirituality, motivational speaking, and quantum physics"

The October 8 sweat lodge ceremony was intended to be the highlight of Ray's five-day 'Spiritual Warrior' event at a retreat near Sedona. He told participants, who paid more than $9,000 each, that they were in for one of the most intense experiences of their lives. However, for some the experience was not only intense, but deadly.

After a few participants began feeling ill, vomiting and collapsing inside, Ray urged them to push past their physical weaknesses and chided those who wanted to leave.

But later that same night, 38-year-old Kirby Brown and 40-year-old James Shore, died after passing inside the sweat lodge. Another woman, 49-year-old Liz Neuman, slipped into a coma and died a week later. Over eighteen people in all were hospitalized.

Investigators say they determined the deaths were not completely accidental after conducting hundreds of interviews that reached into Ray's past ceremonies and events, including one in which a man fell unconscious during a sweat lodge ceremony years earlier at the same retreat.

Ray's attorneys claim he took all necessary safety precautions and wasn't aware of any medical problems until the ceremony was over.

February 4, 2010 |

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