Feb 1, 2017

Judge restores rights for self-help guru James Arthur Ray, but convictions in sweat-lodge deaths stand

Alden Woods
The Republic | azcentral.com
January 30, 2017

An event Ray led in 2009 resulted in the deaths of 3 people.

CAMP VERDE — A Yavapai County Superior Court judge on Tuesday restored James Arthur Ray's right to vote and hold public office, but denied the self-help guru’s request to set aside three convictions for negligent homicide.

The judge said not enough time had passed since the October 2009 deaths of three people in a makeshift sweat lodge near Sedona.

Ray, once one of the country’s premier self-help entrepreneurs, served just under two years in prison for the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38; James Shore, 40; and Liz Neuman, 49.

Family members of the three people who died in the sweat lodge pleaded with the judge to leave the convictions in place. They said Ray was still trying to hide the truth and cared more about making money again.

Since his release in July 2013, Ray has tried to rebuild his business, and on Tuesday argued that the convictions have prevented him from international travel.

“My work was never on trial,” Ray told Judge Michael R. Bluff, claiming a Canadian lawyer had said it could take eight years before he’d be allowed to cross the northern border. An order to set aside his convictions, Ray said, would speed that process.

It had been eight years since Ray staged the sweat-lodge ceremony, the culmination of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” retreat at the Angel Valley resort near Sedona. For the ceremony, Ray directed the 50 participants into a makeshift sweat lodge, a wood-framed shelter covered with tarps and blankets, and raised the temperature.

Many of the participants became ill or disoriented. Brown and Shore passed out and were left inside as people cleared the structure. Both died of heatstroke. Neuman was taken to a Flagstaff hospital and died nine days later.

Ray was charged with three counts of manslaughter and later convicted of the lesser charge of negligent homicide after a yearlong trial. He served time in the Arizona Department of Corrections from Nov. 22, 2011, to July 12, 2013, when he was placed on parole, according to records on the Corrections Department's website.

He was also ordered to pay $57,000 in restitution to the families of the three victims which, according to court records, has been paid.

Setting aside the convictions would not have cleared Ray’s criminal record, but would have altered the record to show that the judgment had been vacated. It would have allowed Ray to enter countries that restrict travel by convicted felons.

In her appeal to let the convictions stand, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk gave most of her time to victims’ families. One after another, they stood to argue Ray had never fully accepted responsibility for their relatives’ deaths. They worried Ray could use a set-aside to portray himself as an innocent bystander.

“He’s not the victim,” said Virginia Brown, Kirby Brown's mother, who described Ray's claims as "a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the truth.”

“We’re here because the elephant is hiding in the room,” said George Brown, Kirby Brown's father, “and the elephant is money.”

“He was and is dangerous,” said Virginia Shore, sister of James Shore.

“I don’t think he has learned much from the criminal justice system,” Polk concluded.

After the testimony, Bluff explained his decision. It was simply a matter of time, he said.

“I’m just not comfortable that enough time has passed,” the judge said, adding that less than four years had passed since Ray was released from prison. He restored Ray’s rights to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury, but went no further.

Before the hearing, Ray had asked how long he should wait to apply for a second time, should his motion be denied. Bluff said he couldn’t answer that question, but family members of the victims pledged they’d be back for Ray’s next try.

"If we have to come back again, we will,” said Virginia Brown, Kirby’s mother and a co-founder of SEEK Safely, a non-profit organization designed to regulate the self-help industry.

Ray smiled as he left the courthouse. Getting back his civil rights, he said, was a start.

“I think the judge was fair, and I totally understand where he was coming from,” Ray said afterward. “He said I needed more time, and that’s OK.”

His business, Ray said, was helping people. That people happened to pay him was a necessity of life, not what he wanted. He said he would keep working, and keep making money, because he never killed anybody.

“The conviction is negligence,” he said.

“Negligent homicide,” a reporter added.

“Correct. Negligence, look it up,” Ray said, walking away. “I’m not here to retry the case.”

He hugged a fan, climbed into a Range Rover and was gone.


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