CAMP VERDE, Ariz. — A self-help author who led a deadly sweat lodge ceremony in Arizona was found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide Wednesday.
Jurors in the case against James Arthur Ray began deliberating Tuesday after a four-month trial.
Ray showed no reaction as the verdict was read. His parents and brother sat behind him, while victims’ family members and friends held hands and looked on from across the courtroom.
Prosecutors asked that Ray be taken into custody immediately, but the judge denied the request.
More than 50 people participated in the October 2009 sweat lodge that was meant to be the highlight of Ray’s five-day “Spiritual Warrior” seminar near Sedona.
Three people died after the sauna-like ceremony meant to provide spiritual cleansing. Eighteen were hospitalized, while several others were given water to cool down at the scene. Prosecutors and defense attorneys disagreed over whether the deaths and illnesses were caused by heat or toxins.
Ray’s attorneys have maintained the deaths were a tragic accident. Prosecutors argued Ray recklessly caused the fatalities.
Ray used the sweat lodge as a way for participants to break through whatever was holding them back in life. He warned participants in a recording of the event played during the trial that the sweat lodge would be “hellacious” and that participants were guaranteed to feel like they were dying but would do so only metaphorically.
“The true spiritual warrior has conquered death and therefore has no fear or enemies in this lifetime or the next, because the greatest fear you’ll ever experience is the fear of what? Death,” Ray said in the recording. “You will have to get a point to where you surrender and it’s OK to die.”
Witnesses have described the scene following the two-hour ceremony as alarming and chaotic, with people dragging “lifeless” and “barely breathing” participants outside and volunteers performing CPR.
Two participants — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee — died upon arrival at a hospital. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., slipped into a coma and died more than a week later at a Flagstaff hospital.
In court Wednesday, members of Neuman’s family and a friend of Brown held hands while the verdict was read.
Ray’s attorneys maintained the deaths were nothing but a tragic accident, and said Ray took all the necessary precautions to ensure participants’ safety. They contend authorities botched the investigation and failed to consider that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths and called two witnesses to support that argument.
Prosecutors relied heavily on Ray’s own words to try to convince the jury that he was responsible for the deaths. They said a reasonable person would have stopped the “abomination of a sweat lodge” when participants began exhibiting signs of distress about halfway through the ceremony.
Sweat lodges typically are used by American Indians to rid the body of toxins by pouring water over heated rocks in the structure.
Ray became a self-help superstar by using his charismatic personality and convincing people his words would lead them to spiritual and financial wealth. He used free talks to recruit people to expensive seminars like the Sedona retreat that led to the sweat lodge tragedy. Participants paid up to $10,000 for the five-day program intended to push people beyond their physical and emotional limits.
Ray’s popularity soared after appearing in the 2006 Rhonda Byrne documentary “The Secret,” and Ray promoted it on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Larry King Live.”
But his multimillion-dollar self-help empire was thrown into turmoil with the sweat lodge deaths. Ray ended his seminars shortly after but has continued to offer advice throughout his trial via the Internet and social networking sites.