SEDONA – A spokesman for the family of one of two people who died after being overcome in an Arizona sweat lodge demanded more accountability Oct. 13 from the man in charge of the spiritual retreat that led to the deaths.
Self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray led a group of more than 50 people last week through a five-day program intended to push people beyond their limits. The course included a sweat lodge ceremony on Oct. 8, which ended tragically in the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and 40-year-old James Shore of Milwaukee.
Nineteen other people were hurt, and one remains in critical condition.
Tom McFeeley, Brown’s cousin and family spokesman, called on Ray to assure that the participants “were not mistreated and not put in a reckless situation.
“He was someone people believed in, people paid good money to get his advice,” McFeeley said. “It’s a person we all wanted to believe had our best interest in mind. Quite simply, that didn’t happen.”
McFeeley also said he is concerned that Ray exhibited a “godlike complex” during the event that might have kept people from opting out of activities Ray acknowledged could cause “physical, emotional, financial or other injuries.”
“We need to look at this way beyond the sweat lodge,” McFeeley said. “If we could understand minute by minute what happened this week, I think we’ll get a much greater view on what kind of event this was and the level of danger that existed.”
Fire department reports released Tuesday show the incident wasn’t the first involving a sweat lodge ceremony at the resort. Verde Valley Fire Chief Jerry Doerksen said his department responded to a 911 call in October 2005 about a person who was unconscious after being in a sweat lodge.
Angel Valley resort owner Amayra Hamilton confirmed that Ray was leading the sweat ceremony during the 2005 event. Ray’s spokesman declined to comment.
No other details about the 2005 incident were immediately available.
Meanwhile, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office continued to investigate last week’s ceremony to determine if criminal negligence played a role in the deaths or illnesses. Authorities said Ray has refused to speak with authorities. No charges have been filed.
Ray’s spokesman, Howard Bragman, has said Ray would speak when it’s appropriate. He declined Tuesday to address the Brown family’s concerns.
“The facts are going to come out,” he said. “We’re not going to conduct our investigation in the media. We’re going to let the investigative bodies do their jobs.”
Authorities say 55 to 65 people attending the program were crowded into the 415-square-foot crudely built sweat lodge during a two-hour period the evening of Oct. 8. Participants paid between $9,000 and $10,000 for the retreat. They were highly encouraged, but not forced, to remain inside for the entire two hours, authorities said.
The participants had fasted for 36 hours as part of a personal and spiritual quest in the wilderness, then ate a breakfast buffet before entering the sweat lodge around 3 p.m. A 911 call two hours later said two people, who authorities said were Shore and Brown, had no pulse and weren’t breathing.
Autopsies on Brown and Shore were conducted, but the results are being withheld pending additional tests. Carbon monoxide poisoning was ruled out as a cause of the deaths and illnesses.
A statement released by the family of Liz Neuman, who remains in critical condition at the Flagstaff Medical Center, said she is in a coma and doctors are working to stabilize damage to multiple organs.
“Liz is fighting hard and her family asks for everyone to keep her in their thoughts and prayers,” the statement said.
Two others remained hospitalized. Fire officials say the victims exhibited symptoms ranging from dehydration to kidney failure after sitting in the sweat lodge.
Officials say the sweat lodge, built specifically for the five-day retreat, lacked the necessary building permit.
Resort owners Amayra Hamilton and her husband, Michael, asked Oct. 13 for prayers in hopes that something positive will come out of what they say was a tragic and unexpected event. The Hamiltons said that a prayer ceremony has been conducted at the sweat lodge site, and a heart-shaped memorial has been laid with stones for Brown and Shore.
Ray has expressed his condolences through social networking sites and said he is praying for the victims and their families.
McFeeley said the Hamiltons have been in contact with the Brown family, but did not receive a call from Ray until Oct. 13.