Self-help guru gets 2 years in sweat lodge deaths

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) - November 18, 2011

A judge handed down three, two-year prison terms to be served concurrently and ordered Ray to pay more than $57,000 in restitution.

"I find that the aggravating circumstance of emotional harm is so strong and such that probation is simply unwarranted in this case," Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow said.

Authorities immediately took custody of Ray, who will serve his time with the state Department of Corrections.

Ray was convicted on a trio of negligent homicide charges earlier this year in the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn.

Family members of the three lashed out at Ray earlier Friday while asking the judge to hand down the maximum sentence of nine years in prison. They said they were appalled that Ray continued to deliver self-help messages through the Internet while he faced criminal charges.

"There was nothing you could teach Liz, James or Kirby about honor, integrity and impeccability," said Neuman's cousin, Lily Clark, drawing from Ray's principle teachings. "But they could have taught you a lot. They were born spiritual warriors, and you are not worthy to spit shine their combat boots."

Neuman's daughter, Andrea Puckett, later said she doesn't believe Ray grasps his role in the deaths, and called the sentence a joke.

"It's very frightening the control he has over people and his mentality," she said. "That's not going to change."

The victims' families also have blasted Ray for offering no solace for their loss until recently.

In asking for leniency, Ray told the judge he would have stopped the ceremony had he known people were dying or in distress. But he offered no excuses for his lack of action as chaos unfolded outside the structure at a retreat near Sedona.

"At the end of the day, I lost three friends, and I lost them on my watch," Ray said, standing before the victims' families. "Whatever errors in judgment or mistakes I have made, I'm going to have to live with those for the rest of my life. I truly understand your disappointment in my actions after, I do. I'm disappointed in myself."

Ray will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence. That comes out to almost 600 days, taking into account the credit he received for 24 days served. That's roughly the amount of time he's been out of jail on bond since his arrest early last year.

The courtroom was silent as the sentence was handed down. The victims' families held hands and braced for a decision, as did Ray's parents and brother.

Ray's family offered their condolences to the victims' families in a statement following the sentencing hearing and asked if they'd find forgiveness in their hearts.

"We were fortunate enough to meet with James after the sentencing," said his brother, Jon Ray. "He was in good spirits and said this would give him the opportunity to help people in prison that need it."

Defense attorneys said they would appeal, likely on the grounds that errors by the prosecution tainted the case.

County Attorney Sheila Polk hoped Ray would get the maximum and believed she had made a strong case for accountability, justice and deterrence. But, she said, "certainly some prison time over probation is better than no prison at all."

Ray originally was charged with manslaughter, but jurors rejected that he was reckless in his handling of the ceremony that highlighted Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event. Ray's attorneys suggested that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths, but jurors said that theory was not credible.

Ray's motivational mantra drew dozens of people to the retreat with a promise that the sweat lodge typically used by American Indians to cleanse the body would lead to powerful breakthroughs. When the victims' families discovered something went wrong, they said Ray made no attempt to identify people in the hospital.

Participants began showing signs of distress about halfway through the two-hour sweat lodge ceremony. By the time it was over, some were vomiting, struggling to breathe and lying lifeless on the ground. Brown and Shore were pronounced dead. Neuman slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness. She died more than a week later at a Flagstaff hospital.

"He did some good, but this is about what he didn't do," said Shore's mother, Jane Shore-Gripp. "He had the opportunity to save three people, and he didn't."

The trial was a mix of lengthy witness testimony and legal wrangling that lasted four months. Witnesses painted conflicting pictures of Ray, with some describing him as a coach who encouraged participants to do their best to endure the heat but never forced them to remain in the sweat lodge.

Others said they learned through breathing exercises, a 36-hour fast, and a game in which Ray portrayed God that they dare not question him, and they lost the physical and mental ability to care for themselves or others.

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