Flagstaff, Ariz. More than 50 followers of spiritual guru James Arthur Ray had just endured five strenuous days of fasting, sleep-deprivation and mind-altering breathing exercises when he led them into a sweat lodge ceremony.
It was supposed to be a religious awakening, the culmination of a $9,000-plus-a-person retreat outside Sedona, Ariz., aimed at helping people find a new vision for life. But it wasn’t long before the ceremony turned into a terrifying experience.
People were vomiting in the stifling heat, gasping for air and lying lifeless on the sand and gravel floor beneath them, according to participant Beverley Bunn. One man was burned when he crawled into the rocks, seemingly unaware of what he was doing, she said. Ultimately, three people would die.
When participants exhibited weakness, Ray urged them to push past it and chided those who wanted to leave, she said. “I can’t get her to move. I can’t get her to wake up,” Bunn recalls hearing from two sides of the 415-square-foot sweat lodge. Ray’s response: “Leave her alone, she’ll be dealt with in the next round.”
Bunn, a 43-year-old Texas resident, provided her wrenching description of the sweat lodge tragedy in an interview with The Associated Press, the first public account from a participant in the Oct. 8 ceremony.
It also marks a significant revelation in the criminal investigation into Ray over the episode because it portrays him as driving participants to stay in the lodge despite signs all around him that the situation had gone bad. Investigators are considering bringing charges against the guru and trying to learn about his actions that night in a case that has cast a harsh spotlight on Ray and his self-help empire.
Howard Bragman, a spokesman for Ray, said many people at the “Spiritual Warrior” event had “amazing experiences,” and noted that people should not rush to judgment about what occurred during an ongoing investigation.
“This is only one person out of many at this point,” he said.
According to Bunn, participants were given short notice before they were to enter the sweat lodge. As they readied for it, they removed their jewelry, placed prayer pouches filled with nicotine around their necks and ripped out pages in a journal they kept detailing what in life was holding them back.
A fire heating up rocks outside the sweat lodge consumed the journal pages.
Lightly dressed in bathing suits, shorts and tank tops, they received a blessing meant to cut away negative energy before crawling into the sweat lodge. Ray led the group inside and sat next to the opening. A second row formed, their bodies closest to what would be a pile of heated rocks.
Ray sprinkled them with sandalwood meant for aroma. He led the group in chants and prayers in a Native American tongue during the sweat lodge ceremony. He poured a 5-gallon bucket of water over the rocks, sending a rush of steam throughout the makeshift structure. That began a two-hour ceremony broken up into 15-20 minute rounds that some would later describe as “profound,” according to a transcript of a call Ray held with participants days later.
For others, it was terrifying.
Participants began to show signs they were weakening midway through the ceremony. By the time people started collapsing, Bunn had already crawled to a spot near the opening of the sweat lodge, praying for the door to stay open as long as possible between rounds so that she could breathe in fresh air.
At one point, someone lifted up the back of the tent, allowing light into the otherwise pitch-black tent. Ray demanded to know where the light was coming from and who committed the “sacrilegious act,” Bunn said. A man, yelling “I can’t take it, I can’t breathe, I can’t do this” had crawled out, Bunn said.
People were not physically forced to stay inside but highly encouraged. “It was all about mind over matter, you’re stronger than your body,” Bunn said.
Pushed to the limit
Bunn lasted the entire two hours in the sweat lodge but nearly two dozen others were hospitalized. 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., died more than a week later at a Flagstaff hospital.
No drugs, alcohol nor stimulants of any kind were used in the sweat lodge or during the retreat, Bunn said.
“These people, including myself, were really just searching for a better way to live and a better life,” she said. “And I commend us for that.”
Looking back, she said it’s easy to see how so many people were overcome. No one was well-hydrated, the sweat lodge was poorly ventilated, no safety tips were provided and appropriate medical care wasn’t available, she said.
As the leader of the “Spiritual Warrior” event, Ray pushed for participants to go without sleep, enter into altered states of mind through breathing exercises and meditation, compete in a game in which he played God and fast for 36 hours during a vision quest, Bunn said.
Sheriff’s investigators in Arizona’s Yavapai County are treating the deaths as homicides but have yet to determine the cause. Ray has hired his own investigative team to try to determine what went wrong, and vowed to continue with his work despite criticism.
Ray has become a self-help superstar by packaging his charismatic personality and selling wealth. He uses free seminars to recruit people to expensive seminars like the Sedona retreat that led to the sweat lodge tragedy.