Overnight, James Arthur Ray went from being a star of the self-help movement to homicide suspect.
He was admired by Oprah and Larry King; a peer of Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins; a teacher whose followers paid as much as $60,000 a year to attend his seminars, where his best-selling book, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, was cited as if it were scripture. Last September, James Ray International, the organization he founded in 1992, was named one of America’s 500 fastest-growing companies by Inc. Magazine, with revenues close to $10 million. Then, on October 8, the last night of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in Sedona, Arizona, Ray led a sweat-lodge ritual that ended in tragedy.
Three died, and about twenty others were hospitalized, as a result of injuries sustained in the ritual’s extreme heat. The local sheriff’s office launched an investigation of the deaths as negligent homicides, and Ray’s trial in the court of public opinion began. Former followers and employees made allegations of irresponsible behavior, and Ray canceled all public appearances and retreated into silence (but for some blog posts) so that he could “dedicate all of my physical and emotional energies to helping bring some sort of closure to this matter.”
Ray hired a team of lawyers and private investigators who built a preemptive defense case, outlined in a pair of “White Papers,” that maintains Ray’s innocence. Police reports from Arizona, where the investigation is ongoing, paint a different picture: One survivor of the sweat lodge quoted Ray telling the group, “You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you are not going to die.”
Friday, in his first interview since the Sedona tragedy (and with his lawyers on the line), Ray spoke exclusively to New York’s Michael Joseph Gross about what exactly happened in the sweat lodge, his struggles in the months since then, and his unwavering denial that he has done anything wrong, whether legally, morally, or ethically.
How did the events in Sedona and their aftermath affect your sense of yourself as a spiritual teacher?
Well, I wouldn’t define myself as a spiritual teacher, in the strictest traditional sense. I really see myself as a catalyst for personal transformation. I believe, through my own life experience and through my experience with tens if not hundreds of thousands of other people, that we have this seed of potential, of greatness, inside of us.
Did the events in Sedona change your sense that you can help people remember what they’re capable of accomplishing?
The events in Sedona have been devastating to me and to all the families, and I feel horrible about what happened there and for the families and for anyone and everyone who’s been affected by it.
How has it changed your personal beliefs?
I don’t know how to answer that. That right now is not the important issue. The important issue for me is to find the answers to why it occurred and to really bring some closure to this terrible accident.
What first made you realize that this sweat-lodge experience in Sedona was different from the sweat lodges that you’d been in before?
I did not know anything was different until it became apparent that there had been a terrible accident when it was completed. I don’t know what happened.
When did you become aware that there had been an accident?
Someone came up to me and said that there were some individuals that were having problems on the back side of the lodge. I did not know anything before that time. I made sure that 911 was called and we went into action to respond as best we could until the paramedics arrived.
At what point in the sweat-lodge ritual did that happen?
It was after it was completed.
So after you had walked out?
Correct, and after the lodge had been emptied.
Were you aware that some participants were vomiting or passing out or screaming for help during the sweat lodge?
You know, I think I’ll just refer you to the “White Paper” on that one. [The White Paper asserts, “Had Mr. Ray, JRI personnel or volunteers heard or understood there to be an urgent call for help, they immediately would have stopped the ceremony.”]
Did you raise your arms in victory at the end of the sweat lodge?
When I came out of the sweat lodge, I raised my arms up and they hosed me down.
Did you tell sweat-lodge participants that vomiting was good for them, that the body was purging what it doesn’t want?
I may have mentioned that I had been told by many shamans that the body purges and there’s only certain ways that it can purge. Obviously, you know the bodily functions, so there’s only certain ways that things exit the body.
What did you do after making sure 911 was called?
I did everything I could to help. There was a medical doctor there, and I was having her make sure that everything was being run appropriately. I held people’s hands, I stroked their hair, I talked to them, I held IV for the paramedics. I was there the entire time doing whatever I could do to help until I was detained by the detectives.
One of your former employees, Melinda Martin, has said that you did nothing to help. Where was she when you were helping?
She was performing CPR, which she was trained to do. And I was there behind her at one time until I was asked to go look for a defibrillator.
You’ve been quoted as saying, in the tent, “You’re not going to die. You might think you are, but you’re not going to die.” Did you say that?
I think those statements have been—in fact, I don’t think, I know those statements have been taken completely out of context. There’s no one who would say that I was talking literally. If you look at the Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s full of references to death and rebirth. In fact, the apostle Paul, who was pretty much the founder of Christianity post-Jesus’s death, said, “I die daily.” Now, did he really mean that literally? No, of course not. What is meant there is that, you know, you let go of the things that no longer serve you and you move forward. You know, from a physical perspective, a lot of times people running a foot race will be completely winded and say, “God, I feel like I’m going to die,” but do they mean that literally? No, absolutely not.
In a conference call after Sedona, a woman who was identified as speaking on behalf of James Ray International and who was identified as a kind of medium or channeler, said that the victims had been having out-of-body experiences and were having so much fun that they chose not to return to their bodies.
Well first of all, that’s not absolutely correct. The person you’re speaking of was a volunteer at the event. She was not a representative of JRI and she was not a channeler. She said that Angel Valley Ranch had brought a channeler into that meeting and that’s what that person had told her. She was just relaying the message.
What do you think about what she said?
I have no comment. I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about channeling.
So it might be true and it might not be true: You don’t have any sense either way?
I really don’t, no. I think that’s up to an interpretation of each individual.
The “White Paper” says that you sent a message to sweat-lodge participants that night. What was the message?
That I loved them and I wished nothing more than to be with them.
When did you leave Arizona?
I left the next morning around lunch time because I had to drive back to Phoenix to catch a flight.
Why didn’t you speak to the Spiritual Warrior Retreat participants before you left?
I asked on several occasions, when I was being detained, if I could possibly go speak to them, and that just wasn’t possible. The detectives were doing their jobs.
Did James Ray “the citizen” create a crime in Sedona? And did James Ray “the man” do something wrong, however you choose to define that—irresponsible, amoral, unethical, or careless?
[Lawyer interjects]Lawyer: I think you have to rely on the “White Paper” for that. [The White Paper asserts that Ray “did not commit criminally negligent conduct.”]
Is there anything at all, either on that day or since, that you wish you had done differently?
Lawyer: This is another one of those things that I think the “White Paper” is just going to have to speak for itself.
Why didn’t you or anyone from your organization contact the family of Kirby Brown, one of the victims, until five days after she died?
Well I reached out to the families as soon as I could. What do you do in those situations? I think we all would like to believe that we would do the exact, perfect thing. Would I do some things differently? Probably. But I did the best I could at the time.
A basic principal of your teaching is that the universe is at your command; you speak of the power of intention. I wonder how you perceive the tragedy in Sedona in light of those teachings. Did you in some way cause this to happen?
Well I don’t … First of all, here’s the situation: Three people have died in transitions. What I’m really focused on right now is to have my team find out exactly why that happened and bring it to some type of closure.
What does the phrase “died in transition” mean?
No, what I said was, “died and/or transitioned.” They’re two different terms for the same thing.
Some people who have known you for a long time say that, especially over the course of the last year, your ego has grown stronger, and they suggest you may have become intoxicated by your own power. Do you think there is anything to that criticism?
Well, I think we all struggle with our own ego identity, and certainly that’s me included. To say that I haven’t been tempted by, you know, my own press, if you will, would be crazy. I mean, I think a part of my path and all of our paths is to constantly look at ourselves. The word ego is a Latin word that means identity, or I. Everyone has an ego. You can’t function in the world without an identity.
Has your ego been adjusted by this experience?
It’s certainly been, as I said earlier, devastating for every single person that is involved. And shocking for the families and for everyone who’s been impacted like this. And so any kind of significant emotional event of this magnitude has to have an impact.
Do you think in some divinely or cosmically ordained way this was the victims’ time to die?
I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that. I think that’s something that everyone would have to come to their own conclusions about.
You had entered the first rank of leaders in the self-help movement, and I’m curious to know how the people who helped you get to that place have responded to this event.
I think you’d have to take it … people are people. Some I’m closer with, some I’m not as close with. Some have been more verbally supportive. Some have not. It’s really kind of a mixed bag.
Do you think the accident in Sedona should be a factor for people deciding whether to follow your teachings and practices?
I’m not really putting energies and attention on my teaching and my future business or anything of that nature right now. I just don’t think that’s important.
What justifies the pricing of your events?
Well, I think the pricing is determined by the value that people perceive they receive.
With the purchase of your $4 million Beverly Hills mansion last March, do you think you were overly concerned with money this last year?
No, absolutely not. I have—or should say, had—a very capital-intensive model, and anyone who was at one of my events would realize that they’re extremely expensive to produce.
And how are you doing financially, now?
Well again, that’s not what I want to focus on at this particular time. What I’d like to focus on is bringing closure to this tragic accident.