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Author pleads for mercy in sweat lodge deaths

The Associated Press, Friday, November 18, 2011, 10:50am (PST)

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- A self-help author convicted of negligent homicide stood before the families of three people who died following an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony he led and begged for forgiveness. Earlier Friday, the victims' families pleaded to have James Arthur Ray sent to prison for the next nine years to prevent him from harming others.

Ray said during his sentencing hearing that he would have stopped the ceremony near Sedona had he known people were dying or in distress. He turned to the more than a dozen family members seated in the courtroom, tearfully taking full responsibility for the pain and anguish he caused them.

"At the end of the day, I lost three friends, and I lost them on my watch," he said. "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. I don't have any excuse."

It's the kind of apology that the families say they would have like to receive from Ray immediately following the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., more than two years ago.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow was expected to hand down Ray's sentence later Friday. He faces up to three years on each of three negligent homicide convictions. But he could receive probation.

Authorities originally charged Ray with manslaughter, but jurors rejected arguments that he was reckless in his handling of the ceremony.

Prosecutors contend that Ray ignored pleas for help in the sweat lodge ceremony that was the highlight of his five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event, and watched as participants were dragged out before him.

He did not contact the families when the three died, to which Ray apologized for Friday.

"There was nothing you could teach Liz, James or Kirby about honor, integrity and impeccability, but they could have taught you a lot," Neuman's cousin, Lily Clark, said in a raised voice while looking at Ray. "They were born spiritual warriors, and you are not worthy to spit shine their combat boots."

Ray asked Darrow to grant him probation so that he could care for ailing parents and rebuild his life. Brown's mother asked that he be taken off the self-help market. His attorneys say his lack of prior criminal history and track record of helping others also should weigh in his favor.

Ray's motivational mantra drew dozens of people to a retreat nestled in the scrub forest near Sedona with a promise that the sweat lodge ceremony typically used by American Indians to cleanse the body would help them break through whatever was holding them back in life.

Participants began showing signs of distress about half way through the two-hour ceremony. By the time it was over, some were vomiting, struggling to breathe and lying lifeless on the ground. Three people died, 18 others were hospitalized and some emerged with no problems.

The trial was a mix of lengthy witness testimony and legal wrangling. Witnesses painted conflicting pictures of Ray, with some describing a man who was more like a coach encouraging participants to do their best to endure the heat but never forcing 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 lost the mental and physical ability to take care of themselves or others in the sweat lodge.

Ray's attorneys suggested that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths, but jurors said that theory was not credible.

Ray's attorneys made at least nine requests for a retrial or mistrial based on what they say were errors by the prosecution. While Darrow ruled that prosecutors broke disclosure rules, he rejected each of the defense requests. The case is bound for appeal.

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