CAMP VERDE, Ariz. (AP) -- Self-help guru James Arthur Ray says it was all a tragic accident when his followers began collapsing one by one in a sweat lodge at his retreat, with three of them dying. As unfortunate as the ordeal was, he says the participants knew about the risks the ceremony presented.
Prosecutors say it's a blatant case of manslaughter by a man who recklessly crammed dozens of people in a 400-square-foot sweat lodge and chided them for wanting to leave, even as people were vomiting, getting burned by hot rocks and lying lifeless on the ground.
The two sides will be on display in coming months now that prosecutors have charged Ray with manslaughter in a case that could send him to prison for more than 35 years. The 52-year-old Ray said nothing during his first court appearance Thursday, and his lawyer entered a not guilty plea.
The prospect of a conviction against Ray will depend on whether jurors view the episode as an accident or a criminal act in which he recklessly caused the deaths of the victims, the definition of manslaughter in Arizona.
Despite the shocking details that have emerged from that night in the sweat lodge, legal experts say prosecutors won't have an easy time landing a conviction.
Ray's strongest defense will be that the participants were made aware of the risks the ceremony presented, including extreme temperatures in a small space and the possibility of injury or death, and voluntarily went in, criminal defense attorneys said.
But that won't necessarily put Ray in the clear.
"Even though they assumed risks, that doesn't necessarily take the defendant off the hook," said Roy Black, a Miami defense attorney whose clients have included Rush Limbaugh and William Kennedy Smith. "He has an obligation to people. He's the one leading the program, he has a responsibility to make sure it's run safely."
Any evidence of illnesses at prior Ray-led events, cover-up or lying about incidents and testimony that Ray ignored signs of medical distress would bode well for prosecutors, said former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Police reports released in the case show a detailed investigation that found previous injuries at Ray-led events, and witnesses who said Ray ignored growing signs that the ceremony had gone terribly wrong.
Should the case go to trial, testimony is expected to include cult experts, medical professionals, psychologists, American Indian sweat lodge leaders, former Ray employees and participants of various Ray-led events.
The charges came nearly four months after Ray led more than 50 people into the sauna-like sweat lodge at a retreat he rented near Sedona.
The ceremony was intended to be almost a religious awakening and the highlight of Ray's "Spiritual Warrior" retreat. About halfway through the ceremony, people began feeling ill, vomiting and collapsing. Three people who never regained consciousness died at hospitals — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. Eighteen others were hospitalized.
The sweat lodge was built in 2008 specifically for Ray's event and used numerous other times without incident. What happened inside of the pitch-black structure last October depends on who you ask.
Some participants said Ray highly encouraged them to stay inside, scolded them for leaving and ignored repeated pleas for help. His attorneys say participants were free to leave as they pleased and Ray was unaware of any problems until after the two-hour ceremony ended.
Defense attorneys said Ray would fare better with jurors who acknowledge there are risks in life and take responsibility for their actions, have Libertarian political views and do not want government control of their lives. Levenson said prosecutors would benefit from jurors who tend to stick to conventional religion and medicine because they are less likely to endorse sweat-lodge ceremonies.
Black said it would be interesting to see whether the jury is influenced by any claims of brainwashing. The sweat lodge participants had endured five days of fasting, sleep-deprivation and mind-altering breathing exercises before the ceremony began.
For now, Ray remains in an Arizona jail on a $5 million bond — a figure his attorneys want lowered because Ray has no criminal history. He faces three to 12 1/2 years on each of the three manslaughter charges if he's convicted, with the possibility of probation.
Regardless of the outcome of the criminal case, Ray could face deep financial troubles brought on by the episode as his self-help empire crumbles. He made millions with a motivational mantra that preaches spiritual and financial wealth, and the lucrative speaking gigs and books have dried up.
He also faces the likelihood of several costly civil lawsuits filed by the victims that could further erode his wealth.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Ariz.
James Ray International, http://jamesray.com