Guru found guilty in sweat lodge death case

A US self-help guru has been convicted of three counts of negligent manslaughter after holding a sauna-like sweat lodge ceremony.

James Arthur Ray told his seminar participants that it would be “hellacious” and that they would feel like they were dying, but would do so only metaphorically.

But three people did die following the October 2009 ceremony.

He was found guilty by a jury in Camp Verde, Arizona, following a four-month trial.

He faces a sentence ranging from probation to nearly 12 years in prison.

Ray headed a multimillion-dollar self-help empire which saw him appear on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' and 'Larry King Live'.

Ray used free talks to recruit people to expensive seminars like the Sedona retreat that led to the sweat lodge tragedy.

Participants paid up to $10,000 (€7,030) for the five-day programme intended to push their physical and emotional limits.

More than 50 people participated in the two-hour sweat lodge, a sauna-like ceremony typically used by American Indians to rid the body of toxins.

It was meant to be the highlight of Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” seminar near Sedona, Arizona. Two people were pronounced dead at the scene; a third died after spending more than a week in a coma; 18 others were treated in hospital.

Witnesses described the scene after the ceremony as alarming and chaotic – like a “battlefield” – with people vomiting and shaking violently, while others dragged “lifeless” and “barely breathing” participants outside. Volunteers performed CPR.

Lawyers disagreed over whether the deaths and illnesses were caused by heat or unknown toxins. Ray’s lawyers maintained they were a tragic accident. Prosecutors argued Ray recklessly caused the fatalities.

They relied heavily on Ray’s own words to try to convince the jury that he was responsible for the deaths.

“The true spiritual warrior has conquered death and therefore has no fear or enemies in this lifetime or the next, because the greatest fear you’ll ever experience is the fear of what? Death,” Ray said in a recording played during the trial. “You will have to get a point to where you surrender and it’s OK to die.”

Prosecutors said a reasonable person would have stopped the “abomination of a sweat lodge” when participants began exhibiting signs of distress about halfway through the ceremony.

As the verdict was read, some of the victims’ friends and family members held hands and smiled.

“We’re satisfied that responsibility has finally been laid at Mr Ray’s feet,” said Tom McFeeley, a cousin of one of the victims.

Ray quickly left the courtroom with his family after the hearing, and did not comment.

Prosecutors have lined up nine witnesses to testify at a sentencing hearing next week.

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