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Author convicted in Ariz. sweat lodge deaths freed

Sunday - 7/14/2013, 12:10pm  ET

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2011 file pool photo, self-help author James Arthur Ray sits with one of his attorneys, Thomas Kelly, during a pre-sentencing hearing at Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott, Ariz. Ray is scheduled to be released from prison Friday, July 12, 2013, completing his sentence for negligent homicide in the deaths of three people at a sweat lodge ceremony. (AP Photo/Michael Schennum, Pool, File)

FELICIA FONSECA
Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- An author who saw his self-help business crash after he led a sweat lodge ceremony that left three people dead was paroled from prison on Friday after serving nearly two years for negligent homicide convictions.

James Arthur Ray, 55, was freed from the state prison in Buckeye, near Phoenix. Nothing in his conditions of release prohibits him from holding self-help seminars or conducting another sweat lodge ceremony, but his brother said Ray has no immediate plans to resurrect his business.

However, Jon Ray didn't rule out the possibility in the future, maintaining the deaths weren't his brother's fault.

"At this point, he wants to get out and hide out, and start putting his life back together, which has been completely turned upside down," he told The Associated Press earlier this week. "I say that with all due respect because I know a lot of people's lives have been turned upside down because of this unfortunate incident."

The tragedy occurred after dozens of people traveled to a scenic retreat just outside Sedona in October 2009 for James Arthur Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event.

The sweat lodge was the culminating event, touted as "hellacious hot" and a chance for participants to have powerful breakthroughs.

Things started going wrong about halfway through the two-hour ceremony. When it was over, 38-year-old Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y., and 40-year-old James Shore of Milwaukee were dead, and 18 others injured.

Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., slipped into a coma and died after more than a week in the hospital.

At trial, prosecutors said Ray ratcheted up the heat to dangerous levels, ignored pleas for help, and watched as overcome participants were dragged out of the sweat lodge.

A jury acquitted him of more serious manslaughter charges and convicted him of negligent homicide. He served 85 percent of the concurrent two-year terms for each of the deaths. Ray has appealed the convictions, alleging that errors by the prosecution tainted the case.

Ray has acknowledged that he was responsible for the deaths but offered no excuses for his lack of action as the chaos unfolded at the sweat lodge. He and his attorneys said Ray would have stopped the ceremony had he known people were dying or in distress.

The defense centered its case on the possibility that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths.

None of the victims' families believes that 20 months was a sufficient sentence. They have said they would rather not see Ray in the self-help industry, or he should at least be more accountable for his actions.

Members of Neuman's family meet regularly to talk about her, share memories and vent feelings of frustration and anger -- a lot of which is aimed at Ray, said her daughter, Andrea Puckett. The birth of Puckett's two children and her brother's wedding are among the events made bittersweet by the loss of Neuman, she said.

"Ideally, we don't want him (Ray) doing anything in the industry anymore," Puckett said. "I don't think he has the right to work with people. If he does move forward with that, I hope people become aware of what he did and he changes the way that he handles his seminars and his teachings."

Brown's mother, Virginia, has quit her full-time job to focus on the nonprofit group called SEEK Safely that the family formed to help others avoid such a tragedy. This week, she was busy reaching out to people in the self-help industry asking them to commit to basic standards to ensure practitioners are truthful, act with integrity, and respect the people who choose to follow them -- something she said Ray failed to do.

"While he was in jail, there was a feeling of safety somehow," she said. "Now that he's coming out, I'm not planning on keeping track of his activities."

One of Shore's best friends, Matt Collins, is on the board of directors for SEEK Safely. He expects that Ray will find a way to continue his teachings but doesn't want to see him profit from tragedy.

"Being in prison is probably a good place to reinvent oneself, hopefully for the better," he said. "I don't know whether he's capable of recognizing the damage that the families suffered."

Jon Ray and his wife, who have visited James Arthur Ray in prison over the past 20 months, greeted him Friday as he was released. James Arthur Ray changed clothes in a shed on the prison grounds and jumped in a sedan that drove past a dozen journalists.

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