In October 2009, James Ray hosted an enlightenment retreat in the Arizona Desert titled Spirit Warrior. Tickets were sold for a hefty $10,000.
However, for 3 of the attendees, the price would be their lives. Participants would have to complete challenging tasks ending in a final sweat lodge ceremony where James Ray had his followers boiled alive.
A Rise In The Self-Help Industry
There has been an extraordinary rise in the self-help genre in today’s culture. Words and phrases like vulnerability, trauma, healing, and self-enlightenment are used more frequently on social media and internet searches.
The concept of self-help and the search for enlightenment has been around for decades. However, perhaps due to the increase in telecommunications, social media platforms such as Youtube and Facebook, more people have access to this subject. Information is spread far more quickly than it has been in previous years.
As a result of this development of social media, there has been an increasing interest in the field of self-help. More people want to find out how they can make their lives easier and how they can live in true abundance and overcome life’s struggles. There are many people out there that are mentors and leaders in this field.
Yet some questions are worth considering, such as, how does one gain the title of Guru or become an expert in this industry? How does one regulate this industry, and what are the qualifications required?
Most other professions that deal with the psychology or social wellbeing of people require years of study at an established school and further work experience in the field. Some regulations and requirements are usually put in place to ensure that the correct formalities are adhered to. This is done to ensure the safety and security of the clients.
However, when it comes to the self-help industry, there seems to be a grey area that allows for anyone who has overcome an obstacle in their life to rise up as a motivational speaker, leader, and mentor.
James Ray is the perfect example of a man who does not have any certified qualifications. Yet, through his tenacious personality, he rose up and became a famous mentor and a Guru to some. He overcame his challenges in life, and through that struggle, he believed he had unlocked the secret to success.
Who Is James Ray?
James Ray is a former businessman born in 1957 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He had an Associates’s Degree, which he earned from a local community college. Ray went on to become a trainer at the AT&T School of Business in Atlanta.
Ray was always excellent at public speaking, and he had this innate ability to capture the audience. He was charming, charismatic, and had an incredible stage presence. In 1990, Ray changed his profession and became a keynote speaker. He found this industry was more lucrative than his current job. However, it did not come without its struggles.
For about ten years, Ray fought to launch his career. He had a high turnover rate and few employees working for him. However, Ray was determined and tenacious. He was a firm believer in the Law of Attraction – the idea that if you have the power to create and attract success through positive thinking and the power of your mind. This concept of the Law Of Attraction was gaining traction at the time as an inspiring self-help book titled The Secret had recently been launched.
The popularity of this book further launched Ray into the spotlight and fast-tracked his career as a motivational speaker and leader in the self-help industry. Ray was featured in the film The Secret to share his rags-to-riches story. He was an inspiration, a walking testimony that you can attract abundance and success into your life. Ray went on to be interviewed by iconic people such as Oprah and Larry King.
With all this newfound attention and adoration, Ray had in all sense of the word “Made It.” He had walked the path of enlightenment, and he was the expert and a self-proclaimed Guru. Ray would host numerous workshops, conventions, and retreats that had high attendance.
What happens when this sort of worship and following go to your head? When did a God Complex start to rise?
No one attending these events hosted by Ray could ever imagine that a dark side to enlightenment existed. That Ray would take it too far and that his Spirit Warrior Camp would see 3 of his devotees in all essence boiled alive in a sweat lodge and leaving 18 others in the hospital hanging onto their lives.
Spirit Warrior – A Journey In Power
In October 2009, James Ray hosted Spirit Warrior retreat out in the Arizona desert. Ray had hosted multiple other retreats and conventions at 5-star luxury resorts, these were popular, and tickets were sold out. Many people struggling in their personal lives and seeking answers to elevate their lives would spend exuberant amounts of money on tickets to attend these conventions and retreats hosted by James Ray.
Spirit Warrior was one of these retreats organized by James Ray. Non-refundable tickets were sold for $10 000. Many people recall having to draw out their life savings to attend. The attendees were somewhat surprised when they were driven out on a dusty road into the Sedona Desert. There they were met with teepees and run-down log cabins that would be their home for the next few days. This was already looking nothing like the other retreats run by Ray.
Little information about the retreat was given to the attendees, as they were only told what to pack and nothing else. All they knew was that Spirit Warrior was going to be on a whole new level. Everyone attending would be encouraged to push themselves both mentally and physically through some grueling exercises.
Upon arrival, they learned that there would be a series of challenges, each one more grueling than the last. Each challenge was said to bring them closer to their true self and in finding true enlightenment.
Shave Your Identity
Once everyone had gathered in the main hall, Ray welcomed them to Spirit Warrior and announced the first challenge. All participants were to shave their heads. His staff members then entered the room armed with clippers, one by one, and they began to shave the hair of everyone in the room.
Laura Tucker, an attendee at the retreat, recalls not wanting to participate. She was told by Ray that she was “Hung up on appearances” that she was not “playing full-on.” Laura felt that she was bullied and cajoled into shaving her beautiful hair off.
The act of removing your hair is often seen as removing your identity. In this setting, Ray said that they were shedding parts of their old self to be reborn new.
The newly balled group was gathered on the second morning to participate in The Silent Samurai game. Ray came into the hall in a white robe announcing that he was God. The group was instructed to carry out some tasks, but they couldn’t speak. Anyone who spoke would be killed by God – Ray.
Laura Tucker was the first to be “killed,” this meant she had to lay on the ground and play dead while everyone continued with the exercise. Laura lay on the floor with no water or food for over 5 hours. She and the other “dead” players even missed dinner.
When she was finally allowed up off the ground, she found her body was stiff and in pain from lying down on the cold ground for so long. However, she had no time to recover before being whisked off with the rest of the group to the next challenge.
Surviving 36 Hours In The Desert
Laura and the other attendees were all led out into the desert with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They were told they would not be spending the night in their rooms but rather out in the desert. They were not given water or blankets and spent the night out in the open on the cold dirt floor.
Some participants recall hearing coyotes in the night, feeling terrified that something would attack them. This was an experience that actually made a number of the attendees decide to leave the retreat and head home.
For those that remained and had survived the past 36 hours out in the desert, they had one final challenge set out for them. This was going to be the most challenging one yet and ultimately resulted in the deaths of 3 people.
The Sweat Lodge
“You are going to feel as if you are going to die,” Ray had told the group this when preparing them for the sweat lodge.
He told everyone that their skin would feel as though it was fire but that they must stay inside the tent and “Play full-on.” That during this challenge, they would experience death and rebirth.
Sweat lodges are an ancient tradition, that when practiced safely, can have many benefits. However, the way James Ray had conducted this exercise was neither safe nor beneficial.
The sweat lodge was a tent-like structure made out of tarp with burning rocks in the middle. The group was led into the tent and instructed to sit in two concentric circles around the burning rocks. The group was tightly packed inside. They were sitting shoulder to shoulder with their knees were drawn up toward their chests, the feet of those in the front row mere inches from the burning rocks. Ray stood at the entrance of the tent.
Ray had conducted sweat lodge experiences at other retreats before this. However, he warned his participants that this time it would be hotter than ever. They would feel as though they would die, and symbolically they would.
Brandy, an attendee at the sweat lodge, recalls how Ray poured cold water over the burning rocks and how a rush of hot steam filled the tent. She remembers the stream burning her skin and moving down her throat and into her lungs. She felt as though her skin and the organs inside her body were on fire.
Every 15 minutes, Ray would open the lap and call his staff to bring more hot rocks and again pour cold water over the rocks filling the room with steam. The heat was quickly becoming unbearable as it rapidly started to reach 100ºF.
Some people struggled to stay inside this scorching tent. Brandy and Laura recall people begging to be let out and screaming in pain, people throwing up and swallowing it back down.
Laura was seated next to her friend, Liz Neuman. Liz had three beautiful children at home and had attended some of Ray’s retreats before. She had even been to one of his other sweat lodges. Laura felt that Liz was a calming presence next to her. They had agreed to keep tapping each other as a means of checking in with one another. However, when Liz leaned lifeless against Laura and didn’t respond to the tapping, she got scared. Laura called out to Ray that she was worried about Liz. Ray dismissed her telling her that Liz had done this before.
Ray told anyone trying to leave that they were stronger than giving up, and they needed to surrender to death to survive. Ray comforted them by saying, “You have to let go and say, ‘If I am going to die, it’s okay, because I don’t ever die. My body dies, but I don’t die”.
Brandy, Laura, and a few others were not comforted by this. They gave up and dragged themselves out of the sweat lodge. They were helped out by some of Ray’s staff – none of whom had any medical training – and were placed on plastic tarps where they were hosed down with water. Steam was rising off the bodies of those that had escaped the heat of the sweat lodge.
Screams, Vomiting And Deaths
People were screaming inside the Teepee, desperately calling to get out. On the outside, people were throwing up, and some were unconscious, others rolling in the cold water on the plastic tarps and withering in pain.
After eight rounds of Ray routinely adding more hot rocks to the lodge – that is 2 hours for those that remained inside – he opened the flap, and people were desperately clawing to get out. Liz Neuman was carried out unconscious. Others were crawling and projectile vomiting; some were crying. Brandy recalls that it was utter chaos all around her. She remembers feeling helpless as she watched others suffering around her.
Kirby Brown was one of Ray’s most loyal followers. She had been to countless workshops hosted by Ray, and she had spent her life savings to attend Spirit Warrior. Kirby now lay unconscious in the tent where her body was dragged out.
None of the staff were equipped to deal with the situation that had unfolded in front of them. These loyal followers of Rays’ had essentially been boiled alive in the tent and now lay dying from heatstroke.
A 911 call was made. When the medics arrived at the scene, they thought they had arrived at cult-like mass suicide. Men and women with shaved heads, some conscious others not, were scattered around. There was debris everywhere. The authorities did not quite know what to make of the situation. Ray was nowhere to be found to answer any questions. He had fled the scene leaving his followers behind.
Kirby Brown and James Shore were declared dead on the scene. Liz was rushed off to the hospital but died later on. Many of the others were treated for extreme dehydration and heatstroke. The authorities were harsh with the remaining victims as they believed that this was a cult where these people had voluntarily been cooked to death in the sweat lodge.
Upon further investigation, it became apparent that James Ray had conditioned the participants to listen to him and do what he instructed, which was to remain in the tent.
This was enough to arrest James Ray and hold him accountable for the deaths of Kirby Brown, James Shore, and Liz Neuman.
Convicting James Ray
In 2011 – only four months after the incident at Spirit Warrior – James Ray was convicted and charged with negligent homicide and sentenced to 2 years in prison.
At his court hearing, the jury listened to the testimonials of those that had attended Spirit Warrior as well as testimonials from the families of the three victims who lost their lives that day. The families of the victims were not impressed with the verdict. They felt that Ray deserved harsher sentencing.
Although Ray had not actively locked anyone in the sweat lodge against their will, he had encouraged that they stayed and had ignored the distressed cries of those in the tent with him.
The court case also shed light on other incidents during other conventions and retreats hosted by Ray where people were injured or were required to do some impossible task.
During one of these events, a follower of Ray’s had committed suicide by jumping off a building during a Homeless Challenge. This was a task where participants were told to leave all forms of identification and cell phones with Ray and go to the streets. This woman had been struggling with suicidal thoughts before the event. The most horrific part of this story was that she remained unidentified for 8 hours before her family was notified. Neither Ray nor his staff had noticed her missing from the event.
On another occasion, Ray had everyone coupled up and stand facing one another with a double-pointed arrow between their necks. They had try come close to one another and push through the pain of the sharp point edging its way into their skin.
It was clear that Ray often practiced unsafe activities at his events. However, because the self-help industry is so unregulated, there was absolutely nothing stopping Ray from being released from prison and continuing to host conventions and workshops.
This is what he did upon his release in 2013. After only 18 months in prison, James Ray began running new programs and workshops titled The Redemption Experience.
Kirby Brown’s mother – Ginny Brown, was beyond heartbroken over the loss of her daughter. She was then further outraged by the weak sentencing of James Ray and the fact that he could continue to host these workshops and retreats.
Ginny Brown created the program Seek Safely in honor of her daughter and other victims that lost their lives that day.
Seek Safely is a program where people can seek help from qualified and certified professionals. It is a means to create a safer avenue in helping people.
Self-help leaders and mentors are encouraged to register with SeekSafely. This program holds these mentors accountable for their actions during workshops and prevents history from repeating itself.
James Ray has refused to register with SeekSafely nor sign any of their certificates, stating he supports it.