2-year anniversary of deadly Arizona sweat lodge

Sedona, Arizona (AP) October 2011

Earlier this month marked the two-year anniversary of a sweat endurance ceremony that led to the deaths of three people in northern Arizona.

James Arthur Ray, a self-help author who touted the ceremony as a spiritual rebirth, was convicted in June on three counts of negligent homicide.

More than 50 people participated in the two-hour sweat endurance building, a sauna-like ceremony. It was meant to be the highlight of Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” seminar near Sedona. 

Of the people who became ill, James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., were pronounced dead. Liz Neuman, 48, of Prior Lake, Minn., never regained consciousness and died more than a week later. Eighteen others were hospitalized, but some participants reported no major problems. 

Ray is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 18 and faces up to nine years in prison, although defense attorneys will argue for a lesser sentence during a mitigation hearing.

The owners of Angell Valley Spiritual Retreat Center gathered for readings, prayer and music at the site where the sweat building once stood.

Many members of the victims’ families have complained about the numerous delays that have postponed Ray’s sentencing, which originally was scheduled for late July.

“The delays have been a difficult part,” Tom McFeeley, a cousin of Brown, told The (Prescott) Daily Courier. “At some point your patience gets tested.”

At Angel Valley, on the banks of Oak Creek near Sedona, the site of Ray’s sweat building is now the center’s Garden of Transformation.

“We feel that a memorial site refers to the tragedy,” said Amayra Hamilton, who co-owns the retreat center with her husband Michael. “When terrible things happen, we choose to find what positive things can come out of what happened, what we can learn from it. We feel that if people want to make a transformation in their lives, this garden is the place to do that.”

Surrounding the agate-and-crystal-topped pit that once held the hot rocks of the sweat endurance ceremony are a host of young evergreens the Hamiltons hope will grow in stature as the memories of that day become less intense.

“When people come to Angel Valley, they recuperate, they become quiet,” Amayra Hamilton said. “In becoming quiet, they receive insights, make connections with their inner self, with spirit.”

She said business at the retreat center – which offers everything from quiet individual escape to holistic services that include vortex experiences, grief transformation and belief counseling – is slowly returning but still below expectations.

The Hamiltons said they hosted Ray’s Spiritual Warrior seminars for several years as a business venture. But they and Ray had already decided to move the event elsewhere as the crowds Ray was bringing were pushing the center to capacity. Michael Hamilton said the tragedy opened his eyes in an unexpected way.

“Doing things only for money is the old way,” Michael Hamilton said. “After what happened, we realized that everything we had worked for could be gone in the snap of a finger. The aftermath has been a journey of integrating the darkest dark and the lightest light for me.”