Nonprofit to serve as voice of heat endurance victim

By Felicia Fonseca
Camp Verde, Arizona (AP) July 2011

In hindsight, the family of a woman who died in an Arizona heat endurance ceremony said the red flags were obvious – nearly $10,000 for a weeklong retreat with no refunds led by a self-help author who employed high-pressure sales tactics and had people sign away the risk of serious injury and death.

Kirby Brown’s family wants to make sure no one else is put in that situation again. They have formed a nonprofit group to help others avoid the kind of tragedy that unfolded at a 2009 retreat nestled among the Red Rocks of Sedona.

Brown and two others died following a heat endurance ceremony led by James Arthur Ray, whose personality and teachings helped him soar to popularity in the self-help industry. Ray was convicted on three counts of negligent homicide and faces up to 12 years in prison.

“Is that justice?” asks Brown’s cousin, Tom McFeeley. “We have no idea. We just hope that he’s not allowed to do these types of ceremonies again, and that the industry is on notice that they are in charge of people’s well-being. Sometimes fragile people, sometimes strong people, but the power they have over people is significant.”

The group that Brown’s family formed, called SEEK, or Self-help Empowerment through Education and Knowledge, cites market studies in estimating that the self-help industry generates $10.5 billion a year. Its intent is to educate people on how to choose a self-help guru, a motivational speaker or a coach through basic questions: What’s the refund policy? What are the leader’s credentials? Are safety measures in place for physical activities?

Ray used free seminars to lure people to more expensive events such as the five-day “Spiritual Warrior.” He conducted the heat endurance ceremony for several years in Sedona, the center of the new-age movement where practitioners believe they draw energy from the surrounding Red Rocks and various vortexes to heal others.

Most of the practitioners who make a living there feel divinely guided, said Annie Lawrence, owner of Retreat and Heal in Sedona.

While she doesn’t offer heat endurance ceremonies, she gives references based on personal experience and reputation. Anyone offering the ceremony typically used by American Indians to cleanse the body would not have performed it the way Ray did, she said.

“We all feel like sometimes there are people who come in and take advantage of the energy of Sedona (and) what it’s known for to offer things,” Lawrence said. “And they pass it as them being knowledgeable, and the work that they’re offering as authentic.”

Ray’s attorneys maintained the deaths were an accident and said he took all the necessary precautions to ensure the participants’ safety. Liability waivers that dozens of people signed, citing a risk of serious injury or death, are a standard business practice, the defense said during trial.

The week’s activities that included meditation, yoga, mind-altering breathing exercises and a 36-hour fast in the scrub forest helped people break through the most troubling obstacles in their lives, said Marta Reis, who was stationed outside the heat endurance building. “I would love to see someone like him continue to do what he’s doing, do the work,” she said.

The families of the victims would not.

Loved ones of Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., now face a future without them but one in which the experience can be used to help build knowledge of the self-help industry. 

“We’d love to see the industry police itself,” McFeeley said. “Our first step is to give people the tools and the questions to ask.”

The self-help industry has it benefits, said Brown’s brother, Robert. But teachers such as Ray abuse it by putting lives at risk, he said. Kirby Brown, an avid surfer who had a passion for art, sought guidance from Ray as she was searching for the perfect mate and wanted to advance her painting career.

“It’s not about revenge or vengeance for us,” Robert Brown said. “That’s not helpful. I’m fully prepared to see him go away to jail but not feel one iota better about what’s happened. It’s not about getting back at him or seeing him rot in jail. It’s about being held accountable for your actions.”

Neuman, who slipped into a coma after the two-hour heat endurance ceremony and died, was a seven-year veteran of Ray’s events and a mentor to newcomers. Her family wasn’t impressed by Ray but didn’t see any real harm in his events until it cut Neuman’s life short, her daughter, Andrea Puckett, said.

“He’s a dangerous man,” Puckett said. “Is he going to pull out a gun or a knife? No. But he doesn’t have good intentions. The psychological control he has over people is frightening.”

Shore was a combination computer genius, healer, aspiring author and motivational speaker who left behind a wife and three children, said his best friend, Cody Jones. Shore had paid half the amount for the event and did not want to go until he found out he couldn’t get a refund, Jones said.

“It’s just an amazing story to try to surrender to the way he died but also seeing some divine intervention in this,” Jones said. “He didn’t just die as a bad accident, this was a huge sacrifice. He left behind a family to expose such a fraud in the world.”

Those sentiments don’t resonate with Reis, a 41-year-old Philadelphia resident who believes that Neuman, Shore and Kirby Brown chose their paths. No guidelines could prevent an accident, nor does Ray deserve the criticism, she said.

“Everyone who was there, who was involved, created this and attracted this,” she said. “And unfortunately within the justice system we’re in, I find that many people are trying to hang this on one person.”