FLAGSTAFF — A motivational speaker who led a sweat lodge ceremony in Arizona that turned deadly said he feels horrible about what happened but declined to comment on whether he was responsible for the deaths.
In his first interview about the incident, James Arthur Ray instead refers to letters drafted by his attorneys that state he was not criminally negligent. His comments were made to New York Magazine for a story published Sunday and later confirmed by his representatives.
Ray led more than 50 people in a sweat lodge ceremony Oct. 8 at a retreat he rented near Sedona. About halfway through the two-hour ceremony, participants began feeling weak, vomited and some passed out in the 415 square-foot structure. Three people — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. — died and 18 others were hospitalized.
Authorities in central Arizona's Yavapai County have focused a homicide investigation on Ray, though no charges have been filed. Many participants have said Ray could have done more to ensure their safety.
Ray countered that he wasn't aware that anyone was experiencing medical problems until the ceremony concluded, though many participants said he ignored pleas for help inside the sweat lodge. Ray said he made sure 911 was called afterward, held people's hands and talked with them, stroked their hair and held IVs for paramedics.
"I was there the entire time doing whatever I could to help until I was detained by the detectives," he told the magazine.
Ray declined to give a statement to authorities as he sat in a police car, on the advice of his attorneys, public records released in the case have shown. Ray said he left the following day around lunchtime to catch a flight.
Ray said his ego has been adjusted by the experience and he's focused on bringing closure and finding answers to why the deaths occurred.
Sweat lodges are commonly used by American Indian tribes to cleanse the body. The ceremony involves heating stones outside the lodge and then placing them in a pit inside the lodge. The door is closed, and water is poured on the stones, producing heat aimed at releasing toxins from the body.
Ray didn't deny statements attributed to him before the sweat lodge that people might feel they were going to die but wouldn't. But he said they were taken "completely out of context" and were meant to convey that people must let go of what is holding them back before they can move forward.
"There's no one who would say that I was talking literally," he told the magazine.
Ray has made millions of dollars by persuading people his words will lead them to spiritual and financial wealth. In late October, he canceled his appearances amid criticism from the sweat lodge survivors and others.