true crime

In 2009, 50 people attended a self-help retreat. Three of them didn't make it out alive.

In 2009, 50 people attended a "Spiritual Warrior" self-help retreat in the Arizona desert.

Led by guru James Arthur Ray - who appeared in the film The Secret and wrote a number of popular self-help books, including The Science of Success - the retreat cost roughly $10,000 to attend. 

Throughout the five-day retreat in the Red Rock Canyons of Northern Arizona, participants – who were predominately high-achieving professionals – were encouraged to achieve a breakthrough in their thinking by undertaking limit-pushing exercises.

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By the end of the retreat, three people were dead.

At the time of the Arizona retreat, Ray was exploding into the spotlight, becoming a major figure in the self-help space with appearances on Oprah and Larry King Live.

Describing himself as a "thought leader", Ray's movement largely focused on 'The Law of Attraction', which is the belief that people can "attract" things into their lives through the power of their thoughts.

While the movement may sound relatively harmless at face value, Ray's events were known for being risky and particularly intense. 


At one event in Hawaii in 2008, several attendees reportedly "full-on" broke their hands after Ray told them to punch through a brick.

On another occasion in San Diego in 2009, a woman who attended a seminar hosted by Ray fell to her death at the Horton Plaza Mall after she was instructed to spend a day pretending to be homeless. 

"We put grease in their hair and dirt on their face and we dropped them off on a bus in downtown San Diego, where they would walk around and try to survive or thrive as a homeless person," Melinda Martin, who previously worked with Ray, told ABC.

But it wasn't until the October 2009 Arizona retreat that Ray's practices were truly brought to the public's attention. 

James Arthur Ray in 2016. Image: Getty. 


At the retreat, which promised "personal transformation", Ray's devotees completed a series of exercises to take their lives "to the next level".

The exercises included shaving their heads, fasting (including not drinking water), and a The Last Samurai-inspired game, which involved participants learning how to kill themselves in the way of the samurai.

On the last night of the retreat, the participants took part in a Native American-inspired sweat lodge ceremony.

The ceremony involved the attendees gathering around a pit of hot rocks in a tent where temperatures reportedly exceeded 90 degrees.

Upon entering the tent, Ray told participants that the "intense heat" would make them "feel like you're going to die".

Brian Essad, an attendant on the night, recalled seeing Ray dump water on the hot rocks.

"I just remember almost seeing the steam just kinda roll. And it was just, it was like inhaling fire," he told ABC.

"I mean instantly difficult to breathe, 'cause I'm not used to breathing fire."


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As the heat in the tent intensified, a number of participants began to stream out of the tent in a panic, with some people collapsing.

When one woman collapsed, participant Brandy Amstel recalled she was told to stand back.

"They were like, you know, you need to leave her alone, that's her experience, you don't wanna intrude on her experience, so you sit there and just be quiet," she said.

When another woman, Kirby Brown, was having trouble breathing, it took 20 minutes for staff to respond, as Ray ignored calls for help. By the time she was finally taken out of the searing hot space, she was unresponsive. 

As Melinda Martin, a worker, performed CPR on Brown, Ray simply watched on.

"I look up and he's standing right over my head watching. He's watching from a stand-up position. He didn't offer to help. He didn't say anything. Nothing at all," she told ABC.

Kirby Brown and another participant, James Shore, would die after their sweat lodge experience. They were both 40 years old.

Another woman, 49-year-old Liz Neumann, died after being comatose for a week following the incident.

Kirby Brown. Image: Wondery/YouTube. 


A further 18 participants were hospitalised for burns, breathing problems, kidney failure, and dehydration. It's reported the participants had gone two days without water before they began the sweat lodge experience. 

When police arrived at the Spiritual Warrior camp, they immediately thought it was a cult, and a mass suicide incident.

"I remember as I was driving down there I could see this large dome covered in tarps, and I begin noticing women with their heads shaved walking around almost in a daze," Detective Ross Diskin told Oxygen’s Deadly Cults podcast.


"I thought 'This has got to be some kind of cult.'"

After exiting the ceremony, Ray reportedly seemed nonchalant about the situation.

But when he was questioned by police, he refused to cooperate, choosing instead to leave the state within hours.

In an interview in 2013, Ray later told journalist Piers Morgan that he had left the scene because he "was scared".

In February 2010, Ray was charged with three counts of manslaughter. The next year, he was found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide, and not guilty of the manslaughter charges. He was sentenced to two years in prison on November 18, 2011.


The 62-year-old also settled civil lawsuits with the victims' families for more than $3 million.

In recent years, Ray has attempted to rebuild his career and return to public life, releasing a new book in 2018.

"It was my lodge. It was my event. It was my choice to do a dangerous activity, and so therefore, as a leader – which the new book The Business of Redemption is all about leadership – as a leader when something goes wrong in your entrepreneurial business or in your large corporation, there’s one person who is in the crosshairs and one person who is responsible," Ray said.

Now, the infamous sweat lodge incident is being revisted in a new Wondery podcast, which delves into the story of James Arthur Ray and "the dark side of enlightenment".

Hosted by journalist Matt Stroud, the six-part podcast series, titled Guru, premiered on July 1.

You can listen to Guru on Apple Podcasts or Spotify now.

Feature Image: AAP.

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