Video: Life coach charged in sweat lodge deaths

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    >> matt, thank you.

    >>> motivational speaker james arthur ray is being held on $5 million bond this morning after being charged with manslaughter in connection with three deaths during a sweat lodge ceremony he led last october. nbc's miguel almaguer has the latest.

    >> reporter: james arthur ray surrendered to authorities wednesday. detectives led ray to jail after he was charged in connection with the deaths of three people. it's a sudden turn-about in fortune for the self-help superstar.

    >> do you treat yourself the way you want other people to treat you?

    >> reporter: ray parlayed his reputation as a motivational speaker into a multimillion dollar empire. speaking engagements, books, dvds, all designed to help others reach their full financial and spiritual potential. one of his most expensive and exclusive events was at a gathering known as the spiritual warrior retreat in sedona, arizona. last october, the retreat took a deadly turn for three of ray's followers.

    >> 911, what's the problem?

    >> two people aren't breathing, two with no pulse.

    >> two aren't breathing?

    >> yes.

    >> okay, is this the result of a shooting or something?

    >> no, it was a sweat lodge .

    >> a sweat lodge ?

    >> yes.

    >> okay.

    >> reporter: the final phase of the spiritual retreat involved a sweat lodge ceremony, a native american ritual where participants gathered in a specially designed tent filled with steam coming off of heated rocks. it's an intense exercise of mental and physical toughness intended to foster a spiritual journey. one of the sweat lodge survivors talked about her experience on "today."

    >> i was just -- i was having difficulty breathing . i couldn't keep up with the chants, and there were several people leaving at that time or trying to leave. it was very, very uncomfortable at that time for me.

    >> reporter: witnesses say ray's followers were gasping for air, passing out and vomiting. kirby brown and james shore passed out inside the sweat lodge and died that night at a local hospital. liz newman died a week later. in his only interview since october, ray told "new york" magazine, "i did not know anything was different until it became apparent that there had been a terrible accident when it was completed." his attorneys call the charges unjust and predict ray will be cleared in court. he's been charged with three counts of manslaughter and faces as much as 37 years in prison.

    >> the charge of manslaughter was almost a no-brainer. it's simply you didn't intend to kill somebody, but you were reckless or negligent. sounds a lot like the facts here.

    >> reporter: now, a man who made a living teaching others to overcome their greatest obstacles is facing the biggest legal battle of his own life. for "today," miguel almaguer, nbc news.

updated 2/4/2010 3:47:51 PM ET 2010-02-04T20:47:51

Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray pleaded not guilty Thursday to three counts of manslaughter at his first court appearance since being charged with causing three deaths at an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony he led.

Ray was indicted and arrested on Wednesday for the deaths at an Oct. 8 ceremony intended to be the highlight of his five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event. The ceremony was held at a retreat center he rented near Sedona.

Ray, shackled at the wrists and ankles and wearing an orange jail uniform, didn't say anything in court Thursday. One of his attorneys, Thomas Kelly, entered the not guilty plea on his behalf.

"The thing that makes the American legal justice system the envy of the world is that every man gets his day in court," another of Ray's attorneys, Luis Li, told reporters afterward. "This was a terrible, terrible accident. This wasn't a crime. Mr. Ray looks forward to his day in court."

Ray is being held in the Yavapai County jail on $5 million bond and faces a minimum of 3 years and a maximum of 12½ years on each count.

Judge asked to lower bond
His attorneys asked the judge to lower the bond, with Kelly saying in court that it was "unconscionable" and arguing that the manslaughter charges are probation-available offenses and that Ray has no criminal history.

Judge Warren Darrow is expected to set a hearing on whether to lower the bond amount as early as next week.

Prosecutor Steven Young did not argue against lowering the amount in court but has until Wednesday to file a motion opposing it.

Young declined to answer reporters' questions afterward but said he wanted to keep Ray's trial in Yavapai County, because that's where the alleged crime occurred.

During the October ceremony, more than 50 people filed inside the sweat lodge that was built in 2008 and used numerous times without incident. Eventually, people started vomiting and passing out, and some were hosed off in an effort to cool them down.

Three people who never regained consciousness died at hospitals — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. 18 others were hospitalized.

Ray's attorneys have said he took all necessary safety precautions and wasn't aware of any medical problems until the ceremony was over. The self-help superstar who teaches people about financial and spiritual wealth uses free seminars to recruit followers to more expensive events. His company, James Ray International, is based in Carlsbad, Calif.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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