An Arizona sheriff investigating the deaths of two people during a sweat lodge ceremony led by self-help expert James Arthur Ray said the fatalities were now being investigated as homicides.
Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said Thursday that the deaths of 38-year-old Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee were not accidental.
Ray led more than 50 people into a makeshift sweat lodge at a retreat outside Sedona, Ariz. on Oct. 8. After about two hours, Brown and Shore were pulled out of the sweat lodge. Nineteen other people were taken to hospitals and one remains in critical condition.
Waugh said Ray was the primary focus of the investigation and others also were being investigated.
In earlier developments, Ray held a telephone conference call with many of the participants of the sweat lodge ceremony, according to people on the call who provided a transcript to The Associated Press on Thursday.
In the call Wednesday, Ray stressed the importance of eating healthy food, exercising, resting, meditation and surrounding themselves with "like-minded individuals."
"Remember all that we've learned and experienced and knowing by law of the universe that out of every apparent chaos comes a greater state of order, an order that never existed prior to the chaos," he said, after asking those on the conference call to imagine themselves standing in a prayer circle.
Ray said he used the call as a way to provide closure to those attending his five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat outside Sedona, according to the transcript. Ray's spokesman, Howard Bragman, confirmed the telephone conference was held.
Ray stopped short of apologizing to participants for not being at the Angel Valley Retreat Center the morning after the deaths, saying "I hope you understand it certainly wasn't my wish not to be with you and bring you some kind of closure."
Ray declined to be interviewed by the sheriff's office on the night of the incident and returned to California, where his company, James Ray International, is based.
A woman identified as Barb told the callers that a channeler at the retreat last Friday said the deceased had an out-of-body experience during the sweat lodge ceremony and "were having so much fun that they chose not to come back."
Authorities have said 55 to 65 people were crowded in the 415-square-foot, makeshift sweat lodge over a two-hour period. An emergency call said two people — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee — had no pulse and weren't breathing.
Signs of distress
Brown and Shore were pronounced dead at a hospital. Fire officials said the surviving victims exhibited symptoms ranging from dehydration to kidney failure.
The recording of the conference call was made and transcribed by one of the listeners, said Tom McFeeley, who also listened to the call and provided the transcript to the AP. McFeeley is Brown's cousin and has been acting as the Brown family spokesman.
"We find it offensive that anyone would classify their death as a choice," McFeeley said. "We don't believe she chose to suffocate in a sweat lodge. We don't think she chose to fast for 36 hours without food or water and then have improper nutritional care. She did not choose to have improper medical care on site."
Fewer than a dozen callers were identified in the transcript, all of whom praised Ray and described his intentions as "pure" and their experiences as "profound." They also expressed sympathy for the families of the victims but suggested that the deaths of Brown and Shore were by choice.
"It breaks my heart to know that the families are suffering," said one caller identified as Brent. "I think that the people that left, I do believe they made their own choices, whether on this level or the next, but I do feel really for the families."
McFeeley said the comments on the call solidify his belief that Ray is controlling the people involved in his self-help program.
"There were reasonable people at this event, and it shows the power one man can have when you combine physical and mental mistreatment," McFeeley said. "Everything in this retreat seems to have been taken too far, and those statements were hurtful to hear and probably more hurtful to communicate them to the family last night."