Investigators were trying to determine if criminal negligence played a role in the deaths of two people after sitting for several hours in an Arizona resort’s sauna-like sweat lodge.
James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York, died on Thursday night after being overcome in a sweat lodge during a spiritual cleansing ceremony. Nineteen others were taken to area hospitals, suffering from burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest, kidney failure or elevated body temperature. Most were soon released, but one remained in critical condition on Saturday.
Authorities have not determined what caused the deaths and illnesses, but ruled out carbon monoxide poisoning.
Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said Saturday his detectives are focusing on self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray and his staff as they try to determine if there was any criminal negligence.
Waugh said Ray refused to speak with authorities and has since left the state. No charges have been filed.
“We will continue this investigation down every road that is possible to find out if there is culpability on anybody relative to the deaths of these individuals,” Waugh said.
He said it could be three to four weeks before they knew if criminal charges would be filed.
The resort is owned by Michael and Amayra Hamilton, who have declined to comment.
Ray’s most recent posting on his Twitter account said he was “shocked and saddened” by the tragedy.
Ray’s company, James Ray International, is based in Carlsbad, California. His publicist, Howard Bragman, declined on Friday to speak about the deaths, and did not return a call on Saturday from reporters.
Ray rented the Angel Valley Retreat Center just outside scenic Sedona to hold a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” retreat that promised to “absolutely change your life.” Ray has held similar retreats at the resort in the past. Participants, whose ages ranged from 30 to the 60s, paid between US$9,000 and US$10,000 to attend this year’s event.
Between 55 and 65 people were crowded into the 38.5m2 sweat lodge during a two-hour period that consisted of eight 15-minute rounds and various spiritual exercises led by Ray, Waugh said. After each round, the flap to the crudely constructed structure was raised to allow more heated rocks to be brought inside.
Authorities said participants were highly encouraged but not forced to remain in the sweat lodge for the entire two hours.
The participants had fasted for 36 hours as part of a personal and spiritual quest in the wilderness, then ate a breakfast buffet on Thursday morning. After various seminars, they entered the sweat lodge at 3pm.
Two hours later, a woman dialed the emergency dispatcher to say that two people did not have a pulse and weren’t breathing.
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