PRESCOTT, Ariz. – The deaths of two people during a sweat lodge ceremony led by self-help expert James Arthur Ray are being investigated as homicides, authorities said Thursday.
Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said the deaths last week of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee were not accidental.
“A combination of circumstances led to the deaths,” Waugh said. “Whether or not we can prove a criminal case, that has yet to be determined.”
Waugh said investigators are looking at the way the sweat lodge was built, the fact that people had fallen ill at previous sweat ceremonies led by Ray, and questionable medical care on site. Authorities have said a nurse hired by Ray was directing rescue efforts including CPR when emergency crews arrived.
Ray is the primary focus of the probe but others also are being investigated, the sheriff said.
Ray’s spokesman, Howard Bragman, said the sheriff’s use of “homicide” to characterize the investigation was irresponsible and a rush to judgment.
“I find it very interesting the police are trying to escalate the case in the media, and frankly, I think the escalation should be in getting the facts,” he said.
Ray led more than 50 people into a makeshift sweat lodge at a rented retreat outside Sedona on Oct. 8. After about two hours, Brown and Shore were pulled out. Nineteen other people were taken to hospitals, and one remains in critical condition.
“He’s a motivational speaker who tried his hand at very dangerous physical things, and it was reckless,” Brown’s cousin and family spokesman Tom McFeeley said of the sheriff’s announcement. “It doesn’t surprise us in the least.”
Sheriff’s Lt. David Rhodes said investigators have spoken to most of the sweat lodge participants, but they’re not sure how much of what they’re hearing is accurate. It was pitch black inside the structure and possible that no one noticed that Shore and Brown had passed out.
“You have two people who died in the presence of 50 other people in an environment in which no one seems to understand what happened,” Rhodes said.
Ray declined to be interviewed by the Sheriff’s Office on the night of the incident and has not spoken with Arizona authorities. He hired his own investigative team to determine what went wrong.