PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- 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. "We have one goal and that is to find out what happened so that it never happens again."
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 were passed out, authorities said.
"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, and Bragman said that team and Ray's attorney are cooperating with the sheriff's investigators.
A search warrant was served Wednesday at Ray's Carlsbad, Calif.-based company, James Ray International. Deputies were looking for medical records of those attending the Sedona retreat, documents on the sweat lodge's construction and use, and any warnings of health risks, Waugh said.
The motivational speaker, author and self-help guru offers clients the promise of spiritual and financial wealth in his programs. The five-day "Spiritual Warrior" course during which the deaths occurred had about 50 participants who paid more than $9,000 each.
The culmination was the sweat lodge ceremony. Records obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday showed local fire officials responded to the same retreat for a person who fell unconscious during a Ray-led sweat ceremony in 2005.
Ray held a telephone conference call with many of the sweat ceremony participants on Wednesday, according to people on the call. A recording of the call was made and transcribed by one of the listeners, said McFeeley, who also listened in and provided the transcript to the AP.
During the call, 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 the retreat outside Sedona, according to the transcript. 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."
Rhodes said he had no comment on the conference call, but said detectives have the transcript.
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." Cassandra Yorgey, a Pennsylvania columnist who also listened in on the call, said some of the people who were injured at the retreat participated in the call but their comments weren't included in the transcript.
Participants whose comments were included 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."
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Ariz. sheriff's safety reviewed after Dobbs scare
PHOENIX (AP) -- The security of an Arizona sheriff who has aggressively cracked down on illegal immigration is under review after a shooting scare involving CNN commentator Lou Dobbs.A bullet struck Dobbs' New Jersey home on Oct. 5. On his radio show this week, Dobbs connected the gunshot to his advocacy for a crackdown on illegal immigration.
Authorities in New Jersey say they're still investigating and have not yet identified a suspect. They noted that small-game hunting season is under way.
Maricopa County sheriff's spokesman Ryan Lee says the agency is concerned for Sheriff Joe Arpaio's safety considering that both Arpaio and Dobbs are extremely vocal about their stance on illegal immigration.
Lee also points to protests that Arpaio's television and newspaper interviews have incited.
Arpaio's security detail is looking at the current level of security provided to the sheriff and whether more security is now warranted.