Self-help guru gets 2 years in sweat lodge deaths

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PRESCOTT, ARIZ. (AP) - The self-help author who led an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony that ended with three deaths was sentenced Friday to two years behind bars _ not enough for the victims’ family members, who earlier in the day yelled at James Arthur Ray and said he was “not worthy to spit shine” the victims’ shoes.

A judge handed down three, two-year prison terms to be served concurrently and ordered Ray to pay more than $57,000 in restitution.

“I find that the aggravating circumstance of emotional harm is so strong and such that probation is simply unwarranted in this case,” Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow said.

Authorities immediately took custody of Ray, who will serve his time with the state Department of Corrections.

Ray was convicted on a trio of negligent homicide charges earlier this year in the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn.

Family members of the three lashed out at Ray earlier Friday while asking the judge to hand down the maximum sentence of nine years in prison. They said they were appalled that Ray continued to deliver self-help messages through the Internet while he faced criminal charges.

“There was nothing you could teach Liz, James or Kirby about honor, integrity and impeccability,” said Neuman’s cousin, Lily Clark, drawing from Ray’s principle teachings. “But they could have taught you a lot. They were born spiritual warriors, and you are not worthy to spit shine their combat boots.”

Neuman’s daughter, Andrea Puckett, later said she doesn’t believe Ray grasps his role in the deaths, and called the sentence a joke.

“It’s very frightening the control he has over people and his mentality,” she said. “That’s not going to change.”

The victims’ families also have blasted Ray for offering no solace for their loss until recently.

In asking for leniency, Ray told the judge he would have stopped the ceremony had he known people were dying or in distress. But he offered no excuses for his lack of action as chaos unfolded outside the structure at a retreat near Sedona.

“At the end of the day, I lost three friends, and I lost them on my watch,” Ray said, standing before the victims’ families. “Whatever errors in judgment or mistakes I have made, I’m going to have to live with those for the rest of my life. I truly understand your disappointment in my actions after, I do. I’m disappointed in myself.”

Ray will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence. That comes out to almost 600 days, taking into account the credit he received for 24 days served. That’s roughly the amount of time he’s been out of jail on bond since his arrest early last year.

The courtroom was silent as the sentence was handed down. The victims’ families held hands and braced for a decision, as did Ray’s parents and brother.

Ray’s family offered their condolences to the victims’ families in a statement following the sentencing hearing and asked if they’d find forgiveness in their hearts.

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