PRESCOTT, Arizona (CBS/AP) The deaths of two people during the Angel Valley Retreat sweat lodge ceremony led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray are now being investigated as homicides, authorities said. And the "Spiritual Warrior" who earned around half-a-million dollars from the deadly retreat is in the crosshairs.
Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said the deaths last week of Kirby Brown, 38, and James Shore, 40, were not accidental.
"A combination of circumstances led to the deaths," Waugh said Thursday. "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, California-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.
Do the math. Ray raked in around half a million dollars. It's not clear if he has returned any of the money.
The culmination of the retreat 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.
MORE ON CRIMESIDER
October 15, 2009 - Desperate 911 Call: First Glimpse Into Angel Valley Sweat Lodge Deaths
October 13, 2009 - Angel Valley Sweat Lodge Deaths: Owner Didn't Have Permits
October 12, 2009 - Sweat Lodge Death Investigation Turns to Self-Help Guru James Arthur Ray
October 12, 2009 - Family Says New Yorker Kirby Brown was in Great Shape before Mysterious Sweat Lodge Death
October 9, 2009 - Angel Valley Resort: Two Dead, Many Hospitalized in Sedona Sweat Lodge Illness