Family Says New Yorker Kirby Brown was in Great Shape before Mysterious Sweat Lodge Death

(AP Photo/Family of Kirby Brown)
Photo: Kirby Brown.

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (CBS/AP) Kirby Brown seemed to be in the prime of her life. Her family says the 38-year-old New York woman who died after sitting in a sauna-like sweat lodge at a scenic Arizona resort was an avid surfer and hiker who was "in top shape," took self-improvement seriously and had a passion for art.

Brown of Westtown, N.Y., was one of two people who died Thursday evening after being overcome in the crudely built hut during a spiritual cleansing ceremony. Authorities on Saturday identified the other victim as 40-year-old James Shore of Milwaukee, who served as director of business development at an Internet marketing company in his hometown.

Nineteen other people were taken to hospitals, suffering from burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest, kidney failure or elevated body temperature. Most were soon released, but one remained in critical condition Saturday.

Brown had no pre-existing health conditions that would have kept her from participating in an otherwise safe activity, said cousin and family spokesman Tom McFeeley. That two people died and 19 others became ill at the Angel Valley Retreat Center indicates that "something went horribly wrong."

"Our only thought is shock, sadness and surprise," McFeeley said. "There will be plenty of time to react to the truth of what happened here, but we believe it is pointless to be angry or to place blame or to make assumptions before we understand what occurred here."

Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said Saturday that his detectives were focusing on self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray and his staff as they try to determine if criminal negligence played a role. Waugh said Ray refused to speak with authorities and has since left the state.

Photo: James Arthur Ray.

Ray is a polished self-help guru who was appeared on Oprah and Larry King, according to his own website.

Ray rented the Angel Valley Retreat Center for a five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat that promised to "absolutely change your life." Ray has held an annual event at the resort for seven years without incident, according to property owner Amayra Hamilton.

Police are now looking at the large number of people who were asked to sit in a 415-square-foot super-heated structure. The 55 to 65 participants had fasted for 36 hours before sitting in the temporary sweat lodge. Authorities said participants were highly encouraged, but not forced, to remain in the sweat lodge for the entire time.

The group entered the structure at 3 p.m. Two hours later, a woman dialed 911 to say that two people, whom Waugh identified as Brown and Shore, did not have a pulse and weren't breathing.

Matt Collins, who knew Shore since seventh grade, described his friend as a wonderful husband and father whose life revolved around his three kids. "Everybody who got to know him absolutely loved him," Collins told The Associated Press.

Collins said he was stunned to hear of Shore's death, and the family remained in shock.

"Right now we're trying to focus on making sure that his wife, his children are comforted during this time," he said.

Autopsies on Brown and Shore were conducted Friday, but the results weren't disclosed pending additional tests. Authorities have ruled out carbon monoxide poising as the cause.

Brown, a graduate of the State University of New York at Geneseo, had two sisters who recently got married, two new nephews and a focus on "making the world more beautiful for someone, not only with her art but with her heart," McFeeley said. Although the family is saddened by her death, he said Brown created a roadmap by which others should live.

"She was the least selfish, kindest person I knew," he said.