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When authorities responded to an emergency in Yavapai County, Arizona in October 2009, they were greeted by the sight of dozens of people milling around aimlessly, and some writhing or unconscious on the ground.
“I noticed women with their heads shaved walking around in a daze,” Yavapai County Sheriff's Sgt. Ross Diskin said. “I initially thought, this has got to be some kind of cult.”
Three people were dead and 18 others were hospitalized after a sweat lodge ritual went terrible wrong. And authorities quickly realized they weren't investigating an accident, but a homicide, according to the season premiere of “Deadly Cults” on Oxygen.
The sweat lodge was the climactic event of a multi-day retreat organized by self-help guru James Arthur Ray, whose doctrine of personal improvement and enlightenment had exploded in popularity after he was featured in the hit 2007 film “The Secret.”
Melissa Phillips, a survivor of the sweat lodge incident, said that Ray promised that enduring — and shelling out thousands of dollars for — his intense course of ritual challenges would change their lives.
“I believed it. I really did believe it,” she told “Deadly Cults.”
The sweat lodge was meant to be a grueling ordeal, Ray told his followers. The peak of a five-event retreat called the “Journey of Power,” “Spiritual Warrior” would allegedly cause a spiritual breakthrough. Ray allegedly prepared followers for the trial by describing the effects of heat stroke — and painting them as signs of success.
Participants had shelled out thousands of dollars. Introductory events in Ray's school of positive thinking and the so-called “Law of Attraction” were often free, but successive retreats could cost as much as $10,000.
At the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat ranch, Ray's followers were asked to shave their heads — and ridiculed if they demurred, according to survivors interviewed on “Deadly Cults.”
First, they spent 36 hours without food or water in the desert. Ray played “God,” forcing people to lie on the ground motionless when he said they were dead, in something he called the “Samurai Game,” the Verge reported.
Ray warned his followers that they would feel like they were going to die.
“You might think you are, but you are not going to die,” he told them, according to the Verge report.
Followers had been conditioned by weeks spent among happy, like-minded people and Ray's insistence that a breakthrough was imminent. Phillips described the experience as “thrilling” and “addictive” — until the deadly sweat lodge trial.
“The events program you to accept his instructions, even if it's personally detrimental,” she told producers. “You had to challenge yourself. That's how the trap got set for the people inside the sweat lodge.”
The trap Phillips described claimed the lives of Kirby Brown, 38; James Shore, 40, and Li Neuman, 49, inside a tent where hot rocks were piled upon a fire and participants were forbidden from leaving as they sweltered and some called for help.
Kirby Brown “cooked to death,” her mother, Virginia, told CNN.
And authorities' investigation of Ray and the event soon made it plain that the self-help guru was well-aware of the dangers the sweat lodge posed. Ray would eventually go on trial and be convicted of negligent homicide, but the story is still not over.
For more on James Arthur Ray's deadly “Spiritual Warrior” trial, including disturbing accounts by survivors of how it sounded and felt inside the lodge and what happened to Ray afterward, don't miss the season premiere of “Deadly Cults” on Sunday, April 26, at 7/6c on Oxygen.
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