PRESCOTT, Arizona (AP) — A charismatic self-help author was sentenced Friday to two years in prison for leading an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony that was supposed to offer spiritual enlightenment but instead ended with disoriented participants struggling to breathe and being dragged outside. Three people died.
A judge gave James Arthur Ray three, two-year sentences, to be served concurrently, and ordered him 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.
The courtroom was silent as the sentence was handed down. The victims' families held hands, as did Ray's parents and brother.
Afterward authorities immediately took custody of Ray, who will serve his time with the state Department of Corrections. Ray's parents, Joyce and Gordon Ray, said they hoped to get a chance to meet with him briefly after the hearing. They declined to comment further.
Defense attorney Luis Li said an appeal was likely.
"We just hope the process of healing can begin and the victims' families can find some peace," he said.
County Attorney Sheila Polk said she was disappointed that the judge didn't give Ray the maximum sentence of nine years in prison. She said she made a strong case for accountability, justice and deterrence — "all the reasons a more significant prison sentence should have been imposed."
But, Polk added, "certainly some prison over probation is better than no prison at all."
Ray had faced probation to nine years after being convicted on a trio of negligent homicide counts. Authorities originally charged Ray with manslaughter, but jurors rejected arguments that he was reckless in his handling of the October 2009 ceremony.
Earlier Friday, Ray stood before the judge and the victims' families and begged for forgiveness. He said he would have stopped the ceremony had he known people were dying or in distress.
Ray turned to the more than a dozen family members seated in the courtroom, tearfully taking responsibility for the pain and anguish he caused them.
"At the end of the day, I lost three friends, and I lost them on my watch," Ray said. "Whatever errors in judgment or mistakes I have made, I'm going to have to live with those for the rest of my life."
Ray's motivational mantra drew dozens of people to a retreat nestled in the scrub forest near Sedona with a promise that the sweat lodge ceremony typically used by American Indians to cleanse the body would help them break through whatever was holding them back in life. It was the culminating event of his five-day "Spiritual Warrior" seminar.