Kirby Brown died in a sweat lodge run by James Arthur Ray, who has been released from prison. Her parents launched a foundation to educate people about the self-help industry.

Story highlights

New Age guru James Arthur Ray leaves Arizona prison early

He was convicted of negligent homicide in sweat lodge deaths in 2009

Ray ordered more hot rocks even after people collapsed

Families of three victims seek standards for self help industry

CNN  — 

New Age guru James Arthur Ray is out of prison, but the families of three acolytes who died in a sweat lodge ceremony vow to keep on eye on him if he tries to rebuild his self-help empire.

Ray left an Arizona prison Friday after serving 20 months for the negligent homicides of three followers who sought spiritual breakthroughs but died of overheating in a sweat lodge near Sedona in October 2009.

Ray was driven Friday afternoon from a minimum-security prison in Buckeye, said Arizona corrections spokesman Bill Lamoreaux. He did not stop to talk with the media and others at the prison gate, Lamoreaux added.

Neither Ray nor his representatives could be reached for comment, but he will remain in Arizona for the next 90 days, Lamoreaux said.

The 55-year-old son of an Oklahoma preacher, Ray built a multimillion-dollar business as a best-selling author and motivational coach. His book, “Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want,” made him a New Age star. He was was riding high as he planned his October 2009 Spiritual Warrior weekend at the 70-acre Angel Valley retreat outside Sedona.

According to testimony at his trial, acolytes who flocked to Angel Valley’s red rock foothills were willing to shave their heads, meditate in the desert for 36 hours without food and water and then symbolically die and be reborn in the sweat lodge ritual.

Fifty-five people followed Ray into the sweat lodge; three died from overheating and 19 others were hospitalized after they collapsed, vomited, had trouble breathing, hallucinated, foamed at the mouth or fell unconscious.

Ray was convicted of negligently causing the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York; Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota; and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee. Ray was found negligent, but acquitted of manslaughter charges that could have sent him to prison for 30 years.

Relatives of Brown, Neuman and Shore vow to keep an eye on Ray should he attempt to rebuild the self-help empire that included best-selling books, motivational seminars, speaking engagements and $10,000-a-head weekend retreats.

They planned to confront Ray as he left prison and ask him to sign a “promise” to adhere to certain ethical practices. It was not immediately known whether they were able to do so or whether he signed. The promise also was sent this week to 160 other self-help practitioners – including well-known personalities such as Deepak Chopra, Ram Dass, Tony Robbins, Suze Orman, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil McGraw.

The promise was issued by a new foundation founded in the memory Brown, an avid skier, surfer and free spirit who had a large circle of friends. Her parents, George and Ginny Brown, attended Ray’s trial and founded SEEKsafely, an organization that educates consumers about the unregulated self-help industry.

Members of Neuman’s and Shore’s families also are active in the organization, the Browns said.

Ray’s sweat lodge exercise was based on a Native American purification ritual “as old as time itself,” as Ray told participants in a recorded pep talk before the ceremony. Built of willow sticks and tarps, the lodge was 5 feet high and 23 feet across, with a pit in the middle.

It was pitch-black inside, and people huddled together shoulder to shoulder. Stones heated to an orange glow – one for each participant, 55 in all – were added to the pit at each 15-minute round. Ray said the stones were symbolic of earthly ancestors and called them “grandfathers.”

Participants believed the ritual would lead them to powerful spiritual breakthroughs. But things started going wrong after a couple of hours. According to participants who testified during the trial, Ray ignored pleas for help, turning up the heat even as participants keeled over and were dragged from the tent.

Neuman quietly hunkered down until she slipped into unconsciousness, according to testimony. Brown drew her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth, chanting, “We can do it.” Shore carried one sickened woman out before collapsing next to Brown.

Ray acknowledged at his sentencing that he was responsible for the deaths, but offered no excuses for his lack of action as the chaos unfolded. He and his attorneys maintained that he wasn’t aware people were dying or in distress, or he would have stopped the ceremony.

His defense centered on the possibility that toxins in the tarps contributed to the deaths.

The Browns took the occasion of Ray’s release from prison to draw attention to their organization, holding a news conference in Manhattan. But their focus really isn’t on Ray. They want to honor their daughter’s memory by informing others.

“I really don’t want to spend much time watching him,” Ginny Brown said over the telephone. “But I feel angry that people knew he was dangerous and it wasn’t public information.”

She feels her daughter died needlessly, and that 20 months behind bars wasn’t enough to bring about a change of heart from a man who, according to testimony at his trial, walked out of the sweat lodge where people were suffering and dying, went to his room and took a shower.