Sweat lodge lawsuits settled for $3M

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A self-help author imprisoned for the deaths of three people following an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony settled civil lawsuits with the victims’ families for more than $3 million, according to court documents.

James Arthur Ray began serving a two-year sentence last month on a trio of negligent homicide convictions. The terms of the settlements reached last year recently were disclosed in court documents filed as exhibits in Ray’s criminal case and released Friday at the request of The Associated Press.

The families of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., sued Ray after the October 2009 ceremony near Sedona. The lawsuits accused Ray and his company of negligence, fraud and wrongful death. Others who were injured in the ceremony also were party to the lawsuit.

Brown’s parents, who received nearly $860,000, said they were motivated to settle because of the financial burden that Shore’s death had placed on his own family. Shore’s wife, Alyssa Gillespie, testified in the criminal trial that she saw her massage therapy business crumble after her husband’s death. Since Shore took care of all the bills, she said she was uncertain whether their cars were paid off or who provided their cellphone service.

“They had lost their main breadwinner,” Brown’s mother, Virginia, said Friday.

Shore’s family, including Gillespie and his three children, received $1.38 million, and Neuman’s family received more than $1 million in the settlement. The payments made for physical injury, sickness and emotional distress didn’t come from Ray himself but from his insurers. Ray’s self-help business tumbled after the deaths, and his attorneys proclaimed during a bail hearing that he was broke.

Brad Jardine, who represented Ray in the civil cases, said he could only assume that Ray “felt very deeply that everything possible should be done for those families.”

Ray is being held at the Arizona state prison in Florence. Other civil cases against him are pending, including a wrongful death suit filed by a woman who committed suicide at one of Ray’s events and another brought by the owners of the Angel Valley Retreat Center, which Ray rented for his five-day “Spiritual Warrior” event that resulted in the deaths.

Ray was released from any other claims or potential claims by the victims’ families, and no attorneys’ fees were awarded in the settlement.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys tiptoed around specifics of the civil settlement during Ray’s criminal trial almost until the end because of a confidentiality agreement. At one point, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk suggested that by settling the civil case, Ray was admitting fault for the deaths. Ray’s attorneys quickly denied that, and the settlement includes no admission of guilt.

The amount paid to the families eventually came up in questioning by Ray’s defense team during the sentencing phase of his trial.

The settlement documents explain why the family members of the victims made little to no public comments while the criminal trial was ongoing. Under the agreement, they had to refrain from commenting until the jury reached a verdict. Even then, they had just 24 hours from the time the verdict was rendered to voice their opinions.

The victims’ families also settled a civil lawsuit against Angel Valley and its owners, Michael and Amayra Hamilton. The plaintiffs alleged that the Hamiltons’ conduct led to the deaths and injuries of others. The terms of that settlement were confidential, and it included no admission of liability by the Hamiltons.

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