CAMP VERDE, Ariz. – Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray pleaded not guilty Thursday to three counts of manslaughter at his first court appearance since being charged with causing three deaths at an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony he led.
Ray was indicted and arrested on Wednesday for the deaths at an Oct. 8 ceremony intended to be the highlight of his five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event. The ceremony was held at a retreat center he rented near Sedona.
Ray, shackled at the wrists and ankles and wearing an orange jail uniform, didn't say anything in court Thursday. One of his attorneys, Thomas Kelly, entered the not guilty plea on his behalf.
"The thing that makes the American legal justice system the envy of the world is that every man gets his day in court," another of Ray's attorneys, Luis Li, told reporters afterward. "This was a terrible, terrible accident. This wasn't a crime. Mr. Ray looks forward to his day in court."
Ray is being held in the Yavapai County jail on $5 million bond and faces a minimum of 3 years and a maximum of 12 1/2 years on each count.
His attorneys asked the judge to lower the bond, with Kelly saying in court that it was "unconscionable" and arguing that the manslaughter charges are probation-available offenses and that Ray has no criminal history.
Judge Warren Darrow is expected to set a hearing on whether to lower the bond amount as early as next week.
Prosecutor Steven Young did not argue against lowering the amount in court but has until Wednesday to file a motion opposing it.
Young declined to answer reporters' questions afterward but said he wanted to keep Ray's trial in Yavapai County, because that's where the alleged crime occurred.
During the October ceremony, more than 50 people filed inside the sweat lodge that was built in 2008 and used numerous times without incident. Eventually, people started vomiting and passing out, and some were hosed off in an effort to cool them down.
Three people who never regained consciousness died at hospitals — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. 18 others were hospitalized.
Ray's attorneys have said he took all necessary safety precautions and wasn't aware of any medical problems until the ceremony was over. The self-help superstar who teaches people about financial and spiritual wealth uses free seminars to recruit followers to more expensive events. His company, James Ray International, is based in Carlsbad, Calif.
About a half dozen American Indians attended Thursday's court hearing and told reporters that Ray's ceremonies and others like them violate their way of life.
"It'd be like for me to put on a costume and say I'm the Pope," said J.R. Packhorse, who practices in tribal courts in Arizona. "It takes years, it takes time to learn how to do these ceremonies properly, how we can do them where people are healed. We're here to make sure a man who has been imitating us is dealt with."