Nov 13, 2011

James Ray's Presentencing Hearing: Week 1

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Where were you when you first realized that James Arthur Ray was a colossal fraud? It's not a game I can play because I never thought he was up to much. But God knows I've experienced similar disillusionment so I can relate to the sense of loss, pain, confusion, and catharsis, that I hear echoed in so many of Ray's former students. That dawning realization theme figured heavily into the sweat lodge trial as survivors of Spiritual Warrior 2009 shared their tragic experiences -- many of them still conflicted and confused over how it could have gone so horribly wrong. The presentencing hearing, which heard the prosecution's case for three days this week, brought still more stories of disillusionment and realization.

In the protracted pre-sentence hearing for James Arthur Ray, the state has presented eight witnesses over the past three days in its effort to prove additional aggravating factors that would convince Judge Warren Darrow to sentence the motivational speaker and author to the maximum allowable term of nine years in prison.

Led by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, the prosecution seeks to show that Ray exhibited a pattern of negligent conduct that led to harm, that the victims in the case placed trust in him to keep them safe, that he lacked qualifications to conduct his events, and that many people were harmed, both physically and emotionally, by his actions and omissions.

As I'd assumed from her appearance on the prosecution's witness list, Kristina Bivins has become disenchanted with Ray. Bivins, who notoriously supported him during media interviews after the sweat lodge deaths, finally reached the breaking point. So what was it that shattered her belief in her teacher? Well. It wasn't her post-sweat lodge hospitalization.

"I couldn't see anything except for shapes and light, and I didn't know where I was," Bivins said. "It felt like my body and mind weren't connected. I couldn't get out of that state and I didn't know what to do."

Nope. Not even such severe injury could break her ties with Ray. In the end, it came down to money.

And even after the deadly debacle in Sedona, Bivins said she still believed in Ray's hybrid teachings, to the point she helped him develop strategies she believed were intended to compensate victims at least to some degree, as well as to help Ray get back on his feet financially. She appeared in print stories and on television on Ray's behalf.

But it was a dispute between Ray and two contract salespeople for Life Results, the firm that arose to allow Ray a chance to make a living by doing personal mentoring sessions, that finally turned her against her former mentor.

Ray, according to Bivins, was not the owner of Life Results, but did control its finances. So when Ray told her he had taken the money from Life Results to pay the mortgage on his Beverly Hills home rather than paying the salespeople their full commission, she saw the light of his true character.

Ray used a company he didn't even own as his personal piggy-bank. Shocker. Well. It came as at least enough of a shock that it caused the scales to fall from Bivins's extremely intense eyes. Upon learning that Ray had drained the company's account, Bivin's shelled out 18K herself to pay one of the contractors and like so many on the very long list of people Ray owes money to, she has not been repaid. Bivins has discovered the ugly truth. James Ray is a fraud who lies about his credentials and puts people in danger. Said Bivins:

"At first, I thought he was going to make things right; then as the summer went on I realized it was just about making money," Bivins said, adding that she now regrets having supported him for so long.

There comes a moment, in dealing with a personality like Ray, when it suddenly dawns that you've been making a lot of assumptions. You've assumed that they're like you. You've projected your own values and emotions onto them. You've rescripted all the inappropriate things they've said and done, telling yourself, Oh he didn't mean it like that. It just came out wrong.

And then the penny drops. The person does something so egregious that your increasingly tested state of denial shatters. And over a period of months, or even years, you recollect all the things that were gnawing at your subconscious all along.

She tearfully told the court that she had long repressed memories of the sweat-lodge ceremony, until she came to rethink her faith in his teachings.

Julia Bunker, a former Dream Team member, also testified to her gradual realization that James Ray's events were not safe. Convinced against her better judgment to snap an arrow against her neck, she began to believe Ray that it was all "mind over matter" and signed on for another Ray event. She embraced more of Ray's cheap martial arts tricks and came to believe that "I get hurt when I do certain physical activities," was just another limiting belief to be defeated by smashing pine boards and the like.

Little did Bunker know that Kurt Reinkin, whose accounting Det. Diskin read into the record on Thursday, had his eyelid punctured when he broke one of those arrows. JRI didn't even have a first aid kit to deal with the blood gushing from his eye.

Bunker engaged in increasingly reckless exercises, including the homeless exercise. As discussed, Colleen Conaway died when she was similarly abandoned in downtown San Diego and left to fend for herself without money, ID, or cell phone. This event began to set off some alarm bells for Bunker, despite having convinced herself that Ray would never have people do things that might actually harm them, if for no other reason than the limits of insurance protection. (Assumptions.) But participants in the homeless exercise weren't even allowed to write anything down and had to rely on nothing but notional breadcrumbs to find their way back to the buses. Bunker was "horrified" to see another participant get into a stranger's car. When she raised these safety concerns, she was told "You're bringing that, projecting that."

Such is the magical thinking of The Secret. It's not the actual, material threats in life that matter. Dangerous things can only hurt you if you think they can. Stay in denial and all will be well.

Bunker's concerns that Ray was not taking responsibility for putting people in danger grew considerably at an event in Hawaii. Numerous people had broken bones against the bricks they were pseudo-Karate chopping. And Ray did nothing. Injured people had to carpool to the hospital because Ray took no responsibility for getting them there. JRI also made it clear that they were not responsible for medical costs.

Ultimately, Bunker realized that suspending all fear might not be the best plan. Fear appears to have served her fairly well at the Spiritual Warrior 2008 when she left the sweat lodge after the second round. She also saw how ill some people who got at that event. In retrospect, she says if she had it to do over, she'd call 911. Perhaps if someone had called an ambulance then, no one would have died in 2009, she speculated.

Former Dream Team member Margaret Clancy also had her revelation amidst a myriad of breaking bones in Hawaii. When she considered how remote the location would be in Sedona, and the fact that Ray was doing nothing about the obvious injuries she was witnessing in Hawaii, she decided to forfeit the thousands of dollars in unrefundable fees for Spiritual Warrior 2008, rather than risk her health and safety.

Clancy described herself as "in shock" over Ray's inaction when people were injured. Ray never responded to an email she sent expressing her concerns over the injuries she'd witnessed. So Clancy was disillusioned when she realized that Ray didn't care at all if he put people at risk of injury. That was her big turning point but there were other red flags. According to Clancy, Ray claimed that he was only a few credits shy of being a psychologist. Wow.

Ray's qualifications, or the lack of them, was a key subject of hearing testimony this week. Ginny Brown, mother of the late Kirby Brown, testified that she had become disturbed at how he "allowed people to delve too deeply into their personal issues in front of a large crowd." Brown is an educator and therapist.

The information Ray prompted people to reveal was of such a sensitive nature that Judge Darrow stopped its reporting in open court and ordered the exhibit sealed this week. Prosecutors attempted to play a recording of Ray's "recapitulation" exercise. In it he called on people to write about their first sexual experience in the present tense, thus causing a number of people to relive their childhood sexual abuse. The highly personal disclosures on the recording brought objections from Truc Do and her objections were upheld. So, by Do's reasoning, the information was too sensitive to hear in open court but perfectly fine for Ray to publicly air at a large event in front of people many of whom were strangers to one another and who had no privacy agreement in place.

Do also objected to Det. Diskin's characterization of Ray's comments as nonchalant and insensitive. That objection was also upheld. But much as Connie Joy reported in her book about her own similar experience at a Ray event, Ray's response to these highly charged revelations was to comment that sex abuse of females is ubiquitous. I can't help thinking that someone who was really "a few credits short" of a psychology degree might have handled the revelation of such profound trauma with a little more sensitivity.

It looks like Det. Diskin's testimony was extremely contentious. It fell to Diskin to read a number of letters from Ray's disillusioned students and to testify to the numerous assertions about Ray's lack of qualifications. I have to admit that I'm almost glad that none of this was broadcast and I never had to hear Truc Do's cross examination of the detective. I don't know if there's anything worse than the sound of Truc Do's voice when she's being relentless.

It looks like Det. Diskin held his own against her repeated assertions that he wasn't doing his job properly or reporting accurate information. For instance, Do accused Diskin of "assuming" that figures quoted from a sales document were "actual income." But Diskin pointed out that it said "actual income" on the document retrieved from Ray's Carlsbad offices. So Diskin deserves at a least a few points for knowing how to read.

Diskin and Do went round and round on the issue of what Ray was or was not qualified to facilitate. A discussion of the trademarked Samurai Game®, which Ray is not certified to lead, brought a surprising disclosure from Do. In an attempt to explain the complexity of copyright law, Do explained that neither she nor Luis Li really understand it. So the limitations of their legal comprehension were offered as justification of Ray's use of proprietary material without permission. The owners of the game certainly think their copyright has been violated.

I would humbly suggest that the issue is not whether or not Allied Ronin's copyright claim would hold up in court, but the fact that Ray misrepresented his qualifications to people who were paying him a lot of money.

Ray also misrepresented his qualifications as a shaman and as a sweat lodge pourer. While Diskin concedes that there is no law regulating who can run a sweat lodge, numerous Native Americans have expressed their discontent. He explained that representatives of various tribes described a "spiritual calling" to be a water pourer. When Do asserted that there was no certification to lead a sweat lodge, Diskin corrected her by pointing out that each tribe has its own process for appointing pourers.

Once again, it comes down to how Ray represented himself to his students, most of whom believed him to be extensively trained by indigenous shamans. Lest we forget, one of Connie Joy's disillusioning moments was came she learned that Ray's Peruvian shaman was really a tour guide -- something Det. Diskin also pointed out on the stand.

Do underscored the fact that Ray had never claimed to be a licensed therapist. Diskin clarified that the issue was that he wasn't qualified to act as one. But as per Margaret Clancy's testimony, the knowledge and training of a psychologist, if not the certification, is yet another qualification Ray has arrogated to himself.

People paid this man thousands of dollars based, in large part, on his claims of lifelong study with spiritual teachers of various traditions. When those teachers turn out to be tour guides, or even nonexistent, it comes as a blow to the many people who thought he knew what he was doing and that they were safe in his care. A number of those who've been painfully disabused of their trust and faith in Ray were in court this week in person, in letters, or in spirit. And Judge Darrow heard them out.

Darrow heard a lot of the evidence that was precluded during the jury trial. He listened to details of Colleen Conaway's mysterious death and Det. Diskin and Truc Do tussled over whether or not Daniel Pfankuch had experienced heatstroke in 2005. Diskin argued that his body temperature had simply cooled too much by the time he finally got to the hospital to be properly diagnosed. Pfankuch, of course, has never been the same.

Ray's entire defense squadron was stuffed into Judge Darrow's tiny new courtroom in Prescott. They apparently cleared their schedules for the hearing and got their acts together after all the delays and confusion brought about Tom Kelly's unspecified "heart condition." They were full of piss, vinegar, and objections, as usual. They started the festivities with an attempt to strike all the aggravators. Their justification is here. Their motion was denied.

Predictably, they tried to garner pity for Ray and attack the veracity of his detractors. In a particularly disgusting turn of a events, Do attempted to attack the competence of one letter writer because of her spiritual beliefs. She had raised concerns about Ray's abilities to shoot energy at the witnesses, which Do characterized as silly. But Diskin pointed out that all of Ray's followers believe wacky things and that it's legitimate to them.

So once again, Ray's spiritual beliefs are protected but those of witnesses against him aren't. Never mind that it was Ray who was constantly conflating shamanism and sorcery, like his hero in the ways of fraud Carlos Castaneda. That some of his former students have gotten the idea that he is capable of harming people by manipulating energy shouldn't come as a shock. He certainly manipulated them all in enough ways -- sleep deprivation, NLP, stage hypnosis -- that many feel intimidated by his power over them. If Truc Do had any integrity, she'd a) honor the first amendment protected spiritual beliefs of witnesses, and b) consider that it's her own client who is the fountainhead of "silliness" in this context.

What else does the defense have, though, besides attempts to silence or discredit the many people who have been harmed by James Ray? They've got a broken down Harmonic Wealth author who can't afford his legal bills, has lost his many homes, and is living with his parents. All they can do is lean into the pathos. He had to pay millions in settlements, so of course he had no choice but to steal money from a company he didn't own. And his mother has cancer. He has to be there to take care of her. Never mind that he has nowhere else to live. Someone has to be there to tell her that it's all just mind over matter and that she has to play full on against those cancer cells... or something. I can't even begin to imagine what help from Ray in a health crisis looks like. Maybe he just sits around "in shock" like he did when people weren't breathing after that atrocity of a sweat lodge.

In the upcoming week, will come the defense's full case for Ray to receive the lightest possible sentence of probation only. An overview of their reasoning is here. Their witness list is here. And their objection to the presentencing report is here.

The above is taken from press reports and from the excellent live tweeting of Bob Ortega and Camille Kimball who were our eyes and ears in the courtroom this week.


  1. In the "White Papers", Ray's attorneys claimed that he was "five hours short of a degree in Applied Behavioral Sciences". But the white papers also claimed that "had Mr Ray heard any cried of distress he would have immediately stopped the ceremony", so it's clear that they have a similar relationship with the truth as their client has.

  2. Oh LaVaughn, again your article is so artful and insightful - and oh so satisfying. You've put into words what I understand and "know" to be true, but could never articulate so well.

    I love your description of... "that moment, in dealing with a personality like Ray, when it suddenly dawns that you've been making a lot of assumptions. You've assumed that they're like you. You've projected your own values and emotions onto them." That hidden delusion is so key to so many of our problems with others!!

    Thank you again for your excellent work. Love ya!!


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