Nov 30, 2011

Observations on James Ray's Sentencing



Two months ago I whined like a petulant child that James Arthur Ray was not sentenced, as scheduled, on my birthday. Considering that when he was finally sentenced on November 18, he was given the far too lenient sentence of two years minus time served, leave say, my birthday was probably the better for not knowing. I actually had a great birthday. I think it's fair to say it was a far sight better than James Ray's 54th which he celebrated last Tuesday at the Phx-Alhambra intake center, where he remains in detention, incommunicado, for two weeks before being transitioned to a state penitentiary to serve out his sentence. I'm not prone to schadenfreude but I guess there's some measure of justice in that. Does it in any way make up for three lives lost or for the devastation of three families? Absolutely not. But at least they have some measure of closure after this incredibly protracted quest for justice. Said the very articulate Ginny Brown, mother of the late Kirby Brown:

"There are no winners today," said Virginia Brown, Kirby's mother. "No sentencing can bring our daughter back, or bring Liz or James back. But at least this will be a deterrent, to Mr. Ray and to others who might think about putting people at risk. The judge referred to common sense and there was surely a lack of common sense here."

No punishment the justice system can mete out can bring back a loved one or balance any great, cosmic scale. One hopes it will go some way to protecting society, so if Ray's doing some jail time serves as a deterrent, that's an accomplishment for which prosecutors Sheila Polk, Bill Hughes, case officer Det. Diskin, and every other person who worked that long, involved case deserves a whole lot of credit. Said Det. Diskin, “I’ve been investigating this case longer than James Ray will spend in prison.”

Laugh or go mad, as they say.

Ray's sentencing day was a rough and fairly demoralizing one for me, personally. A very thorough write-up I had done on the second week of the presentencing hearing was eaten by Blogger as I was preparing to post. I had a day of weird computer glitches and freeze-ups -- something which as a Mac person I'm unaccustomed to. I was also in the final throes of a very nasty bug that had me out of commission for weeks. The mitigated sentence was disappointing and the whole thing just left me with a tired, empty feeling, really.

The sentencing hearing was streamed by CNN and when my computer wasn't frozen and when the ever inadequate CNNLive remembered to run the stream I saw a lot that made me heartsick. There were the poignant and articulate impact statements from family members of the deceased. And there was the thoroughly sickening "apology" from James Ray. The video above gives an overview.

Ray's performance went on like that for some time with him appealing to both family members in the gallery and the judge. Although I could not see his face during most of it, the voice was enough. His meter never varied, he sniffled with metronomic precision, he never stumbled on a single word. He was in total control the entire time. Normal people aren't in control when they break down into tears. They fight the tears back. They struggle to regain the composure they've lost. Ray's tears were on display as props.




As Tragedy in Sedona author Connie Joy discovered, the theatrically trained Ray can cry on cue. It became apparent to her, because she went to the same seminars repeatedly as a Dream Team volunteer, that the tears became predictable. From Tragedy in Sedona:

We watched James go through his material over and over again. The benefit was we were really getting to know it! For example, there was one part in his story about what it was like growing up as a nerd where he always cried. After seeing it a few times, we all noticed he cried at exactly the same spot, on cue each time. What any reasonable participant would see in a single viewing as real emotion now looked like an act; the realization was unsettling. Even now people still talk about James' ability to cry on cue.

It sparked a memory within me. At our first Harmonic Wealth Weekend, James mentioned to us he had taken lessons but decided not to pursue acting.

Maybe he did pursue it after all.

But Ray's weepy performance put me in mind of something else -- his mother's interview on In Session. The only difference is that James Ray can produce actual tears.

I did catch a glimpse of his face as he turned to go back to his seat and I saw the dead eyes, steely determination, and barest hint of a smirk, that was so incongruous with the dramatic display he'd just given the court.

Whether or not Judge Darrow was swayed by Ray's performance, I can't say. He did say that his decision was based on the law, not on emotion. I tend to believe him. He seems to have reduced all the emotionally laden content down to a mathematical equation. Ray says his goal was to help people. Some people said they were helped by his work. Therefore: mitigated sentence.

I will concede, as Ginny Brown did during the hearing, that some people were helped by Ray's work. Connie Joy shares in her book that she learned a lot about herself and gained a lot of healing and growth in her years of study with Ray. As I've said repeatedly, Ray stole from good teachers and bad and some of what he taught had value. Message, not the messenger, as they say.

What many learned from James Ray were hard and painful lessons about putting their trust in the wrong people. These were valuable but expensive lessons. The steepest losses came in the form of emotional injury. With James Ray the cost always outweighs the benefit on every level. And that was something Judge Darrow seems not to have factored into his calculus.

As a side note, I offer this example of Ray in action. It was not something that came up in trial testimony but this "game" was discussed in Tragedy in Sedona and graphically described by Dorothy Schley.

There was the money game where unsuspecting, innocent people took out all the money they had (when asked what their education was worth to them) and passed it around a room of 400 people, not knowing they would never see it again. And the unaffected look on JR’s face when several stood up and said they had lost $600.00, $900.00 and $1100.00. He simply asked him if they had learned their lesson. What lesson? I have always believed that money flows and have never been one to be afraid of it. I just felt like this was more of a mind control than educational game. Once I realized we were “trading” money, I only pulled out $1.00. I ended up with $5.00 after the game was over. I was shocked at the people who did not get up and return the large amounts of money that was obviously not theirs. One woman stood up and said that she had given all the money she had for the weekend, $600.00 and was left with $5.00. She pleaded for money after the conference was over. I don’t know how much she was given.

That's Ray all over. Telling people to participate in an activity without any warning of what they're risking and perfectly content to leave people without money on a weekend away from home, never mind how unsafe that can be. To Ray other people's money is like water and their safety is their responsibility even when he's the one who's compromised it.

In a passionate closing argument last week, Sheila Polk called on Judge Darrow to consider Ray's character. She described him as "sadistic and intimidating."

"What kind of man," Polk asked, "leaves a scene of death and sickness to shower and eat?"

Judge Darrow either did not consider or did not grasp Ray's character. Instead he seemed to bend over over backwards to take a neutral view of some of the most blatantly disturbing indicators, including a support letter from Wendy Benkowski, which he specifically referenced in his remarks, saying that it could be read in two different ways.

In her closing, Polk pointed to the letter as evidence of Ray's bad effect on people. She asked why the defendant would submit such an "offensive, hurtful letter." Indeed. This is the closing of Benkowski's bizarre, stream of consciousness rant.

James has integrity and his message has integrity.
I am witnessing the power of his spoken word.
I am witnessing the shadow side of Harmonic Wealth.
The 2009 Spiritual Warrior Retreat is a great lesson.
The LESSON has touched the consciousness of the world.
I respect and honor the sacrifice of Liz, Kirby, and James.
I request compassion for my friend James Ray.

Polk did well in singling this out from the pile of dross that is Ray's support letters. The scariest of the letters came from Ray's most ardent supporters and this one is deeply nuts. The unmistakable implication that the deaths of three people were a necessary sacrifice for some undefined "lesson" is disturbing enough. But it gets even worse if you read the subtext. Her reference to the "shadow side of Harmonic Wealth" is chilling. It implies that there is loss penalty for gain -- something I know Ray was teaching. You can't manifest light without manifesting dark. I don't know to what extent he took that message in his teachings as they were progressing. Connie Joy related in Tragedy in Sedona this episode from their trip to Egypt:

Our second stop: the temple of Kom Ombo. Built for the god Sobek, the negative or dark in the world, and the god Horus, the positive or light in the world, the temple was, in reality, conjoined twin temples. We examined our anti-intentions, the less than desirable side effects that would happen as we worked towards our intentions. Were we ready to take them on as well? The law of polarity states that, to carry the light, we must also carry the dark. The negative aspects of our intentions will show up first. Say your intention is to double your income over the next year. The negative side effects of more business income over the next year. The negative effects of more business could be that you will be busier and therefore have less time to be with your family, to travel, read, and exercise. You might feel rushed with your family, to travel, read, and exercise. You might feel rushed more often or even most of the time. You will get busier before you see your income grow, and that is why most people stop the process at that point. They express their distaste for becoming busier by complaining, or by not working as hard. The universe acknowledges the stopping of the process by saying, "your wish is my command" and the goal slips away before it was to arrive. Seeing the negative consequences of your request appear in your life means you are getting close to your goal, but you have to persevere through the negative first! Be happy to see the negative side effects, because it means the results you want are almost here. So in examining anti-intentions, we have to decide and commit to accepting the negative consequences that come with attaining our goals.

In rereading the Benkowski letter, I have to wonder if this was how she views the sweat lodge disaster. Did she see the deaths of three people as some cosmic sacrifice for "wealth?" If so, is this is this a wild overstatement of what Ray was teaching or just following his teachings to their natural conclusion? Shudder.

Judge Darrow took an equally dispassionate view of the recorded discussion in which a number of women revealed their sex abuse histories -- the recording too sensitive to be played in court. Darrow discounted the prosecution's use of the term "vile" to characterize them and said his personal views of them were not relevant. He chose to look at exhibit 1160 "objectively" as demonstrating an "intimate, trusting environment," entered into by people who knew the "difference between therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and a motivational speaker." This grossly understates the role that many of Ray's students saw him as holding, which went well beyond that of a simple, motivational speaker. They saw him as a spiritual leader, an extensively trained shaman (dear God,), and someone who was only a few credits shy of a psychology degree because all of that was what he told them.

Defense attorney Tom Kelly had erroneously compared the event to an AA meeting or religious context. But Alcoholics ANONYMOUS has a privacy agreement in place. No one can take outside the meetings what they hear in them. The confessional is sealed. This seminar and the discussion in question were recorded and those recordings became the property of JRI. That's a pretty big difference. Unlike AA, which doesn't allow crosstalk, Ray's event included his commentary in which he trivialized the trauma of abuse by pointing out that it's common. Worse, in the context of the same discussion he made an off-color joke comparing a the mic to the male member, which all the women there surely knew how to "handle."

The most generous reading of that episode I could make would be to say that Ray is oblivious to what sex abuse survivors experience when those wounds are re-opened. The harshest read would be that he knows full well. Given his propensity for leveraging people's vulnerabilities to break them down and make them increasingly dependent, I'm inclined toward that interpretation.

There were hints, throughout the trial, at something truly sinister in James Ray. But none of that was proven in trial and it could not fairly have been expected of Judge Darrow to deduce that. There was, however, plenty that pointed to his being manipulative and mercenary and it was all available to the judge if not to the jury. The fact that he never gave refunds, for instance, Darrow knew. Whatever warnings about the events came in the form of waivers well after they'd paid, providing no opportunity for people to to pull out and get their money back.




Another indicator of Ray's ruthless financial policies came out during the sentencing hearing when the late Kirby Brown's cousin Bobby Magnanini spoke. Magnanini is also an attorney and he handled the civil litigation for the family. Explaining that they only took the settlement to ensure compensation for James Shore's family -- for which he was the sole breadwinner -- he gave some telling detail. The insurance policy Ray had to cover the business was for a million dollars. Magnanini was clever enough to find a way to go after a five million dollar media policy ("poorly designed" to protect against copyright infringement) because the events were recorded. But a million dollars was all that would normally have been available for a settlement in the event of, say, three people dying on his watch, which is what happened. He did, however, have a ten million dollar policy on himself and his home. Says a lot about his priorities, I think.

I, for one, don't buy that Ray's goal was to "help people" except as a means to an end -- that end being his ascent as the "first billionaire" spiritual teacher. That pecuniary focus seems blatantly obvious to me, but I can only speak for myself. I also think Ray stole power from people. From a shamanic perspective, he stole soul parts. That's not something that can be proven or prosecuted in a court of law but the disempowering verbal abuse and mind games were demonstrated repeatedly in witness testimony. It undercuts rather substantially whatever "help" Ray gave people.

Personally, I thought the mitigation testimony the defense put forward in the presentencing hearing was weak. It was lacking in both quality and quantity. The witness list went from twenty-three to twelve to ten as the week progressed. As per Bob Ortega, defense attorney Tom Kelly said he would call four more witnesses for Wednesday and five on Thursday, claiming that they were trimming their witness list to stay on schedule. But, as Tom McFeeley so astutely pointed out, if time was the issue, why were they out at 2:00 on Tuesday? They certainly had time to present more than three witnesses that day, even with Det. Diskin completing his testimony from the previous week. And the promised five witnesses for Thursday dwindled to three.

Conspicuous by his absence was Bob Proctor whose appalling letter of support I discussed here. So, the court was spared a lecture on his particular brand of victim blame. Also among the notable missing was Tony Alessandra, who spearheaded efforts to get letters of support for Ray's mitigation hearing. Alessandra, by the way, owned Life Results, the company Ray drained of funds. I can't imagine he wanted to answer questions about that.

So who was left to testify to all of James Ray's "help?"

There were a handful of former students. Jennifer Kwasny, a former Pima County juvenile probation officer who characterized Ray as "a stellar candidate for probation" but who admitted that she hadn't reviewed any of the police records, testimony, or documents from the case. One hopes she was a bit more thorough in her career as a probation officer. David McCall charged up $125,000 in Amex bills to join the World Wealth Society and put his whole family through Ray's curriculum. He says it was absolutely worth it because his daughter led her volleyball team to state finals. Dentist Matt Bynum credits Ray with saving his marriage and making him a better employer by teaching him to lay aside his ego -- one of many things Ray taught but seemingly did not learn. Dr. Art Mowery credits Ray with teaching him a "simple" philosophy easily worth the thousands of dollars Ray charges his students.

"He showed me that just having stuff wasn't going to make me happy," Mowery said. "It has to come from within. It sounds pretty simple and it really is, but it just took someone to make me sit down and write it down."

On cross-examination, Polk questioned why an educated person would need help with a simple philosophy.

"There's lots of things we all know already, like we shouldn't eat McDonald's all day long," Mowery said. "We just need somebody to stay on us about it."

I'm sure that was worth the thousands of dollars Ray charges.

Former employees also testified. Amy Grothe, Ray's former executive assistant, had the dubious distinction of stopping proceedings entirely when Judge Darrow noticed she was being coached by someone in the audience. Alex Smythe, the accountant for JRI, arguably did far more for the prosecution than the defense. He had no idea how much Ray made from JRI but knew that the company owed Ray $300,000 which had come from various nameless accounts. And, when pressed, he acknowledged that he didn't know if Ray had ever actually been a millionaire.

Ray also put forward a couple of people with disabilities whom he ostensibly helped, as a friend, for free. Mark Lane, a PTSD suffering veteran of dubious credibility, and Dr. Sean Stephenson, a wheelchair bound little person who is, himself, a motivational speaker. Born with a severe form of osteogenesis imperfecta, Stephenson seems a sympathetic character... until he opens his mouth. After that the condescending arrogance becomes painfully apparent even through the filter of someone else's tweets. He lectured the courtoom. He even lectured the judge. He interrupted the prosecutor repeatedly and dodged questions about the importance of credentials. He also appears to share Ray's well-known contempt for fat people, pointing out that he admired Ray's fit physique and indicating that he gets hate mail for his opinions on weight loss. It seems incongruous to think of a three-foot tall, deformed, wheelchair bound person being lookist and sizist, but there we are. But Stephenson was gracious enough to let people know that other people can achieve his level of Yoda-like wisdom. Then he went off to lecture people on Connie Joy's Facebook page in a series of posts so nasty he ended up deleting them all. To my knowledge he has never committed mass murder in a quest to find the hero to his anti-hero, so he has that going for him.

Do I feel like I'm kicking cripple by criticizing a severely disabled and deformed person like Dr. Stephenson? A little. But Stephenson has made it clear that he wants no special treatment or pity. Of course he welcomed free professional services and seminar tickets, deeply admiring that Ray never charged him for anything. So maybe he does want special treatment after all.

Of course Ray's family members -- mother Joyce and brother Jon -- testified to his wonderfulness and the need for him to free on probation. He's needed at home to take care of his cancer-stricken mother, because now he's also an uncredentialed expert on alternative cancer therapies. Besides, as a tearful brother Jon indicated, he's not safe in jail with all those mean Indians. They both made ludicrous claims about how well-behaved Ray was a child. His mother reiterated claims about his obedience and self discipline -- even as a baby. His brother claimed they never fought as kids. It all sounds a little implausible. If true, it points to something even more disturbing. How were they being raised that they were that buttoned down? What is Joyce Ray's obsession with obedience and self-discipline in small children?

So, with all ten of Ray's supporters, there was still plenty of time for Sheila Polk to redirect Det. Diskin and clear up some confusion left by Truc Do's typically shrill cross examination. In particular, Polk addressed head on Truc Do's attempts to marginalize the spiritual views of one of the letter writers for the prosecution, Marilyn Moss. As discussed, Do questioned her credibility because of her belief in Ray's ability to "shoot energy" at witnesses. But under Polk's redirect, it became even more clear that the entire belief system starts with Ray. Moss had described Ray as "a master of manipulating energy." She wrote, "It may sound far out there, but it is what he is doing right now." She further explained, "When we were Dream Team members, we were to stand around shooting energy with the 'triangle' gesture." She claimed that Ray was doing this in court, so Diskin began to watch Ray. The upshot? He saw Ray doing exactly that on more than one occasion. Judge Darrow even stood up to look at Diskin's demonstration of the gesture. So, as I said before, whatever "silliness" Do wants to mock in prosecution witnesses starts with her own client.

All in all, sentencing brought a less than satisfying ending to this long and painful saga. Two years in jail seems a small price to pay for cooking people to death. But, in the final analysis, Ray's greatest wounds were not inflicted by the criminal justice system but by himself. He could have addressed this head on, settled, plead out, and accepted responsibility early on. If he'd given his tearful apology two years ago, it wouldn't have looked so much like a transparent ploy to win over the judge deciding his fate. Instead he dragged this out for over two years, spent a fortune on legal counsel, and apparently wound up broke and living with his parents. Two years in jail may not seem like much but it means his plans to resume his career and rebuild his life through his fancy-schmancy new website are for naught. What works out to a bit less than two years in jail may not seem like much, but for someone like Ray, with his obvious need for control and inability to sit still without sedation, it's an eternity.

Ray also still has numerous lawsuits pending, including a new wrongful death suit from the family of Colleen Conaway whose inexplicable plunge in a San Diego mall still begs to be resolved. In the meanwhile, inmate 267823 can be tracked 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.


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