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Guru guilty of homicide in sweat lodge deaths

PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona jury on Wednesday found self-help guru James Arthur Ray guilty of negligent homicide in the deaths of three people who fell ill at a sweat lodge ceremony he conducted nearly two years ago.

The jury at Yavapai County Superior Court found Ray not guilty of the greater charge of reckless manslaughter in the deaths of James Shore, Liz Neuman and Kirby Brown who attended a personal growth seminar, near Sedona, Arizona, in October 2009.

They were among 56 participants who paid nearly $10,000 each to take part in Ray's "spiritual warrior" retreat, and were crammed into a four-foot tall sweat lodge, packed with superheated rocks at the ceremony.

Shore, 40. and Brown, 38, were pronounced dead at the scene, and Neuman, 49, died several days later at a hospital in Flagstaff.

At the start of the trial in early March, prosecutors said Ray had played an audio tape made at the retreat, warning participants they should expect "the most intense heat" that would leave them feeling as if they were going to die.

Despite participants becoming delirious, vomiting and passing out, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said Ray did not stop the ceremony, but continued to call for more superheated rocks.

Attorneys for the California-based motivational speaker argued that the deaths were the result of a tragic accident, not a crime.

Ray remained free on a $525,000 bond on Wednesday, court judicial assistant Diane Troxell said.

The jurors will reconvene on June 28 to begin the next phase of the trial to determine if there were aggravating factors.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren R. Darrow did not set a sentencing date.

Negligent homicide is a class four felony. Ray faces a minimum sentence of 1.5 years in jail for each count, which could be raised to 3.75 years if aggravating circumstances are proven.

Judge Darrow will determine if the terms are to run concurrently or consecutively.

The fatal sweat lodge ceremony cut short Ray's meteoric rise in the personal development industry. This had included appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show and CNN's Larry King Live, according to Ray's website.

The day after the deaths, television news images of the sweat dome showed a low, windowless structure, covered in black roofing material, a far cry from the aura of glamour and wealth portrayed by the lucrative industry.

Sweat or medicine lodges -- smaller domed or oblong structures warmed with heated stones -- have traditionally been used in ceremonies by some Native American cultures.

(Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Bohan)