I AM RESPONSIBLE
Below is the entire first chapter of my new book “The Business of Redemption.”
It’s entitled “I am Responsible.”
I want to share it with you in case you’ve not read the book. Hopefully it will answer any questions you may have regarding the tragic accident in which I was involved in 2009.
This book has been a ten-year journey and labor of love. It has gone through so many writes and rewrites that I’ve lost count. So many people have contributed, written, read, and given their input. We all deeply desired to get this book right.
I Am Responsible
I am responsible for the deaths of three people.
This reality is the complete antithesis of everything I’ve lived my life for or would have wished for those I’m blessed to work with. It hurts, and it hurts deeply—every single day.
On October 8, 2009, I led a Spiritual Warrior retreat in Sedona, Arizona. Nestled among the famous Red Rocks and steeped in spiritual tradition, Sedona is a natural draw for truth-seekers and others looking to push past their boundaries, those things that are holding them back. This retreat would give participants the opportunity to push the limits of their own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual boundaries through a weeklong experience consisting of numerous introspective exercises and contemplations of unhealed trauma and unresolved emotional issues. It was tough. Emotional and yet very rewarding. The week culminated in a multiple-round sweat lodge event. The opportunity to reconnect with their inner mental toughness and emotional strength.
At my urging, three people—James Shore, Liz Neuman, and Kirby Brown—pushed themselves too far, ending their lives and forever changing mine.
It was my event. My team. My sweat lodge. My choice to facilitate a dangerous exercise.
As the leader, I alone am responsible.
I didn’t realize that something was horribly wrong during the sweat lodge exercise. No one did. God, how I wish I had. It wasn’t apparent to me until after the exercise was over. Had I known that something was going wrong, I would have stopped. Immediately. I would have pulled up the sides of the tent and opened the door flap.
One of the sweat lodge participants was a physician, Dr. Jeanne Armstrong, MD. She was seated near James Shore and Kirby Brown in the back of the lodge. Dr. Jeanne testified under oath that she also didn’t know anything was seriously wrong until everyone exited the lodge. She had no idea a life-or-death situation was occurring right next to her.
Dr. Jeanne also testified that if she had known, she would have been bound by the Hippocratic Oath to take action and help them. But even she, with her extensive medical training and experience, was unaware of the gravity of the situation.
This weighs heavily on me—more than words can convey. Bearing responsibility for a tragedy that resulted from an exercise I led is the price I must pay for the rest of my life.
Let me state very clearly: no matter how much it hurts, no matter how much anguish I have over what occurred, I know it pales in comparison to the pain that family, friends, and loved ones of James, Liz, and Kirby must feel. My heart goes out to them daily, and in no way do I compare my pain to theirs.
The ultimate price of leadership is absolute responsibility. Absolute ownership. Of everything. For everything. No exceptions. As leaders we must take responsibility for ourselves, our choices, those we are leading, and the mistakes we may ultimately make.
Shifting responsibility onto another is never an option. I had a team that assisted with the sweat lodge exercise. Each person had a job, was highly skilled, well paid, and knew exactly what their role was. Yes, I had a team, but I was their leader. Absolute responsibility was mine. You’ve heard it said, and it bears repeating: the buck stops here.
It never occurred to me before, during, or after the exercise and tragic aftermath to hold anyone on my team responsible for the events that unfolded that fateful night. A true leader never throws his team under the bus.
This is the price of leadership, and if you can’t step up to this, then you should just stand down. Authentic leadership will cost you something.
One Fateful Evening
How I wish I could take back the events of October 8, 2009.
Stepping from the sweat lodge, several people were victorious, whooping out their “I did it!” proclamations. But it quickly became clear that others, many others, were not doing well at all.
As more participants came out of the lodge and their bodies reacted in the cold night air, the scene became chaotic. People were throwing up, moaning, and asking for help. Some were shaking and unable to walk.
Slowly, it dawned on me that more people than usual were in distress. Several were unconscious, foaming at the mouth, and not responding to efforts by team members to revive them.
I had never in all my years of holding sweat lodge events seen anyone foam at the mouth. This is crazy. What’s going on?
A big commotion erupted on the back side of the lodge. I walked around to the back and saw Kirby Brown and James Shore lying on the ground. Their color was wrong. Very wrong. They were bluish and their lips were pale.
Someone said, “They’re not breathing.”
These words echoed in my mind and hung like a heavy anchor in the air.
Within the hour, as police and emergency vehicles swarmed the area, I would hear a detective say, “Mr. Ray, I hope you know we’re investigating this as a homicide.”
Everything went silent. I glanced over at the sweat lodge; they had already roped off the area with yellow crime scene tape.
“Look, you might go to jail tonight,” a criminal lawyer told me later that evening. “If you do, we’ll get you out as soon as we can.”
Jail? Are you kidding me? My head was spinning fast, and I thought I just might throw up…