When James Arthur Ray lifted the heavy tarp door and beckoned his devotees into a wood-frame dome, they obeyed. Tall and confident, Ray watched them enter one by one, more than 50 of them. Stooping under the low ceiling, they crowded into the dark, windowless space and sat in two tight rings around a pit filled with heated stones.

Many had spent more than $10,000 to be there, in what Ray called his “sweat lodge.” It culminated five days with the self-proclaimed “catalyst for personal transformation” at Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat, a ranch near Sedona, Arizona. During his “Spiritual Warrior” program, he’d asked participants to shave their heads, spend 36 hours in the desert meditating without food or water, and play the “Samurai Game,” in which a white-robed Ray, playing “God,” declared people dead, forcing them to remain motionless on the ground.

Before they entered the dome, he warned them his final test was a symbolic death. "You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you are not going to die," he said, according to several attendees. Around 2:30PM on October 8th, 2009, he lowered the tarp, closing off the only source of light and oxygen. The ceremony began.