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Sarah Smith, Forum Communications Co., Published December 13 2009

Self-help guru at center of suicide

The July suicide of a Park Rapids, Minn., woman, which her family links to an internationally known self-help guru, was catapulted into the national spotlight this week when ABC’s “Nightline” and CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” both featured lengthy segments on Colleen Conaway’s death.

Conaway’s mysterious passing has been hard to grasp for her family and former co-workers at NorthStar Orthodontic Studio in Park Rapids.

After all, Colleen was at the peak of her career. She had recently taken control of her life and her health.

So how could this fun-loving woman have taken her own life in such a horrific way, they wondered.

The man they’re looking to for answers – California-based “life success coach” James Arthur Ray – has not provided any direction.

Ray, who in the past has been featured on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, is no stranger to controversy. In October, he conducted a seminar at a sweat lodge in Sedona, Ariz., a spiritual gathering that also ended in tragedy when several participants were overcome inside the lodge.

Three people died, including a Prior Lake, Minn., woman. Two dozen required medical care.

At this point, family and friends concede they may never know the full story behind Conaway’s death. They suspect the tragic event may have been set in motion long before July 25, when Conaway climbed over the third-floor railing at San Diego’s Horton Plaza Mall and plunged to her death.

Death in San Diego

At the time of her death, Conaway, 46, was in San Diego attending a motivational seminar by Ray, who is known for teaching principles from the 2006 best-selling book “The Secret.” Ray amassed a multimillion-dollar empire by cashing in on seminars he conducted across the country.

“The Secret,” written by Rhonda Byrne, has sold millions of copies, exhorting people to fulfill their dreams through the power of positive thinking, called the “Law of Attraction.”

“You know, I don’t know what attracted her to this movement, if she found them on the Internet,” said Conaway’s sister, Lynn Graham of Park Rapids. “She was a watcher of ‘Oprah,’ but she never mentioned it to me, so I can’t say. I myself had never heard of James Ray until this happened to Colleen.”

Conaway called her family upon arrival in San Diego on July 23, enthused about the beautiful city and planning to take a taxi to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

On July 25, the San Diego seminar attendees traded their clothing for dirty castoffs in a play-acting exercise. They were made up to look like transients, relieved of their money, identification and personal possessions, and dropped off at three separate locations.

Conaway’s bus went to the Horton Plaza Mall.

“The fact that she was left in a huge city all alone with no ID, no money, no way to help herself, I think is atrocious,” Graham said.

She said she is struggling to see what relevance the exercise had to obtaining “harmonic wealth,” the seminar’s focus.

A seminar attendee witnessed the fall but didn’t recognize Conaway as one of his group, “Nightline” reported.

The bus left without Conaway, who by then was in a local morgue with a “Jane Doe” tag on her foot.

Ray and four of his staff were on that very bus. They returned to their motel, where they had a raucous celebration late into the night, attendees told the news programs. No one reported Conaway missing until the next day.

She had paid $4,000 for the seminar and an additional $2,000 for her flight.

James Ray movement

Conaway and her longtime boyfriend, Dennis Wothe, ended their two-decade-long relationship in 2008.

“It was last year just before Thanksgiving when she started getting involved with him,” Wothe recalled, referring to Ray.

Wothe isn’t sure what piqued Colleen’s interest in the self-help guru, but by late 2008 she was avidly following him online.

“Maybe it was a reason we broke up,” Wothe said reluctantly. “If you know anything about James Ray, you rid yourself of the past because now ‘I’m your future,’ ” he said, referring to Ray’s desire to instill “harmonic views” in his followers and make them get rid of their “unhealthy” pasts.

Former co-worker Karen Jackson often traded books with Conaway, an avid reader. But she drew the line at the Ray materials.

“You know, I don’t know if I want to talk about that,” Jackson said. “She shared a video with me because we shared a lot of books. It just wasn’t to my taste, that’s all.”

By spring 2009, Graham said Conaway attended a free Ray seminar in Minneapolis, then signed up for another in Chicago. From Chicago she signed up for San Diego. She was hooked and heading into debt.

“She had bought a lot of his literature, his CDs, his DVDs, a lot of books,” Graham said. The family learned this when they went through Conaway’s belongings after her death.

“Going to his seminars and buying his stuff, definitely” caused financial problems. It was in excess of $12,000.

This is where Graham struggles to understand what transpired.

“That was very unlike my sister,” Graham said. “She didn’t live in a big fancy house. She actually lived with my parents; she didn’t have fancy clothes or jewelry, I mean, she just didn’t. She worked hard.”

At the outset of Conaway’s interest, Graham said the family saw no reason to worry.

“She’s always made great decisions in the past,” Graham said. “She’s a level-headed person, hard-working, loyal, dependable. That’s how she was.”

Upon examining Conaway’s credit card bills, the family was chagrined to learn Colleen had charged nearly $11,000 more in San Diego, booking four additional seminars.

“And of course, none of this has been refunded,” Graham said. “James Ray, other than sending a small sympathy card, later made absolutely no effort to contact us whatsoever.”

The Park Rapids Enterprise, a Forum Communications newspaper, made repeated attempts to obtain a response from Ray or his company, James Ray International, since July. He has not returned calls or

e-mails to his organization.

Through his attorney, he denied to “Nightline” that he was responsible for Conaway’s death.

Both the San Diego Police Department and Hubbard County Sheriff’s Department in Minnesota launched investigations. Both closed their files, unable to prove Ray took criminal advantage of Colleen financially.

“It seemed she willingly maxed out several credit cards,” said Hubbard County Chief Deputy Jerry Tatro, whose office was filled with the motivational tapes and books for months during his investigation.

The sweat lodge

The sweat lodge tragedy involving one of Ray’s seminars also grabbed national headlines.

Relatives of the deceased participants, and some who were critically injured with organ failure when they claimed they were not allowed to leave the crowded lodge and passed out from the heat, have filed lawsuits. They assert Ray and his staff failed to adequately supervise the seminar, which participants paid $10,000 to attend.

Flagstaff attorney Louis Diesel said he represents the Prior Lake woman’s family and has filed a wrongful death suit.

“We are speaking with a lawyer at this time,” Graham said. “We don’t really know where that will bring us. We’re definitely looking to trying to change the laws around these motivational speakers. “

Graham alleges, like the sweat lodge participants, that her sister was inadequately supervised in San Diego. The family learned that one of the future seminars Colleen had booked was for the sweat lodge ceremony.

Ray canceled the rest of his 2009 seminars following the Arizona debacle.

Thomas J. McFeeley, a Stamford, Conn., spokesman for several families, including the Conaways, said criminal charges are “anticipated” against Ray in early 2010.

“We want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anybody else,” said John Graham, Lynn’s husband. “That’s foremost on our minds.”

Remembering a life

Conaway’s family and friends want her to be remembered for the way she lived, not the way she died. During her last conversation with Graham two days before her death, Conaway was excited about a new business venture.

“She was anxious to tell us all about her side business that she was going to start, and that we found, through looking in her room, was going to be to help others to lose weight the healthy way,” Graham said.

“Oh my God, for the last two years, through diet and exercise, cutting out salts and all chemicals, going organic, she’d lost over 80 pounds,” Graham said. “She was in the best physical shape of her whole entire life.”

The sisters were close. They could complete each other’s sentences and knew what the other was thinking, Graham recalled. They laughed, compulsively.

“She was full of life,” Graham said.

The family was heading to New York this weekend to appear with Geraldo Rivera on “Fox News Sunday.”

“She loved life, was a very positive person,” said longtime co-worker and friend Erin Hensel. “She was a very common-sense kind of lady. She wasn’t naïve at all. She loved animals, loved her dog; liked to cook, we loved music. She would do anything for you.”


Sarah Smith is a writer for the Park Rapids Enterprise, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.