Colleen Conaway: James Ray’s First Victim

Colleen Conaway was attending James Ray’s Creating Absolute Wealth seminar in July 2009 when her life came to a horrible and untimely end.

Screen-shot from The Secret: “James Arthur Ray, Philosopher”

James Ray and his staff abandoned Colleen’s body in a shopping mall and managed to conceal her death from her fellow participants. Their crude and cynical cover up was also enough to convince the San Diego Police to simply declare Colleen’s death a suicide and close the case. Ray, a charismatic millionaire with his head office at nearby Carlsbad, was obviously impressive enough for the police not to have smelled a rat. (They may, however, have noticed a faint whiff of the high powered attorneys, who Ray would later pay $5 million to defend him from manslaughter charges.)

Colleen’s death only became “news” after three more people died at Ray’s next event in Arizona. But at first, no one apart from her family and friends knew of Colleen’s fate. And the role that the internationally recognized “philosopher” from The Secret had played in ending her life could only be guessed at by her family.

Colleen Conaway, a lass from Minnesota, was overjoyed to be in San Diego in late July 2009 for Ray’s Wealth seminar. She spoke with her sister the day before the event started, laughing about some family matters, saying they would talk more when she got back; and that she was looking forward to seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

The next thing her family heard was a phone call from the police in the middle of the night saying she had committed suicide.

Obviously, losing a loved one to suicide forces one to face the torture of wondering if anything could have been done to prevent it. But Colleen’s family had an added burden: it really didn’t add up. Colleen was not suicidal. She had booked Ray’s event, and paid him many thousands of dollars upfront for future groups she planned to attend. She wanted his help in planning the rest of her life. All the indications were that Colleen fully expected to be home soon, full of enthusiasm to act on the lessons she had learned. When her family finally collected Colleen’s car from the airport, they even found she had left a snack for the journey home.

So, what happened?

As her father said at the time, he didn’t know; just that it must have been something terrible. In the time since then, more information has emerged…

A Secret Business Plan

Ray’s customers have no way of knowing what they are getting themselves into when they embark on a course of self improvement. The Secret, Ray’s ticket to fame, said “positive” things about getting control over your life. What it didn’t say was how its teachers work. They have a carefully planned structure aimed, first, at getting the attention of their target audience (people who wish for a better life and a have credit card); and then, step by step, drawing them into an exploitive power structure — a “relationship” with the teacher based on constant up-selling of more and more expensive products.

A free seminar – hey what have you got to lose? And you get a free gift: a package with free materials and order forms for other courses…. And there’s a blank form for your credit card details. You can fill your number there now – no commitment, and decide later whether you want to book a seminar….. Are you ready to invest in the rest of your life? How committed are you to changing your life?

The more people spend, the more emotionally attached they are to the idea that it will work. Financial investment = emotional investment and the cycle of abuse becomes increasingly harder to break.

Not every “self help” teacher shares Ray’s dangerous combination of stupidity and sadism, but it’s a slick and ruthless system that has been constructed and refined over decades. Every possible devious sales technique has been worked into these routines.

Colleen walked into this trap, hoping to learn how to fulfill her dreams and get the best out of herself. Once she had committed herself to Ray’s program and handed over her money to him, he had immense power over her: she would have felt he held the key to her dreams and hopes. 

In essence, James Ray stole her dreams and then set about selling them back to her at the highest possible price.

As emerged clearly during Ray’s later manslaughter trial, Ray’s events are extremely intense, highly confronting and extremely dangerous. Participants’ physical and mental defenses are systematically dismantled. It is demanded of them that they go deeply into strong emotions and explore issues right back to their childhood, and share it with the group. Neither Ray nor any of his staff are in any way qualified to deal with people on this level, but they wade in there anyway.

Sleep deprivation is used, along with dangerous exercises that have frequently caused injuries like broken bones. Ray’s staff are always there to “encourage people” to “play full on” (one of Ray’s favorite expressions). Food and toilet breaks are severely restricted and policed by staff, with offenders often humiliated before the group.

People are deliberately pushed into extreme psychological states in order to experience a “breakthrough”.

Colleen’s story is recounted on the Salty Droid site, where her sister recalled how Colleen changed in the months after she got involved with Ray:

…[Colleen] added two other Ray events to her schedule on short notice. Taking unexpected road trips :: spending money she didn’t have. One event was in St. Cloud, MN, the other in Chicago. At the Chicago event Colleen participated in the damaging ‘board-breaking’ exercises that have been reported elsewhere. She came back injured — and changed. Suddenly she seemed more serious. She eliminated all ‘negativity’ from her life, filtering out news and events that weren’t in conformity with her new “Harmonic” views.

After Colleen’s death Lynn [her sister] found that she had been filling out 3×5 cards with what looked like James Ray’s sayings or directives. They were all over Colleen’s house  — hundreds of them. Along with spiral notebooks full of similar gibberish. Colleen had been directed to keep a list of her ‘old limiting views’ and her new ‘harmonic views.’ Lynn sounded anguished recalling her feelings at seeing that Colleen had lined though many of the values that 2008 Colleen would have treasured. Scratching off pieces of herself, one at time, replaced with empty lies.

People who don’t “play full on” in Ray’s events are singled out for humiliation before the group. People who Ray for some reason doesn’t like are also humiliated “for their own good”.

I don’t know if James Ray humiliated Colleen. I can’t comment about it. It was actually the job of the San Diego Police to examine the evidence for that. What I will do is add this link to a description of what it felt like for one woman who was ridiculed and humiliated by Ray in front of a group of strangers.

I will also say that it seems a reasonable thing to assume, given the circumstances, that Ray had an exchange with Colleen. And that it is not likely to have been pleasant. What is quite clear though, is that Colleen did not “play full on” in the last activity she did. This was a “homelessness exercise” in which participants leave their money, cell phones, and ID behind. They dress up in tattered clothes and pretend to be homeless people for several hours in downtown San Diego.

Colleen, it seems, refused to put on the “homeless” clothes and went in the clothes she had on. This would not have gone unnoticed by either Ray or his staff. And Colleen appears to have traveled in the same bus as James Ray. They arrived at the Horton Plaza Shopping Mall some time after 1 pm. The participants dispersed, and Ray settled himself in for a nice relaxed lunch.

At 1.43 pm, Colleen climbed over the railing in the mall, three levels up, and fell.

At 1.54 pm, staff member Greg Hartle tweeted:

{Just witnessed a woman jump several stories down onto pure concrete. I gotta say it was disturbing. I’m sending her love right now. -Greg Hartle 1.54 pm}

What kind of person tweets something like that? (Many more of these “what kind of person?” questions will be coming.) Moreover, why did he wait for 11 minutes? Was this strange behavior planned as an alibi to show that he didn’t know it was one of the participants?

Security staff had arrived and soon the police too. They started talking to witnesses, but James Ray’s staff said nothing. Ray continued eating his lunch and Greg Hartle, apparently, joined him.

At 2.04 pm Ray tweeted:

{Eating lunch w/ my dream (-team, i.e. volunteers & staff) while CAW (Creating Absolute Wealth) participants are having a life changing experience. James Ray 2.04 pm}

At this point Ray’s constantly blabbering Twitter account suddenly falls silent for four days: the longest hiatus ever until he was sent to jail — he was even tweeting constantly during his trial. It is entirely plausible if not highly likely that he already knew that a participant was dead. (If you doubt this possibility, you clearly haven’t read up on his actions at the deadly sweat lodge two months later.)

Between 2 and 4 pm, Colleen’s body was taken from the mall and admitted to the mortuary as “Jane Doe”. Hospital staff were surprised that a woman as well dressed as Colleen should have absolutely no ID.

Between 2 and 4 pm, James Ray and his staff managed to pretend that they didn’t know what happened. Even if this were true, it would be an astonishing admission of of utter, desolate incompetence. For Ray’s staff especially, this is a red stain on their professional record that they will never be able to remove. (This site is dedicated to that purpose, too.)

At 4.00pm, the buses arrived to take the participants back to the seminar room. A “buddy system” had been in place, and particpants were under strict instructions not to get on the bus without their buddy. Colleen’s “buddy” was told not to wait for her and just get on. The participants collected their name tags. Nothing was said about the extra tag with Colleen’s name on it. Colleen’s bus, with James Ray on it, left without her.

Clearly, Ray and his staff knew at this time at the very latest, that Colleen was dead.

Back in the seminar room, a participant approached James Ray and said he had witnessed a suicide. Ray listened and didn’t let on that the victim had been a participant. The man spoke to Megan Fredrickson too, and she told him that he “was meant to witness it” but also didn’t let on. In the follow up session with the whole group, the man stood up and started to speak about the death he had witnessed. He was swiftly cut off by Ray, who told him it was “off topic”.

At about 6.30 pm  a staff member who didn’t (yet) know of Colleen’s death, walked in on a staff meeting. Everyone seemed agitated and they screamed at her to get out. This staff member later realized a participant was missing, and asked Ray about it. Ray curtly told her to stop asking. He sternly instructed her that if anyone asks about the missing person, they were to be told the following: We know where she is, she’s fine, and she decided not to return to the group. This instruction was repeated the next day to another office worker at James Ray International. (Both these staff members resigned and notified police as soon as they learned of Colleen’s death — two months later.)

Now it starts getting really sickening.

Staff member Michelle Goulet seems to have had Colleen’s personal belongings, including her driver’s license, the journal Colleen had been keeping during the event, and her cell phone. The journal “disappeared”, but Colleen’s cell phone was eventually returned to her family. With some messages on it….

At 8.15pm, Michelle Goulet called Colleen’s cell phone — the same one she knew she had in her possession — and left a “concerned message” for Colleen, despite already knowing she was dead. Here’s the recording (uploaded by Salty Droid)

At 8.30 Goulet called mall security — nearly eight hours after Colleen died. She said that their seminar group had gone to the mall around 2pm and they were missing someone. Notice that she said 2 pm instead of 1 pm.

The rest of the evening was filled with phone calls to police, where Goulet lied that Colleen had “self esteem issues”, but said nothing about Colleen having paid Ray about $15,000 to help her plan her future.

And there was the matter of identifying Colleen’s body, which involved Goulet faxing her driver’s license to the hospital. No one even bothered to go there and identify Colleen’s body.

At 11.15 another staff member, Tina called Colleen’s cell phone again and asked her to call back.

In the meantime, a party was going on: the end of seminar celebration and dinner. Megan Fredrickson, Michele Goulet, Greg Hartle and any other staff members who also knew, were partying like there as no tomorrow. Intoxicated, no doubt, with the adrenaline of having been so close to a death, and having served their master so well in an hour of crisis.

James Ray left the dinner early. No doubt he had some important phone calls to make with his lawyers.

Some time around midnight, Colleen’s aging parents were informed that Colleen had “committed suicide” while attending a self-help seminar.

No one from James Ray International ever contacted Colleen’s family. None of the participants even knew that while they were partying, one of their number was lying unidentified in the mortuary. Of course, Ray’s strict “no refund policy” meant that Colleen’s credit card would still be charged for the groups she had planned to do in the future. 

….In the future that James Ray stole from her, and then claimed she didn’t want.

Post Script:

James Arthur Ray is currently serving a two-year sentence after being convicted of three counts of homicide.

[Originally posted on July 25 2012, under the title Stealing Hope.]


  1. […] That is James Ray, a motivational speaker and charlatan who was arrested for manslaughter. More about his crimes can be found here: https://spiritualityisnoexcuse.wordpress.com/james-rays-first-victim-colleen-conaway/ […]

  2. From what I read, Colleen had put in a lot of her time & effort to make a great drastic change to her life, following the teachings of JAR. And she put in her life savings to pay for a nonrefundable expensive ‘harmonic wealth’ program. Huge enthusiasm & expectations for the program in San diego that’s supposed to change her life.

    After all that emotional & financial ‘investment’ she gets humiliated by a ‘prophet’ who turns out to be a narcissistic sociopath. A lot of people would be pushed to do something impulsively negative.

  3. Yes. The whole “business plan” that James Ray and every other asshole in his business sells is aimed at getting people to do impulsuively negative things. Ray is only unusual in that he seems to have a brutal streak that not all the others have. At least that’s the impression that clearly emerges for me upon reading the police records. Plus he is also a few clicks stupider than many of the others. As an ideologiy, The Secret and all this LOA stuff is pure psychopathy.

  4. Judging by the pics of him grinning like a loon with his arm around the director, and the promo describing a “tragedy” rather than a crime, the film is a disgrace. What’s next a sympathetic film about OJ Simpson trying to open a women’s shelter?

  5. It’s so creepy. He has no self-awareness at all, just sees a chance to be in the spotlight again and smiles that wide stupid grin. But just look at his eyes, the eyes don’t lie.
    From what I’ve heard, in the documentary he makes the tragic deaths all about him, saying Sedona had to happen for him to “learn and grow.” They didn’t even interview the victims’ families for the film.

  6. Yes, he seems to be a fairly straight forward psychopath, but with a brutal streak that’s not usually found in the average successful business-psychopath, fired up a bit more by roid rage from the cocktail of steroids he was taking.

    Anyway, yes, the “documentary” is indeed a PR scam. The blogger, “Salty Droid” was at the screening–

    And more here–

    I should have written something more about this asshole already, but the mere thought of looking at him again turns my stomach. Thanks for the “heads up”…

  7. This is such a heart wrenching story of the death of Colleen Conaway. I assume that James Ray was never charged, which he should have been because at the least he should be made to explain his actions and it might even have saved the other 3 deaths from him. Her family should still pursue him and too the money that Ms Conaway lost to this charlatan.

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    At least he saw the inside of a jail for 2 years. But justice was not done. Not for Colleen or any of his other victims.

  9. hi I am A cousin of colleen conaway if you have sometime I would love to talk to you

  10. Sure– drop me a line: yakaru@gmail.com

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