Family questions mysterious suicide at seminar last July
The July suicide of a Park Rapids woman, which her family links to an internationally known self-help guru, was catapulted into national prominence Tuesday night when ABC's Nightline and CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 programs both featured lengthy segments on Colleen Conaway's death.
Her mysterious passing has been hard to grasp for her family and former co-workers at NorthStar Orthodontic Studio in Park Rapids. How could a fun-loving woman at the peak of her career, who had recently seized control of her life and her health, have taken that leap, they wondered.
They concede they may never know.
Death in San Diego
The tragic event seemed to have been set in motion long before Colleen, 46, climbed over the third floor railing July 25 at San Diego's Horton Plaza Mall and plunged to her death below.
She was in San Diego attending a motivational seminar put on by California-based "life success coach" James Arthur Ray, who taught principles from the 2006 best-selling book "The Secret" and cashed in on his seminars costing up to $10,000 that he has conducted across the United States, amassing a multi-million dollar empire.
"The Secret," written by Rhonda Byrne, has sold millions of copies, exhorting people to fulfill all their dreams through the power of positive thinking, called the "Law of Attraction." Book sales, Web sites and offshoots of the "Secret" movement received a huge endorsement through Oprah Winfrey's talk show, with Ray appearing frequently as a guest.
"You know, I don't know what attracted her to this movement, if she found them on the Internet," said Colleen'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."
She called her family upon arrival in San Diego 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, were made up to look like transients, relieved of their money, identification and personal possessions, and dropped off at three separate locations throughout San Diego.
Colleen'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," Lynn said. "That fact alone, if you watched the show, (Nightline) we found that when the bus was to leave she wasn't there and not one person reported her missing."
A seminar attendee witnessed the fall but didn't recognize Colleen as one of his group, Nightline reported.
Lynn is struggling to see what relevance the exercise had to obtaining "harmonic wealth," the seminar's focus.
"I have yet to find that out," Lynn said. "I can't in my wildest dreams find out what walking around homeless all alone with no money and no ID has to do with spirituality, motivation, self-help or anything. I can't even begin to grasp where that is."
The bus left without Colleen, who by then was in a local morgue with a "Jane Doe" tag on her foot.
James Ray and four of his staff were on that very bus. They returned to their motel, where they had a raucous celebration that went late into the night, attendees told the news programs. No one reported Colleen missing until the next day.
She had paid $4,000 for the seminar and an additional $2,000 for her flight.
The James Ray movement
Colleen and 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's not sure what piqued Colleen's interest in him, but by late 2008 she was avidly following James Arthur Ray online.
"Maybe it was a reason we broke up," he 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" and himself in his followers and make them get rid of their "unhealthy" pasts.
Former co-worker Karen Jackson often traded books with Colleen, 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 of 2009, Lynn said Colleen attended a free Ray seminar in Minneapolis, then signed up for another in Chicago. From Chicago she signed up for the San Diego seminar. 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 Colleen's belongings after her death. "Going to his seminars and buying his stuff, definitely" caused financial problems. "It was in excess of $12,000."
Most of the materials were still in the wrappers, unopened. That $12,000 did not include her travel expenses, Lynn said.
And this is where Lynn struggles to understand what transpired.
"That was very unlike my sister," Lynn 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 means she just didn't. She worked hard."
At the outset of Colleen's interest, Lynn said the family saw no reason to worry.
"She's always made great decisions in the past," Lynn said. "She's a level-headed person, hard-working, loyal, dependable. That's how she was."
While many self-help movements prey on vulnerable people with low self-esteem, Lynn adamantly denied that Colleen was one of them.
"Absolutely not," she said. "You talk to anyone out at NorthStar, her family, Colleen was strong, she was definitely opinionated. You never had to wonder what she was thinking. That does not fit the mold."
Upon examining Colleen'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," Lynn said. "James Ray, other than sending a small sympathy card, later made absolutely no effort to contact us whatsoever."
The Enterprise has made repeated attempts to obtain a response from Ray or his company, James Ray International, since July. He has not returned phone calls or e-mails to his organization.
Through his attorney, he denied to Nightline that he was responsible for Colleen's death.
The sweat lodge
In October, Ray 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 woman; two dozen required medical care.
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 asserting 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," Lynn 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. "
Lynn alleges, like the sweat lodge participants, Colleen 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 debacle in Arizona.
A Stamford, Conn., spokesman for several families including the Conaways, Thomas J. McFeeley, 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."
Both the San Diego Police Department and Hubbard County Sheriff's Department launched investigations into Colleen's death. 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.
Remembering a life
Colleen's family and friends want her to be remembered for the way she lived, not the way she died.
During her last conversation with Lynn two days before her death, Colleen 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," Lynn 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," Lynn said. "She was in the best physical shape of her whole entire life. She was starting this business to help people do the same thing she did. She was sending out flyers, printing out recipes. She was going to help others."
Lynn and Colleen were close. They could complete each other's sentences and knew what the other was thinking, Lynn recalled. They laughed, compulsively. Colleen had a funny bone that ran deep inside her, Lynn said. The sisters would struggle to regain their composure when one or both of them got the giggles, Lynn said.
"She was full of life," Lynn said. The family is 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. "We laughed a lot; had a good time. 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," Hensel said, tearing up.
"At NorthStar we do a lot of fundraising," Hensel said. "She was right in there. She would do anything for you to help out. She gave a lot of herself. She was happy, very happy.
"It's devastating," Hensel added. "And there's no answers. That's what makes it so hard."
"I like to celebrate who she was," Jackson said. "Nothing's going to change that."