Rochester woman tells all about life with NXIVM's Keith Raniere, her ex

Democrat & Chronicle, New York/March 8, 2018

By Jon Campbell

Albany -- Keith Raniere's devoted followers know him as Vanguard, the hyper-intelligent inventor, philosopher, founder and face of NXIVM, an Albany-area executive coaching and self-help company whose members pay thousands of dollars for workshops.

His many critics see him differently: They say Raniere, who grew up in Rockland County, is actually leading a dangerous cult-like organization, one with deep ties to a sorority that made international headlines last year after allegedly burning a logo bearing his initials into the flesh of its female members.

Rochester native Toni Natalie knows him by other names.

Her ex-boyfriend. Her legal combatant. Her antagonist.

Natalie, 59, spent eight years in an intimate relationship with Raniere, leaving her hometown to work with him near Albany in 1992, years before NXIVM came to fruition.

She sounded warnings about Raniere, 57, in the press long before women revealed last year that they had been branded, all the while defending herself against a barrage of lawsuits, bankruptcy interventions and even criminal charges pressed by him, his company and his close associates.

Natalie, born and raised in Rochester and living in the area once again, recounted her relationship with Raniere in a series of interviews with the USA TODAY Network's Albany Bureau over the last three months.

She discussed her first encounter with Raniere in a Rochester hotel meeting room, their tumultuous relationship and the nearly two decades of bitter court battles that continue to this day, leaving her financially strapped at times and wary of a legal system she believes Raniere has weaponized against her and other critics.

The interviews come as state and federal investigators appear to be taking a closer look at Raniere, NXIVM and their activities, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration acknowledging it is cooperating with an apparent inquiry by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office into entities with ties to the company.

World's smartest

The smartest man in the world was coming to Rochester.

It was 1991, two years after Raniere was listed as having one of the highest IQs in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Raniere's multilevel marketing company, Consumer's Buyline Inc., was rapidly expanding, and he was coming to the Holiday Inn near the airport to pitch potential members.

With some cajoling from her then-husband, Natalie decided to hear Raniere out despite being burned by a different multilevel marketing company before.

She had long been self-conscious about her own education, having dropped out of Greece Athena High School in the 10th grade, not knowing at the time she was dyslexic. She wanted to know what the world's smartest man had to say. 

"What I was mainly interested in was this man with a 240 IQ," Natalie said. "Someone with that much intellectual capacity, what was it that he was bringing to the table?" 

Around that time, media coverage of Raniere was positive.

The Times Union of Albany first profiled Raniere in 1988, highlighting his admission into a high IQ society while noting his "watchful blue eyes," "brown hair ... parted stylishly in the middle" and "physique of an athlete." 

He earned three degrees from the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Rensselaer County, after leaving Suffern High School at the age of 16, a rare feat. (A spokeswoman for RPI confirmed his triple degrees.)

"He also rides a unicycle and likes to juggle — not necessarily at the same time — but one gets the impression that this amazing young man, who requires only two to four hours of sleep, could do both — if he put his mind to it," the article read.

A 1992 column in the Democrat and Chronicle called Consumer's Buyline the "brainchild" of the then-31-year-old Raniere, noting he was "once recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the most intelligent people in the world" and noting his graduation from RPI.

Top sellers

Natalie and her husband bought into Consumer's Buyline, which promised steep discounts on goods and services for a membership fee. Members got a commission for selling memberships to others.

They became top sellers in the Rochester area and traveled to Clifton Park, the Albany suburb where Raniere has long lived, to see the company's headquarters firsthand.

Once there, Raniere noticed the smell of cigarettes on Natalie, she said. He asked if she wanted to stop smoking. She told him she did.

He led her to a quiet room and they talked — about what makes her nervous, what makes her anxious. He touched what he called "trigger points" in her hands, telling her to touch them whenever she got the urge to smoke.

"I never smoked again," Natalie said.

When she returned, Natalie's husband asked what took so long. Lost in conversation and in something of a meditative state, she thought it had been 15 minutes.

He told her it was more than two hours.

Relationship begins

Within a year, Natalie and her son had moved to Clifton Park after Raniere secured her a job with a skincare company that Consumer's Buyline partnered with. 

By that point, she and Raniere had spent hours on the phone discussing deeply personal issues like her marriage and how she was molested as a child.

Soon her marriage would fall apart.

She spent much of the next eight years in a relationship with Raniere that she says was largely normal, save for a brief breakup early on. They bought a home, though it was only in Natalie's name. They opened a health supplement store and cafe that had a run of success. They would take her son to museums in New York City or to New Jersey to visit her parents.

Followers start to bow

By 1997, however, the relationship was breaking down.

Raniere and Natalie had met Nancy Salzman, with whom Raniere would go on to co-found NXIVM.

His followers began calling him "Vanguard" and bow when he entered a room, a practice that was ultimately included in a 2000 patent application for "Rational Inquiry," a personal-improvement system that's a key part of the NXIVM philosophy.

He was using his deep personal knowledge of Natalie as a psychological tool against her, she said.

"What he kind of does is he elicits as much information as he can, almost as a friend you're sharing with," Natalie said. "Then he takes those things and he manipulates you with them."

And most troubling: Natalie alleged Raniere began to force himself on her against her will, sometimes while her son slept in the next room.

She sent her son to live with his father in 1998. She left the next year.

Negotiating her release

"April of 1999 was the last time I laid eyes on Keith Raniere," she said. "My brother came in and started what he called 'negotiating my release' because having a conversation with Keith that was easy or normal wasn't possible."

Natalie detailed her rape allegation in a signed 2011 statement she filed in federal court, when NXIVM sought to depose her in a defector's bankruptcy case.

At the time, Natalie's surname was Foley, the name of an ex-husband. She began going by Natalie again in recent months.

"Prior to leaving him in 1999, I was raped repeatedly by Raniere, each time with him telling me it was harder on him than it was on me, that we needed to be together so that I could share in his energy," Natalie (then Foley) wrote in the statement.

NXIVM, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story through its website and current and former attorneys, unsuccessfully sought to have the statement sealed.

At the time, then-NXIVM attorney Pamela Nichols called Natalie's statement "slanderous" and "scandalous," accusing Natalie of having a "personal vendetta."

Court battles

The demise of Natalie and Raniere's relationship was followed by a torrent of legal action that has kept them in court to this day.

Their business ties allowed Raniere and his close associates to contest Natalie's personal bankruptcy on various grounds, keeping her case tied up for eight years and four months before it was discharged. 

When her mother declared bankruptcy after trying to help with her legal bills, a NXIVM follower purchased a small debt in an unsuccessful attempt to intervene.

At one point, Raniere sought to block Natalie's bankruptcy protection because she didn't originally declare ownership of a painting of her son by famed Rochester artist Ramon Santiago, which the artist had provided as a gift years before.

The bankruptcy judge in the case, Robert Littlefield, wasn't amused.

In 2011, when NXIVM sought to have Natalie deposed in a different bankruptcy case, she filed her statement with the court on her own because she couldn't find an attorney to represent her pro bono. 

In 2014, Natalie was charged with felony computer trespassing after NXIVM provided State Police with evidence that appeared to show that she and other Raniere critics accessed the company's internal website and downloaded a member list using the credentials of a former member.

She and another NXIVM critic received an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, a legal arrangement allowing for a charge to be dismissed after a defendant stays out of trouble for a period of time.

Though the charge was dismissed, the legal wrangling continues, with NXIVM seeking to block the return of the computer that was seized from her as part of the case. (The computer had already been returned to her by State Police, apparently in error, by the time NXIVM sought to block it.)

A civil case against Natalie and others related to the computer trespassing trial was dismissed because it was outside the statute of limitations. In that case, NXIVM was represented in part by Michael Wolford, a Rochester-based attorney who declined comment for this story.

And in Washington state court, Raniere is suing Natalie for the ownership of two telecommunications patents belonging to a defunct company controlled by her, which dated back to their time as a couple and business partners.

Raniere claims he and Natalie had verbally agreed 20 years ago that she would relinquish the patents, something she denies.

Attorneys for Raniere have sought to question Natalie in the lawsuit, asking a judge to force her to sit for a deposition.

The constant battles with Raniere and wondering when the next legal action will come have left her struggling with the effects of PTSD, Natalie said.

"I live by the premise that it's going to come; it's just when is it going to come," she said. "Because until he's dead or in jail, this is what my life is."

New investigations

Natalie and other Raniere critics, who say their complaints to law-enforcement officials had previously been largely ignored, are hopeful investigators have turned their sights on NXIVM.

For years, NXIVM had operated as a secretive self-help business in the Albany area and outposts across North America, with fiercely devoted followers paying thousands of dollars for courses and sworn to secrecy with restrictive nondisclosure agreements.
"This matter smacks of a jilted fellow's attempt at revenge or retaliation against his former girlfriend, with many attempts at tripping her up along the way," Littlefield wrote in his 2009 decision.

"My mother used to tell me that at that time, Keith was as close to normal as he could be," Natalie said.

In October, The New York Times reported that five women belonging to NXIVM were branded with a logo including Raniere's initials as part of an initiation into a secret sorority, with leaders known as "masters" collecting nude photographs as collateral if the women revealed information about the group.

The article appears to have piqued investigators' interest, with The Times and the Albany Times Union reporting that the FBI has questioned NXIVM defectors in recent months.

On the state level, meanwhile, Cuomo's administration says it is finalizing an investigation into the state Department of Health's handling of a complaint filed against two doctors associated with NXIVM, including one involved in the branding incident.

In a statement, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the administration is also cooperating with Schneiderman, the attorney general, in an apparent inquiry.

“A review of the department’s handling of the initial complaints against the two physicians affiliated with NXIVM is currently being finalized," Azzopardi said. "Furthermore, DOH has entered into a common interest agreement with the Attorney General’s office regarding an inquiry of NXIVM-related entities."

Schneiderman's office declined comment but has previously acknowledged meeting with Catherine Oxenberg, the Dynasty actress who has raised concern about her daughter's involvement in the group.

Raniere responds

Raniere, meanwhile, issued an open letter to NXIVM members late last year disputing the depiction of his group, pushing back against claims that anyone had been abused or coerced.

He sought to distance himself from the sorority, claiming it is not associated with NXIVM or him personally, but he also claimed "experts" hired by NXIVM — including a forensic psychiatrist and former law enforcement officials — found the sorority members were "thriving, healthy, happy, better off, and haven’t been coerced."

"The picture being painted in the media is not how I know our community and friends to be, nor how I experience it myself," Raniere wrote. "However, as an organization and as individuals, we felt it was imperative that we hire experts to ensure there is no merit to the allegations."

Schneiderman's office is also in receipt of a consumer-fraud complaint filed by a former NXIVM member seeking a refund on the $9,000 spent on NXIVM classes.

The complaint, which was filed four months before the New York Times article, was released under a Freedom of Information Law request, though the name of the person who filed it was redacted.

"This company is a cult preying on vulnerable men and women who are looking for a credible self help program," the complainant wrote.

The complaint continues: "Unless forcible confinement, branding, sex with students, and taking people who disagree with the program to court is a bona fide business in New York then I suggest all fees and tuition collected are baseless and fraudulent."

When it comes to Raniere, Natalie said she's only looking for one thing: "I want it to stop."

"The only consistent I have in my life is Keith Raniere, which is not anything you want as a consistent," Natalie said. "And it's because he keeps coming back at me in one way or another."

Natalie continued.

"The last thing my mother said to me that was clear before she died was: 'Toni, you're not crazy. And don't let them make you think you're crazy, because you're not.'"

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