Charges Filed Against Leader of Secretive Group Where Women Were Branded

The New York Times/March 26, 2018

By Barry Meier

Federal authorities charged the head of an Albany-area group with forcing women to engage in sex, according to a complaint unsealed Monday.

The man, Keith Raniere, was arrested by federal officials in Mexico, where he has lived for the past five months, one federal official said. He was scheduled to appear Tuesday at a hearing in Texas.

According to the complaint, female followers of the group headed by Mr. Raniere were forced to have sex with him because they feared that if they did not do so, compromising material they had provided about themselves would be released publicly.

For two decades, Mr. Raniere has served as the leader of an organization near Albany called Nxivm (pronounced Nex-e-um). The group, which describes itself as a “self-help” organization, denies it is a cult. But former members have said that Mr. Raniere demands obedience from his followers, who refer to him as “Vanguard.”

Mr. Raniere left the United States for Mexico shortly after The New York Times published an article in October that detailed how women who belonged to a secret sorority within Nxivm were branded by a doctor who used a cauterizing device to sear a symbol into their lower abdomens.

To gain admission to the sorority, women were required to give their recruiter — or “master,” as she was called — naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.

Mr. Raniere denied knowing about the branding, and Nxivm contended in a statement that women participating in the secret sorority were happy and thriving. But an email obtained by The Times showed that Mr. Raniere wrote a female follower that the design of the symbol used to brand women incorporated his initials as a “tribute” to him.

“Not initially intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute,” Mr. Raniere wrote in that email, “(if it were abraham lincolns or bill gates initials no one would care.)”

Shortly after the publication of the Times article, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn opened an investigation into Nxivm. New York state officials are also investigating the group.

In an affidavit filed as part of the complaint, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Michael Lever, stated that his inquiry had determined that Mr. Raniere maintained a “rotating group of fifteen to twenty women” with whom he maintained sexual relations. Those women were allowed to have sex only with him, the agent stated in the filing.

Women who joined the secret sorority were unaware that Mr. Raniere was its supreme master, Mr. Lever said. And some slaves were required by their masters, who included high-ranking women within Nxivm, “to have sex with Raniere, which they then did,” the filing said.

Mr. Lever said that two women who cooperated with the federal investigation said they believed they had to “complete the assignment or risk release of their collateral.”

When one of the women started having sex with Mr. Raniere, he began giving her money and provided a job, but when she defected he demanded the money back, according to the filing.

Both Nxivm and Mr. Raniere have long attracted controversy. Former members have depicted him as a man who manipulated his adherents, had sex with them and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing.

Over the years, much of Nxivm’s funding has come from Clare and Sara Bronfman, sisters who are members of the group and the youngest daughters of Edgar Bronfman, the chairman of the Seagram Company who died in 2013.

A lawyer who has represented Nxivm could not immediately be reached for comment.

At the Texas hearing on Tuesday, prosecutors plan to argue for Mr. Raniere to remain in custody while he is sent back to Brooklyn to face charges.

In an eight-page letter, prosecutors argued that Mr. Raniere “has a long-history of systematically exploiting women through coercive practices for his own financial and sexual benefit.”

Prosecutors said that Mr. Raniere, while pretending to be penniless, “has spent his life profiting from pyramid schemes and has otherwise received financial backing from independently wealthy women” like the Bronfman sisters.

They also asserted that Mr. Raniere and the mother of his child had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from a bank account that “contains over $8 million” and is in the name of one of his deceased lovers.

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