Feds say self-help guru coerced followers into sex, had them branded with a cauterizing pen

The Washington Post/March 27, 2018

By Kyle Swenson

Authorities caught up with the alleged fugitive self-help guru behind the walls of a luxury gated community near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

The villas inside, according to court documents filed this week, had a price tag of up to $10,000 a week, not a place to expect a man who claimed for years he was penniless and didn’t even have a driver’s license.

But Keith Raniere — known to his followers across the world as the Vanguard — was living inside one of the properties with several women, according to federal prosecutors. Mexican authorities took him into custody and delivered him to Texas on Monday. He is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday on federal sex-trafficking charges. As Raniere was taken from the Mexican villa, the women chased after authorities in their own car at high speed, prosecutors say.

Raniere’s tractor-beam hold on his female followers is exactly the issue laid out in a federal criminal complaint unsealed on Monday.

Since 2003, Raniere has been the head of NXIVM (pronounced Nex-e-um and rendered by authorities as Nxivm). The self-help organization promises to introduce “a new ethical understanding” in adherents with a mix of New Age jargon and Ayn Randian self-determination. But according to federal authorities, Raniere used his position of power to lock women into a bizarre master-slave relationship.

“Raniere has maintained a rotating group of fifteen to twenty women with whom he maintains sexual relationships,” the criminal complaint states. “These women are not permitted to have sexual relationships with anyone but Raniere or to discuss with others their relationship with Raniere. Some of the Nxivm curriculum included teachings about the need for men to have multiple sexual partners and the need for women to be monogamous.”

The followers, the complaint alleges, were coerced into sex with Raniere out of devotion or fear of public exposure. Authorities also accuse Raniere of forcing women to undergo a bizarre branding ritual where his initials were allegedly burned into their pubic region with a cauterizing pen.

The arrest — which is based on FBI interviews with eight alleged victims — comes after years of scrutiny of NXIVM from media and state authorities, with critics blasting the Albany-area organization as a cultlike operation preying on susceptible subjects.

Court records do not list an attorney for the defendant. But in a statement on the NXIVM website, Raniere denied any wrongdoing. “These allegations are most disturbing to me as nonviolence is one of my most important values,” the statement says.

In a bio on his website, Raniere claims to have “devoted his life to studying the complex issues that face our modern world, and to developing tools to enhance the human experience through community, social action, science, technology and education.” According to a 2003 Forbes profile, he has also claimed “he spoke in full sentences when he was a 1-year-old, taught himself high school math in 19 hours when he was 12 and, by 13, had learned three years of college math and several computer languages.”

In 1998, Raniere founded Executive Success Programs Inc.; in 2003, NXIVM was founded as an “umbrella organization for ESP and other Raniere-affiliated entities,” the complaint states.

“Nxivm maintains features of a multilevel marketing scheme, commonly known as a pyramid scheme, in which members are recruited via a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme,” the complaint claims. For example, five-day workshops “promising personal and professional development” run up to $5,000. Achievement within the system is identified by colored sashes worn by followers.

“The Nxivm curriculum taught that women had inherent weaknesses including ‘overemotional’ natures, an inability to keep promises and embracing the role of victim,” the complaint alleges. “Nxivm operates largely in secrecy. Nxians were often required to sign non-disclosure agreements and to make promises not to reveal certain things about Nxivm’s teachings.”

Raniere allegedly sits at the top of the organization. “In my opinion, NXIVM is one of the most extreme groups I have ever dealt with in the sense of how tightly wound it is around the leader, Keith Raniere,” cult expert Rick Ross told the Albany Times Union in 2012.

Despite vocal critics, NXIVM has collected a number of high-profile backers. Stephen Cooper, then acting chief executive of Enron, was involved with the group, as was Emiliano Salinas, the son of a former president of Mexico, according to Forbes. In recent court documents, the government has also alleged Clare Bronfman, the heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, is also one of Raniere’s main financial backers. She has not commented.

According to authorities, around 2015, a “secret society” was developed within NXIVM known as DOS. The members of DOS were pulled from NXIVM followers struggling to rise within the larger organization’s framework.

Followers of the women-only society were recruited by existing DOS members. Prospective members were told they needed to provide “collateral” as a sign of their devotion and to ensure they would keep what they learned secret. According to the federal complaint, collateral meant “sexually explicit photographs,” videos of prospective members telling “damning stories (true or untrue) about themselves, close friends and/or family members,” or letters outlining such allegations.

“DOS operates as a pyramid with levels of ‘slaves’ headed by ‘masters,’ ” the complaint states. “Slaves are expected to recruit slaves of their own (thus becoming masters themselves), who in turn owe services not only to their own masters but also to masters over them in the DOS pyramid.”

These tasks allegedly force a slave to act as “personal assistants to the masters — bringing them coffee, buying them groceries, making them lunch, carrying their luggage, cleaning their houses and retrieving lost items for them.” But the demands also call for more extreme behavior, such as ice-cold showers, standing for an hour at 4 a.m., and performing physically excruciating plank exercises, according to authorities.

Some tasks were allegedly geared toward making the women more sexually appealing to the master. “For example, Raniere is known to sexually prefer women who are exceptionally thin, and a number of the slaves’ assignments required them to adhere to extremely low-calorie diets and to document every food they ate,” the court documents say.

DOS members engaged in sex with Raniere out of fear of having their “collateral” exposed, the government alleges.

The most graphic allegation in the federal complaint relates to branding.

According to authorities, members of the DOS were burned with a cauterizing pen on their pubic regions. The women were required to strip fully naked, then held down by other members while the branding was done, authorities say. The “ceremony” was allegedly filmed. The symbol burned into the skin was said to represent the “four elements”; authorities, however, point out the symbol actually “consisted of Raniere’s initials.”

Last October, the New York Times published an investigation on NXIVM based on the testimony of defectors. The article included reporting on the branding ceremonies. According to documents filed with the court this week, shortly after the publication, the government began interviewing witnesses and victims. In November 2017, Raniere fled to Mexico, according to authorities.

It took American and Mexican law enforcement a month and a half to track him to Puerto Vallarta.

In his statement on the NXIVM website, Raniere pointed out the allegations were related to a “sorority” that “is not part of NXIVM.”

“I am not associated with the group. I firmly support one’s right to freedom of expression, so what the sorority or any other social group chooses to do is not our business so long as there is no abuse.”

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