Raniere stands alone

NXIVM leader is the lone remaining defendant in the federal case

Albany Times-Union/May 4, 2019

By Brendan J. Lyons

Brooklyn -- The details of Keith Raniere's shadowy reign as the leader of NXIVM, which has for years withstood allegations that it was a cult-like criminal enterprise, are expected to be fully revealed at his federal criminal trial scheduled to begin Tuesday in Brooklyn.

Raniere, long known to his followers as "Vanguard," has for more than two decades been a captivating figure after founding the Capital Region-based organization that amassed thousands of followers and pledged to help "humanity rise to its noble possibility."

But behind the programs that promised executive success and self-empowerment, Raniere's penchant for manipulating those who believed in him, especially the many women who would become his sexual partners, would lead to last year's collapse of NXIVM.

"Keith has caused immeasurable pain spanning decades," said Catherine Oxenberg, the "Dynasty" star whose daughter, India, was pulled into NXIVM and eventually branded with Raniere's initials. "He has systematically abused and subjugated women. On the other hand, this trial represents closure and vindication for many victims who suffered at his hands. Justice (is) being served."

Numerous NXIVM defectors have for years held that members of Raniere's clannish inner circle had engaged with him in various crimes to silence critics and further his pyramid-structured businesses through a pattern of extortion, computer hacking, money laundering, tax evasion, identity theft and various other forms of fraud, as well as kidnapping plots.

Those co-defendants have all pleaded guilty, including NXIVM President Nancy L. Salzman, television actress Allison Mack and Clare Bronfman, the organization's longtime operations director and an heiress to the Seagram's liquor company fortune.
But there has been no plea offer for the 58-year-old Raniere, according to a person close to the case. He faces a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison if convicted on the sex-trafficking charges listed in the indictment.

It was those allegations that in 2017 triggered the unraveling of Raniere's tightly controlled organization. That summer, Frank Parlato — a Buffalo blogger who had once been NXIVM's publicist but was now its enemy — began posting photographs and stories of women who had been branded with Raniere's initials as part of their involvement in an ultra-secretive "slave-master" club that cast itself as a women's empowerment group.

The stories stunned even longstanding devotees of NXIVM, including Salzman, whose 42-year-old daughter, Lauren, also became a co-defendant and pleaded guilty last month to crimes related to her role in the secret club.

Raniere had long been known to have a harem of girlfriends — he is alleged to have had sexual relations with his five female co-defendants — and it was revealed recently during the selection of his trial jury that he casually used abortions to deal with unplanned pregnancies.

But the disturbing allegations of branded women, some who were also coerced to have sex with Raniere, led to a series of defections by some of the organization's notable followers, including Vancouver actress Sarah Edmondson, who was among the women branded, and Los Angeles film producer Mark Vicente.

In October 2017, Parlato's accounts of the branding ceremonies became the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times. The article drew the attention of the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn, which assembled a task force and began interviewing people who had been involved with NXIVM for years.

The C student

Raniere had for decades lived in a townhouse community in Halfmoon, Saratoga County, close to NXIVM's headquarters in Colonie. He had a group of women who lived nearby and were nearly all his sexual partners at various times as they helped run his organization.

He told his followers he had been a youth judo champion and had one of the world's highest IQs. He also claimed to have excelled while earning three degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute after finishing high school at age 16.

Federal prosecutors have broken down many of Raniere's claims and exaggerations in blunt court filings aided by information gleaned through grand jury subpoenas. At RPI in Troy, they said, "he graduated with a 2.26 GPA, having failed or barely passed many of the upper-level math and science classes he bragged about taking."

They also laid bare his "decades' long history of abusing women and young girls," noting that he "had repeated sexual encounters with multiple teenage girls in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s."

Those earlier criminal allegations, however, were outside the reach of federal criminal statutes.

But the racketeering acts filed against Raniere include charges he sexually exploited a 15-year-old Mexican girl in 2015, including photographing her naked body in explicit poses. The photographs, now in the possession of the U.S. Justice Department, constitute child pornography, prosecutors allege.

Although Raniere was idolized by many of his followers — especially women — federal prosecutors describe him as a master con man who physically assaulted at least two of his "intimate partners" and once encouraged a woman to run headfirst into a tree and to drink from a puddle.

In a letter to the court requesting that Raniere be held in custody without bond after his March 2018 arrest in Mexico, the U.S. attorney's office wrote that Raniere presented himself as a "renunciate" who led an almost monkish existence.

"In reality, however, he has spent his life profiting from his pyramid schemes and has otherwise received financial backing from independently wealthy women," they wrote.

The judge granted the prosecutor's request: Raniere has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn since last year awaiting trial.

He led a reclusive lifestyle — never driving, holding no bank accounts in his name — and conducted many social activities after sunset, including meetings with women, long walks, workouts at 24-hour gyms and late-night volleyball games that were popular with his NXIVM associates.

The women Raniere groomed as sexual partners were often directed by him to adhere to strict, low-calorie diets that left them rail-thin and weakened. Although prosecutors have not detailed their theory on his penchant for frail-looking women, they have juxtaposed that information in court papers with his alleged sexual abuse of adolescent girls.

Deaf ears

Through the years, Raniere hired professional publicists and others to help him counter negative news coverage, especially stories that cited experts who described NXIVM as cult-like.

In 2012, a deep account of NXIVM's troubling activities was offered in an award-winning Times Union series. The stories exposed Raniere's alleged sexual abuse of young girls, cited an expert who called NXIVM an "extreme cult," and detailed how the organization used Bronfman's money and high-paid attorneys to punish its critics with relentless litigation.

Inside NXIVM, where Raniere and his confidantes were keenly aware of the issues being investigated by the Times Union for more than a year, he had convinced his followers that the information was fabricated. When the series was published, there was little fallout within NXIVM; many longtime devotees said they never even read the stories.

Despite these revelations, the U.S. attorney's office in Albany and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies continued for years to brush aside new criminal allegations against Raniere and his organization that were brought to them by various NXIVM defectors.

Now, even as Raniere's trial is set to begin, the investigation by the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of New York is ongoing. Federal law enforcement agencies are continuing their interviews and sifting thousands of digital records seized from computers, cellphones and other electronic devices that had been kept at Saratoga County residences used by Salzman and Raniere, as well as storage lockers rented by Bronfman.

Raniere also faces a potential second federal criminal trial in Albany.

Two months ago, at the government's request, U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis dismissed four counts of the superseding indictment filed against Raniere in Brooklyn. Raniere's defense attorneys argued that those crimes — sexual exploitation of a child, possession of child pornography and conspiracy to commit identity theft — are alleged to have taken place in New York's Northern District.

The U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn didn't fight the argument, agreed to the dismissal of those charges and referred them to the U.S. attorney's office in Albany, which has said it is reviewing the matter. If additional criminal findings are unearthed in the ongoing investigation, it's possible Raniere could face more charges in the Northern District, according to a person briefed on the case.

In tatters

It remains unclear whether Raniere will testify at his trial.

The government's witness list includes Edmondson, Vicente and Lauren Salzman. They may also call Kristen Keeffe, who was NXIVM's "legal liaison" before she slipped away from Raniere with her young son in 2014. Keeffe subsequently provided details about NXIVM's alleged multitude of criminal acts to law enforcement authorities and has been prepped to testify by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn.

Beyond the charged acts of sex trafficking, forced labor and child exploitation, the indictment describes NXIVM as having been run as a type of pyramid scheme in which its leaders convinced "associates and others to take expensive NXIVM courses, and incur debt to do so, as a means of exerting control over them and to obtain financial benefits for the members of the enterprise."

The federal criminal case was a crippling blow to an organization that took shape in the Capital Region in the late 1990s. Under the direction of Raniere and Salzman, who had touted NXIVM's training courses as a way for participants to improve their lives, the organization quietly built a following that included actors as well as wealthy and politically powerful people from around the globe.

Although NXIVM still exists on paper, its operations, including offices in Vancouver, Los Angeles and Mexico, have been suspended, and many of its followers have scattered.

Last week, the federal judge presiding at Raniere's trial struck down his pre-trial motions seeking a dismissal of the charges he faces. The judge also denied Raniere's request to block the government from having psychological experts testify about the cult-like traits of NXIVM.

As his trial begins, Raniere will enter a courtroom that is expected to be filled with some of the people who have alleged he destroyed their lives.

Oxenberg, who wrote a book about her years-long fight to rescue her daughter from Raniere's clutches, will be among those attending.

"I won't pretend I am not tired. My fight to expose the criminal and dangerous aspects of NXIVM and to get my daughter back have taken a toll," she said in an email. "But it has all been worth it. India is back home, women are no longer being branded with Keith Raniere's initials, or forced to have sex with him and best of all, the self-appointed guru Vanguard is in jail, where he belongs."

The witnesses

The list of people who could be called to testify at Keith Raniere's criminal trial includes many members of his now shattered inner circle; the following descriptions are based on Times Union reporting and court documents:

Lauren R. Salzman

Salzman, 42, of Halfmoon, is an admitted co-conspirator to Keith Raniere and signed a cooperation agreement when she pleaded guilty in March. She played an integral role in Raniere's alleged efforts to seduce and coerce women into having sex with him. Salzman also was heavily involved in the secret "slave-master" club in which women were branded with the initials of Raniere and Allison Mack.

Legal experts observing the NXIVM case said it's possible that all of Raniere's other co-defendants — including Mack, Clare Bronfman, Nancy Salzman and Kathy Russell — may also be subpoenaed to testify.

Mark A. Vicente

Vicente was a longtime NXIVM member and co-owner of the organization's Executive Success Program (ESP) organization, which was based in Vancouver. The 53-year-old was among several high-ranking members of NXIVM who defected from the organization beginning in the summer of 2017 and turned on Raniere.

Vicente, whose assistant Jennifer Kobelt had been subjected to bizarre and unsanctioned "brain studies" by a longtime NXIVM physician, Dr. Brandon Porter, confronted Raniere in 2017 and pressed him about why so many women in the organization were emaciated and being directed to follow potentially life-threatening diet regimens. 

Kristen M. Keeffe

Keeffe, 49, had alleged years ago that NXIVM officials had engaged in money laundering, computer hacking of enemies, kidnapping and conspiracy plots. In NXIVM's years-long legal battle against cult tracker Rick Ross, Keeffe served as the liaison with a company, Interfor, that had been hired to dig up information on Ross.

In 2007, Keeffe was allowed access to the office of Albany County District Attorney David Soares as she served as a "victim's advocate" for NXIVM, which was pressing the prosecution of NXIVM foe Joseph J. O'Hara. In 2007, at NXIVM's urging, O'Hara was indicted in Albany County but a judge later dismissed the case. Despite the urging of NXIVM officials, Soares' office declined to seek a new indictment.

James G. Loperfido

Loperfido is a former NXIVM accountant and associate of O'Hara. He is identified in the federal criminal case as "John Doe 1."

Loperfido, 67, of Cayuga County, did accounting work for NXIVM in the early 2000s. Federal prosecutors have accused NXIVM officials of conspiring to place a "key-logger" on Loperfido's computer "so that his email address and password could be obtained and his emails monitored." 

Sarah Edmondson

Edmondson is a Canadian actress and had been the driving force behind NXIVM's Vancouver operation before defecting in 2017. She was one of at least 20 women associated with NXIVM who were lured into a secret "slave-master" club founded by Raniere.

The 41-year-old Edmondson and another woman involved with NXIVM told the Times Union in 2017 that they were brought into the club and subsequently branded by Dr. Danielle Roberts, a NXIVM associate. Edmondson filed a formal complaint against Roberts with the New York state Health Department.

Initially told it would be a "tattoo," Edmondson said she learned weeks later that the brand, which she was misinformed is a Latin symbol for "the elements," was actually composed of the initials of Raniere and Mack, whom Edmondson's complaint identified as having "started" the secret women's group with Raniere. 

Karen A. Unterreiner

Unterreiner  lived for years in a townhouse next to Raniere's on Flintlock Lane in Halfmoon. She is a NXIVM devotee who was Raniere's caretaker and one of his many girlfriends.

The 60-year-old Unterreiner had worked for Raniere at Consumers' Buyline, Inc., which Raniere founded in 1990 in Clifton Park. CBI was forced to close in 1997 under an agreement with the state attorney general's office, which alleged it was being operated as a pyramid scheme. That structure became a model for NXIVM.

Unterreiner has never been mentioned in the federal criminal case, but NXIVM insiders said she was a close confidante of Raniere's.

Jane Doe 4

Jane Doe 4 is a Mexican woman who, as a teenager, was brought into the United States illegally with Raniere's help and was allegedly groomed to become his sexual partner when she reached the age of 18. When she rebuffed him, and revealed her romantic interest in another man, Raniere and his co-conspirators, including Lauren Salzman, allegedly confined her to a room at a Halfmoon residence for 23 months.

Jane Doe 4 received no medical care and had very limited human contact during her confinement in the room. She was threatened that if she left the room she would be returned to Mexico without her identification documents. Eventually, she did leave the room and was driven to the Mexican border and ordered to complete tasks for Raniere — including tedious book reports — under the threat of not being given her birth certificate.

Her sister, referred to in court documents as Jane Doe 2, is alleged to have been sexually exploited by Raniere when she was 15. The alleged exploitation included him taking naked photographs of her.

The Times Union is withholding the names of Jane Does 2 and 4, in part, because they are alleged to be victims of sexual exploitation.

The defendents

Keith Raniere is the lone remaining defendant in the federal case brought against NXIVM's leadership. The five women who have pleaded guilty include some of his closest associates.

Clare W. Bronfman

Bronfman, 40, is a NXIVM board member and the corporation's operations director. An heiress of the Seagram's liquor company fortune, Bronfman and her sister, Sara, joined NXIVM in the early 2000s and have given tens of millions of dollars to support the organization.

Bronfman has long been one of NXIVM co-founder Keith Raniere's closest confidantes. She gave him a one-third interest in a private island she purchased in Fiji and publicly defended Raniere in 2017 when his creation of a secret "slave-master" club within NXIVM was exposed. She also funded a trust with at least $5 million to pay for the legal costs of her co-defendants, including Raniere.

Bronfman was indicted last year on charges of identity theft, money laundering and visa fraud. On April 19, she pleaded guilty to two felonies: conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification.

In 2016, after the death of Pamela Cafritz, who had been one of Raniere's many girlfriends, Raniere continued to use her credit card as well as a bank account that held $8 million. Although Raniere had been designated as the administrator of her estate, prosecutors allege he had no right to use her credit card after her death. They said that it may have been done to conceal his access to money — and to evade paying taxes — and that Bronfman assisted him, which was the basis of her identity theft conviction.

Bronfman faces between 21 and 27 months in prison at her sentencing on Sept. 25, and agreed to forfeit $6 million. At her sentencing, she may also be required to provide restitution to any alleged victims of her crimes. The federal judge is not obligated to follow the sentencing guidelines and could sentence Bronfman to more or less time based on factors such as her acceptance of responsibility and a lack of any criminal history.

"I endeavored to do good in the world and to help people; however, I have made mistakes," Bronfman said when pleading guilty. "This experience has taught me the gravity of my responsibility, and I will take these lessons forward in every future decision."

Nancy L. Salzman 

Salzman co-founded NXIVM and its Executive Success Programs with Raniere. On March 13, she was the first of six defendants in the federal criminal case to plead guilty. For her guilty plea to one count of racketeering conspiracy, Salzman faces a potential sentence of between 33 and 41 months in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

Her guilty plea marked the unraveling of Raniere's inner circle and the breakup of a close relationship she and Raniere had since they met in the mid-1990s.

Salzman, 64, is a registered nurse and president of NXIVM. FBI agents seized more than $520,000 in cash during a raid of Salzman's Saratoga County residence in March 2018, along with a trove of records and computer devices that have been sifted for evidence of criminal activity.

"I still believe that some of what we did was good," Salzman said when pleading guilty. "The problem began when I compromised my principles and did things which I knew or should have known were wrong."

Lauren R. Salzman

With her mother at the helm of NXIVM, 42-year-old Lauren Salzman had long been one of Keith Raniere's most loyal female companions. Inside Raniere's sexually fueled lifestyle, she played a key role in facilitating his access to women. She also admitted helping keep a Mexican girl against her will in a Halfmoon residence for nearly two years — because the then-teenager had shown affection for a man other than Raniere.

Salzman was with Raniere, 58, when he was arrested at a Mexican resort in March 2018. She  had allegedly tried to help hide him from the Mexican federal police officers who took him into custody and turned him over to U.S. law enforcement authorities.

When she pleaded guilty on March 25, Salzman also admitted that she had recruited women into a secret slave-master club founded by Raniere and had threatened to release damaging information about those women if they did not perform tasks or tried to leave the group. Prosecutors have said some of the women were induced to have sex with Raniere and were branded with a design that included his initials as well as those of Allison Mack.

The pre-branding ceremonies often took place at Salzman's Lape Road residence in Halfmoon.

Salzman, who like all of her co-defendants had sexual relations with Raniere at one time, has signed a cooperation agreement and is expected to testify at his trial.

"Over the years, through my association with NXIVM, I formed many relationships with members of this organization," she said when pleading guilty. "Through these associations, I truly believed that I was helping to empower people to live their (best) lives. However, I and others engaged in criminal conduct, which I blindly followed and rationalized as furthering the underlying principles in which (NXIVM) was formed." 

Allison Mack

Former television actress Allison Mack was recruited into NXIVM through the corporation's Vancouver, Canada, branch in 2010. She joined the organization with fellow actress Kristen Kreuk, when both women had starring roles in the television series "Smallville."

When she pleaded guilty on April 9, Mack admitted to two criminal acts: extortion and forced labor. Mack, 36, admitted using threats to force women to join a secret slave-master club founded by Raniere, and also to forcing a woman — identified in court papers as Jane Doe 6 — to perform "labor" under threat of force and physical restraint.

Mack came to be one of Raniere's closest female companions within NXIVM. Like Lauren Salzman, she was with Raniere in Mexico when he was arrested in March 2018. She is scheduled to be sentenced in September and could face several years in prison.

Mack had an integral role in helping Raniere organize a secret slave-master club within NXIVM in which women were branded with a design that included the initials of Raniere and Mack.

Federal court records indicate emails seized from Raniere's private messaging accounts "support the conclusion that Raniere created" the club, which was known as "Dominus Obsequious Sororium," which means "Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions."

The women in the group, according to the federal complaint, were lured into the club by other female NXIVM members, including Mack, who considered Raniere her "grand master," and were required to provide "collateral" in order to join. If they tried to leave, they were threatened that their collateral —sometimes damaging information about family members or close-up photographs of their genitalia — would be released.

Mack had also aided Rainere in other alleged crimes. Federal prosecutors said she entered into a sham marriage with a female co-conspirator and fellow first-line DOS “slave”— although both women were in heterosexual intimate relationships with Raniere — so that the co-conspirator, a Canadian national, could remain in the United States.

Kathy L. Russell

Kathy L. Russell, 61, got involved with Raniere's organization in 2002 and later became a bookkeeper for NXIVM.

She was accused of falsifying identity documents to help smuggle a Mexican woman across the Canadian border, and of facilitating the installation of a "key-logger" device on the computer of a NXIVM accountant, Joseph Loperfido, to monitor his emails.

She pleaded to a single count of visa fraud related to a letter she wrote that included bogus data about a NXIVM associate, Loreta Garza.

Russell could be sentenced to between six and 12 months in prison at her sentencing scheduled for July 31. The judge is not bound by the guidelines and could sentence Russell to less or no prison time.

At Raniere's upcoming trial, the government said it will prove that between 2011 and 2018 Russell followed Raniere's instructions to use an assumed name to lease a Clifton Park residence that was used to house a DOS “slave” who was not legally in the United States.

Although it was not included in her plea agreement, Russell also was accused of conspiring to hack email accounts and of taking steps to help NXIVM evade taxes.

"These schemes involved elaborate corporate structures designed to keep money out of Raniere’s name, even though he had access to and control of the funds," federal prosecutors allege. "Russell frequently orchestrated loans between and among NXIVM-affiliated entities after being advised that what she was doing was improper."

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