Nxivm Trial: Sex Cult’s ‘Grandmaster’ Was Seen as ‘Some Kind of God’

The racketeering trial of Keith Raniere has offered insight into how he was said to have controlled his many followers.

The New York Times/May 11, 2019

By Colin Moynihan

To his followers in the cultlike group Nxivm, Keith Raniere was known as Vanguard, or sometimes Master or Grandmaster. Though they considered him the wisest person they had ever encountered, he called himself the Eternal Student and wore a long, white sash that could be interpreted as a sign of both superiority and humility.

To disagree with him was seen as a form of heresy or, in the parlance of his followers, a “breach” that would require penance. Those who could not right their wrongs were subject to shunning.

The racketeering trial of Mr. Raniere, who co-founded Nxivm in the 1990s in a suburb outside Albany, is just a few days old. But testimony from two former followers has already offered insight into how Mr. Raniere was said to have wielded influence and controlled his many followers.

Jurors in Federal District Court in Brooklyn have heard Mr. Raniere — who has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, forced labor, extortion and sex trafficking charges — described as a man of good intent, as a sexual predator who abused women and teenagers, and as a fantasist who saw himself at the center of a vast government conspiracy.

Whatever view one takes, it would seem to be impossible to overstate his power over people connected to Nxivm.

“I was awe-struck by the — kind of the — what I saw as this intellectual model,” a former Nxivm member, Mark Vicente, testified this week. “By the time you saw him, it was a little bit like you were seeing, you know, some kind of god.”

In court, Mr. Raniere himself has been largely impassive, taking notes with a yellow pencil or gazing at the witness stand while wearing glasses and a bulky sweater, his trial aesthetic more normcore than rock star.

He maintained that calm as a prosecutor said during opening arguments on Tuesday that some women who were part of an ultrasecret sect within Nxivm had been branded with his initials. One juror raised a hand to her mouth in apparent shock.

The prosecutor, Tanya Hajjar, went on to tell the jury that although Mr. Raniere had presented Nxivm as an organization that was meant to empower people, he was a “con man” interested only in controlling others, particularly women.

“He targeted people who were looking to improve their lives,” Ms. Hajjar said. “He drew them in slowly with promises of success, of money, of better relationships, and once he gained their trust, he exploited it.”

Mr. Raniere’s lawyer countered during his opening argument by describing his client as a man who had built a “happy family” of students and adherents. People joined the group to improve their lives, and to acquire discipline or a stronger code of ethics, said the lawyer, Marc Agnifilo.

If Mr. Raniere was sometimes hard on them, he said, it was only because that was something they had “signed up for.”

“Parts of this case you’re going to find are inconsistent with your own morality, and that’s O.K.,” Mr. Agnifilo told the jurors, adding: “I’m going to defend his intentions to my last breath in this courtroom. I’m going to defend his good faith.”

Statements and testimony during the week described what Mr. Vicente called at one point the “evil” hiding inside the group, showing the extent of the sway Mr. Raniere exerted over followers.

Ms. Hajjar told the jurors that Mr. Raniere began a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl and later was present when she performed oral sex on a woman who had been blindfolded and tied to a table.

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“The same girl the defendant robbed of her innocence and of her childhood became a woman he used to victimize others,” Ms. Hajjar said.

A witness who was identified in court only as Sylvie testified this week about an unwanted sexual encounter in which Mr. Raniere ordered her to lie on a bed, and then performed oral sex on her and photographed her.

“I thought that that was what I was tasked to do,” she said to explain why she followed Mr. Raniere’s instructions that day. “Go along with whatever happened.”

Mr. Vicente testified that Mr. Raniere was seen as the intellectual architect of Nxivm. Dozens of courses, for which participants paid thousands of dollars to attend, distilled his teachings.

He added that those programs — which included clapping, bowing and giving thanks in unison to Mr. Raniere — included Nxivm members wearing sashes to indicate rank: white for students, orange for proctors, green for senior proctors. Like the students, Mr. Raniere wore a white sash, but it was double theirs in length, as if to indicate his superior knowledge.

Sometimes new attendees who were deemed to be especially promising were granted an audience with Mr. Raniere.

Sylvie’s chance came during one of the many late-night volleyball games that were said to function as part athletic event and part celebrity stakeout, with Nxivm participants lingering near the net, waiting for Mr. Raniere to make a cameo and hoping to get a chance to speak with him.

At first glance, she said, Mr. Raniere hardly appeared to have the sort of charisma his titles within Nxivm might suggest.

“He was, like, a short, I thought, quite creepy-looking man” she said, adding that he “looked pretty normal compared to what the — normal compared to the Vanguard that he was supposed to be.”

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