Nxivm Trial: Sex Cult Leader Confined Woman in a Room for 2 Years in Jealous Rage

In four days of testimony, a young undocumented woman from Mexico testified that the leader of the group, Keith Raniere, punished her for being attracted to someone else.

The New York Times/May 30, 2019

By Colin Moynihan

For almost two years the young woman lived inside a single room with a thin foam pad as her only furniture and a cheap pen as her only tool of communication.

She had been consigned there by Keith Raniere, the leader of the cultlike group Nxivm, she said. Mr. Raniere told others her solitude was meant to cure her of the sin of excessive pride. But the woman, Daniela, said he had ordered her confinement as punishment for her romantic interest in another man.

Over the many months in the room, the woman sought forgiveness in hundreds of notes to Mr. Raniere, she testified in his racketeering and sex trafficking trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.

“Today I feel that inside this room I’m in a kind of trance,” she wrote to him in a letter dated Oct. 5, 2010. “Being in here is simply insane.”

In four days of testimony spread over two weeks, Daniela, who was identified in court only by her first name, recounted her rise and fall within Nxivm. Her status was dictated, she said, by whether she was sexually available to Mr. Raniere. Eventually, even her parents were enlisted to help punish her.

Her trajectory illustrated the extreme control Mr. Raniere had over Nxivm members and his ability to dictate social standing within the group, as well as his apparent willingness to retaliate against those who defied him.

Daniela painted a bleak portrait of her life in the room, which was on the top floor of a home near Albany that her parents had rented. Although the door was unlocked, Daniela was told that if she left without permission, she would be cut off from her parents, brother and two sisters.

While confined, she wore the same clothes for weeks at a time. Meals were left outside the door. The only person she was allowed to see was a senior Nxivm member assigned by Mr. Raniere to help Daniela repair what he called an “ethical breach.” She said she said she felt she was losing her grip on reality.

“It was harder and harder to keep the darkness at bay,” she testified.

At the start of his cross-examination on Thursday, one of Mr. Raniere’s lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, appeared to question Daniela’s credibility, asking about how she once deceived border patrol agents while entering the United States illegally. He also asked about how she had later obtained a fake identification card for a sister to use while traveling.

Daniela had grown up in a small town in central Mexico and at age 16 had given up a scholarship to a school in Switzerland to move to upstate New York in 2002 and become a member of Nxivm.

Though she had dreamed of going to Harvard and becoming a scientist, she became enthralled by stories she heard about Mr. Raniere.

Mr. Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced nex-ee-um) in the 1990s as a self-help organization based near Albany. He is now on trial on charges of racketeering conspiracy, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking.

His followers regarded him as a guru-like expert on ethics. Yet witnesses in the trial have described how he exploited Nxivm members and had sexual relationships with multiple women who he insisted be intimate only with him.

They included Daniela, her older sister, Marianna, and younger sister, Camila, who Daniela said had sex with Mr. Raniere when she was 16.

Daniela’s first sexual encounter with Mr. Raniere occurred soon after she turned 18 on a dirty mattress with “raggy used sheets” inside a dimly lit office, she testified. As a result, her world changed.

She received entree to a house in Clifton Park, N.Y., where she said Mr. Raniere lived. “Sex meant access when it came to Keith,” she said.

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For about two years, Daniela said, she spent much of her time around Mr. Raniere, having sexual encounters with him that she described as “very robotic and mechanical.”

Once, after she was stopped from entering the country as she was returning from a visit to Mexico, she said, Mr. Raniere arranged for her to enter illegally through Canada. From that point, she suggested Mr. Raniere had additional power over her.

“I was without a doubt a captive from a moment I was illegal in the country,” Daniela said. “As time progressed it was clear to me I could not leave.”

Mr. Raniere and upper level members of Nxivm trusted her to be present for even the most sensitive discussions, including some that involved illegal activity, like hacking into email accounts, she testified, adding that she took part in that effort.

In 2006 when she was in her early 20s, Daniela said, she got pregnant. She said her sexual relationship with Mr. Raniere was secret so he arranged for another Nxivm member to go with her to get an abortion.

Later that year, she said her relationship with Mr. Raniere, who was then in his mid-40s, deteriorated when she told him that she was attracted to a man closer to her age. Daniela described to Mr. Raniere the thrill she had felt while in the company of the young man, Ben Meyers.

Mr. Raniere became red-faced and enraged, Daniela testified, saying she was no longer “pure.” She said Mr. Raniere locked himself inside a bathroom to escape her attempts to talk to him. When he emerged, he hurled her onto a mattress before walking away.

After that, she testified, her status within Nxivm changed once again.

Although she never spoke again with Mr. Raniere, Daniela said, they exchanged several thousand emails over the next three years. In many of them, Mr. Raniere asked about her relationship with Mr. Meyers.

She stayed in contact, Daniela testified, because she was making a genuine effort to reconcile with Mr. Raniere, who she still believed was “a great man” who cared about her welfare.

But she also continued the communications, she said, because her illegal status made her vulnerable.

Eventually, Daniela said, even her parents, who had moved from Mexico to New York to take part in Nxivm activities, helped discipline her.

Because her sexual relationship with Mr. Raniere had been secret, she said, she did not feel that she could explain to her parents that his anger had been sparked by her interest in another man.

During a recorded conversation with Daniela’s mother that prosecutors played in court, Mr. Raniere described Daniela as a “very spoiled and very manipulative” person who had damaged people in “dishonorable ways” and should be subject to a form of “boot camp.”

“If I were Dani’s parent and she were going back to Mexico I would make her choose between doing the right thing and staying here or losing communication with me,” he said, adding that there should be “severe sanctions” if Daniela left without atoning for her misdeeds.

Her computer and phone were seized, she said, along with important documents including her birth certificate, the bogus identification she had used to cross into the United States from Canada and the results of an ultrasound she had before her clandestine abortion

“My world closed in on me,” she testified. “Every single degree of freedom I had, I lost.”

Eventually, she was sent to live in the room, where she spent nearly two years.

Her confinement came to an end in 2012, Daniela testified, when she left the room and the house and tried to confront Mr. Raniere. Soon after that, she said she was driven to the Mexican border by her father and a high-ranking Nxivm member.

Testifying this week she recalled that one of the more chilling moments of her time in the room was on a day when she sneaked out and went to another part of the house and checked her email. To her horror, she had virtually no messages.

“Nobody had missed me,” she said. “I was gone from the world and nobody noticed.”

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