NXIVM courtroom packed, emotional as jury hears final arguments

Trial of Keith Raniere draws former acolytes, handful of current supporters

Albany Times-Union/June 17, 2019

By Robert Gavin

New York — To federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, Keith Raniere's "master/slave" group enabled the NXIVM spiritual leader to clandestinely groom female sex slaves to be shaken down, starved and branded.

To Raniere's attorney, the group known as DOS was a "social club" and "strong medicine" that improved the spirits of a woman who had been considering suicide.

Jurors heard both arguments Monday as lawyers on both sides of the 58-year-old Raniere's case delivered their closing arguments in the trial, now in its seventh week in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

Raniere attorney Marc Agnifilo suggested the "master/slave" group in 2016 helped a 31-year-old former actress who joined DOS (Dominus Obsequious Sororium), which is Latin for for Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions.

The clan required its recruits be initiated in ceremonies where they were held down like a sacrifice. Another person burned Raniere's initials into their pelvic areas with a cauterizing pen.

A former "slave" testified, breaking down in tears, that she at one point met with Raniere, who blindfolded her, ordered her to disrobe, drove her to a home and tied her to a table where she was sexually violated by another woman. She was secretly videotaped.

Agnifilo, however, reminded the jury that the woman had expressed suicidal thoughts before she joined DOS and not afterward.

And he suggested DOS — while "not for everybody" — may have been just what she needed.

"Maybe it worked," Agnifilo said. "It's strong medicine but it has to be used in the right circumstances with the right people and the right time."

He downplayed testimony that Raniere, known as "Vanguard," used DOS as a means to force women to have sex with him. He suggested that high-profile DOS member Allison Mack, a former star of the television show "Smallville," went rogue in having herself and her slaves have sex with Raniere.

The woman — who is a former actress — had testified that Mack duped her into joining DOS under the false pretense it was a women's empowerment organization. The women were asked to provide "collateral" to join the organization in the form of damaging information about their family or naked photos but were told it would never be used. After joining the group, they learned the "collateral" could be used and that they would need to provide more damaging information each month, according to witnesses and prosecutors, who called it extortion.

The woman who testified against Raniere was in the courtroom and her eyes welled up at times during the closing argument of Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza. The prosecutor had described how the woman was victimized by Raniere, to whom she was not attracted. The prosecutor also described how the woman and other DOS slaves were forced to adhere to 500-calorie-a-day diets and ordered to respond to "readiness" drills at all hours of the night.

Agnifilo said the woman and Raniere had a "sweet, caring, casual relationship."

She wasn't there to hear it. She quickly left the courtroom when Agnifilo was about to begin his summation. So did former DOS "slave" India Oxenberg and her mother, Catherine Oxenberg, the former star of the 1980s drama "Dynasty."

The courtroom was packed with former DOS and ex-NXIVM members, including former NXIVM senior member Mark Vicente and his wife, Bonnie Piesse. Vicente was one of the first witnesses to testify.

A former DOS member and witness known as "Jay" was also present.

At one point in his summation, Agnifilo told the jury of eight men and four women not to get caught up in the word "cult," which prosecution witnesses have mentioned at times in the trial. Vicente testified the word was not used in NXIVM per Raniere's request.

NXIVM, a purported self-improvement organization, has for years been accused of being a cult by critics.

"I don't think (the word cult) helps you," Agnifilo told the jury. "I think that's kind of a dead end. I think you have to look at the content and not be swayed by that word."

Penza cast Raniere as a manipulative sexual predator and grifter who built an empire to attain money, power and sex.

"You saw him for what he was — a con man, a predator, a crime boss," Penza told jurors.

She began her closing statement to the jury describing the setting of the Knox Woods townhouse development in Halfmoon, where more than two dozen top NXIVM members, including Raniere, lived.

"Knox Woods — at first glance it looks like an ordinary subdivision in an ordinary suburb," Penza said. "It looks like the American dream. If you learned anything from this trial, it's that looks can be deceiving — and it's in the inside that counts."

Raniere, clad in a maroon sweater, wrote notes on a pad as the prosecution's summation went on.

Also in the courtroom were seven or eight current supporters of Raniere. None agreed to speak to the Times Union when approached outside the courthouse, where observers began to line up about 6 a.m. or earlier to get a seat.

Raniere faces a seven-count indictment that includes charges of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, sex trafficking and wire fraud conspiracy.

Penza, her voice hoarse at times, walked jurors through the underlying acts of the racketeering charges. The jury only needs to find Raniere committed two of the underlying acts to find him guilty of the charge.

The underlying acts include identity theft, identity theft fraud, trafficking, documented servitude, sex exploitation of a child and possession of child pornography.

The charges include allegations Raniere kept a woman in a room in a townhouse on Wilton Court for the better part of two years.

Agnifilo will continue his summation on Wednesday. The government will follow with a rebuttal. Jurors will deliberate following instructions from the judge.

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