Nxivm Trial: Leader Convicted After Trial Exposed Sex Cult’s Sordid Inner Workings

Keith Raniere set up a harem of sexual “slaves” who were branded with his initials and kept in line by blackmail.

The New York Times/June 19, 2019

By Colin Moynihan

He was a con man who stole money and created a harem of sexual “slaves,” branded with his initials and kept in line with blackmail, prosecutors said. But he claimed he was only helping his followers reach personal fulfillment by breaking down emotional barriers.

On Thursday, jurors in Federal District Court in Brooklyn sided with prosecutors. They found Keith Raniere, the leader of the cultlike group near Albany known as Nxivm, guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking, ending a six-week trial that exposed the sordid inner workings of his organization.

Mr. Raniere attracted high-profile followers, among them the “Smallville” actress Allison Mack and Clare Bronfman, a heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, who helped finance its activities.

Much of the trial focused on a secret sorority within Nxivm called The Vow or D.O.S., in which women were branded, asked to adhere to starvation diets, and assigned to have sex with Mr. Raniere.

As proof of their commitment to his teachings, the women handed over nude photographs and signed letters containing embarrassing secrets, which were then used to compel them to follow orders, prosecutors said.

“With his inner circle, he was the ruler in his universe,” a prosecutor, Moira Penza, told jurors during her closing statement. “A crime boss with no limits and no checks on his power.”

One of Mr. Raniere’s lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, countered by telling jurors although Mr. Raniere was involved in sexual activities that might seem “repulsive, disgusting and offensive,” that did not make him a criminal.

“You might find a lot of things about him distasteful,” Mr. Agnifilo said. “But most of them aren’t part of the charges.”

Mr. Raniere, 58, had been indicted on crimes including racketeering conspiracy, sex trafficking, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud, identity theft and possession of child pornography. Five women with senior roles in the group, including Ms. Mack and Ms. Bronfman, pleaded guilty to various crimes before trial.

Beyond exploiting women for sex, prosecutors said Mr. Raniere enriched himself through fraud, the government said. For instance, the group charged more than $100,000 to the credit card of a senior Nxivm member after her death and wrote checks totaling more than $300,000 on her bank account, Ms. Penza said.

The trial was conducted under the sort of security that is usually associated with terrorists and drug lords. The jurors, whose names were withheld, were brought to and from court in vans driven by United States marshals.

The evidence included seized documents, email messages, audio recordings and testimony from more than a dozen people, including women who had been former “slaves.”

Inside Nxivm, the ‘Sex Cult’ That Preached EmpowermentMay 30, 2018

The witnesses offered a chilling and sometimes surreal glimpse of daily life inside the highly secretive group, where Mr. Raniere was revered and appeared to exercise broad power.

Nxivm members thronged to late-night volleyball games in which he was a participant, eager to catch a glimpse of him and pay their respects. His birthday, in late August, was marked by several days of celebration called V-Week at a rustic retreat near Lake George in upstate New York.

High-ranking members of Mr. Raniere’s organization hacked into computer accounts and paid private investigators in an effort to obtain person information on perceived enemies including Senator Chuck Schumer and the liquor magnate Edgar Bronfman Sr., whose two daughters became members of Nxivm, evidence showed.

In one recorded conversation with Ms. Mack, the actress who was also a member of D.O.S., Mr. Raniere meticulously planned branding ceremonies to resemble a “sacrifice,” asking at one point: “Do you think the person who is being branded should be completely nude?”

One woman, Lauren Salzman, whose mother, Nancy Salzman, had started Nxivm with Mr. Raniere in the 1990s, described the excruciating experience of being branded as a member of the secret sorority.

As part of the ritual, she was asked to kneel and say, “Master, please brand me. It would be an honor, an honor I want to wear the rest of my life.” Then she said she was held down while another woman used a cauterizing pen to etch Mr. Raniere’s initials near her pelvis.

“It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced,” she said.

Ms. Salzman said the women in D.O.S. were subjected to sadistic punishments, including being whipped with a leather strap or being asked to stand barefoot in the snow.

Another former D.O.S. member, identified only as Nicole, described how Mr. Raniere took her to a house, told her to disrobe, blindfolded her then tied her down to a table. He then walked around the table asking her questions about her sexual history while another person performed oral sex on her, she said.

Yet amid the disturbing testimony about bondage and branding, Mr. Raniere and several high-ranking members sometimes seemed like characters in an extra-conspiratorial version of the film “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” a 1971 comedy about a ludicrously incompetent gang.

Mr. Raniere confided to a top lieutenant that his high IQ and problem-solving ability made him the target of a government plot that rose to the “highest levels,” according to testimony.

One former member of his circle, Mark Vicente, acknowledged under cross-examination that Mr. Raniere teased him because of his previous involvement with an Oregon-based group whose members believed that their leader was channeling a 35,000-year-old warrior.

And Ms. Bronfman, the head of Nxivm’s legal department, paid private investigators more than $400,000 for bogus reports purporting to have the private information about people who Mr. Raniere believed were out to “destroy” Nxivm.

Still, there can be little doubt that some of those who joined Nxivm ended up deeply scarred.

One woman, identified in court only as Daniela, testified that all six members of her family moved to New York State from Mexico to become part of the group. Before long, she said, Mr. Raniere started sexual relationships with her, her older sister, Marianna, and her underage sister, Camila.

But when she told Mr. Raniere that she was attracted to another man, he directed that she be confined inside a room for nearly two years, convincing her family that she needed to be punished because she was “prideful.” In the end, her father and another Nxivm member took pity and drove her to the Mexican border.

On the stand, Daniel testified that she had reconciled with her mother and her brother but her father and sisters may still be associated with Nxivm.

“They were close as a family when they came to us,” testified Lauren Salzman, who was a member of the inner circle. “And those relationships were incredibly severed.”

Mr. Raniere co-founded Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) with Nancy Salzman in the 1990s as a self-help organization, offering courses that purported to bring about greater self-fulfillment through breaking down psychological and emotional barriers.

Eventually the classes — with names like named Rules and Rituals, Civilization and Human Pain — were taught in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and attracted high-profile devotees like Ms. Mack, Ms. Bronfman and Emiliano Salinas, whose father had been president of Mexico. More than 16,000 people took courses.

Nxivm members had titles like coach, proctor and counselor, which were denoted by yellow, orange and blue sashes. They rose through the ranks — or the “stripe path” in Nxivm-speak — as they recruited new students.

Participants in classes bowed, exchanged special handshakes, huddled together like a football team, recited a 12-point “mission statement” written by Mr. Raniere, and said in unison “Thank you, Vanguard.”

Mr. Vicente, who eventually confronted and parted ways with Mr. Raniere, said parts of the Nxivm curriculum were meant to change how students thought, adding that they “played with our moral compass.”

Lauren Salzman, who pleaded guilty after being indicted along with Mr. Raniere, said some courses were meant to create “an army of people to insulate and protect Keith and his views.”

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