NXIVM founder Keith Raniere convicted in sex cult case

The personal-growth guru who marketed his philosophy through the Albany-based group was convicted of all charges and faces possible life imprisonment.

Newsday/June 19, 2019

By John Riley

Keith Raniere, the personal-growth guru who promoted himself as one of the world’s smartest men and marketed his philosophy through the Albany-based group NXIVM, was convicted Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court of all charges stemming from his alleged operation of a sex cult that exploited women.

The verdict, after just four hours of deliberations, followed six weeks of X-rated testimony headlined by four women involved in a secret master-slave NXIVM subgroup that recruited women to be branded at ritualistic ceremonies and give up nude pictures and sex tapes, and made some “seduce” Raniere. 

Raniere, 58, founded NXIVM in the 1990s and sold courses to an estimated 17,000 students, but was accused of turning it into a personality cult that serviced his polyamorous lifestyle of sex with multiple partners, including at least one underage girl, and eventually creating the secret slave sect called DOS.

He now faces up to life in prison after being convicted of conspiracy, sex-trafficking, forced labor, wire fraud and leading a racketeering enterprise that fed him sexual opportunities, and engaging in acts ranging from identity theft and extortion to child pornography and tampering with evidence in a lawsuit.

Raniere, jailed since his arrest, did not visibly react as the foreman of the eight-man, four-woman jury read the guilty verdicts and the judge set sentencing for Sept. 25. But ex-NXIVM members gasped, cried and bowed their heads, later cheering prosecutors as they mingled with two documentary crews outside.

“I had to save a child who was caught in the grips of this cult,” actress Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter India was recruited into the slave group, told reporters. “Today was the end of my hellish nightmare.”

Toni Natalie, Raniere’s ex-girlfriend who was embroiled in litigation with him for years, said she wore a black-striped shirt to let him see his future in prison, and said she hoped he’d get the maximum. “He took a lot of people’s lives and he would have taken more people’s lives,” she said.

Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue called Raniere a “modern day Svengali” who would “finally see justice” as a result of the verdict. “Keith Raniere, who promoted himself as a savant and guru, was in fact a con man, a master manipulator and a crime boss,” he said.

Raniere’s lawyers said the verdict wasn’t unexpected and would be appealed, telling reporters Raniere had “regrets” but also felt the across-the-board convictions hadn’t been just, and describing him as a puzzling client whose “moral arithmetic” was hard to understand and get across in court.

“I have spent the better part of a year and a few months trying hard to understand Keith,” said defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo. “Keith is a complicated guy…. This has been a crash course in Keith. This has been a crash course in things that are very complicated.”

According to trial testimony, Raniere — despite his claimed brilliance — spent time on academic probation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before graduating with a mediocre GPA of 2.26, and before founding NXIVM he faced civil complaints that a multilevel marketing business he started was a pyramid scheme.

NXIVM, sold under the name Executive Success Programs as a course for aspiring leaders, peddled a philosophy Raniere called “rational inquiry” that ex-members eroded students’ “moral compass” by urging them to shed past beliefs and rethink values and reactions with help from NXIVM “coaches.”

Witnesses described different reasons — idealism, personal struggles — that attracted them to the group. It fostered community with social events like a weekly post-midnight volleyball game, and Raniere, known as “Vanguard,” celebrated his birthday at an annual Lake George group bash called “V-week.”

Sporting a beard and long hair, he compared himself to Einstein and Gandhi, ex-members said. Cult expert Rick Ross, a longtime critic, said NXIVM developed classic cultish traits — from near-worship of its leader, to vows of secrecy that isolated devotees, to an impenetrable, jargon-filled ideology.

Prosecutors last year indicted Raniere and five women who helped him run the organization — including one-time “Smallville” star Allison Mack, Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman and three others who have also pleaded guilty — for crimes involving sex and abuse of women, and efforts to protect NXIVM that included email hacking, forged ID cards and evidence tampering. 

Raniere, according to the testimony, had few male friends but managed an extended harem for years, carrying on relationships with multiple women and sharing a house with three while demanding that all his sex partners remain monogamous.

One witness, a Mexican woman named Daniela whose last name was withheld, said that she and two sisters became part of the NXIVM community in New York after her parents became enamored of Raniere’s philosophies, and all three sisters became sexual conquests for him.

She said she worked for NXIVM without significant pay for years, and after having sex at age 18 with Raniere became his sex servant. After showing interest in another man, Daniela said, Raniere and her family kept her in a room for nearly two years, under threat of being sent back to Mexico without papers or money.

Those events were the subject of forced labor and labor trafficking charges. Daniela also testified that her younger sister Camila began having sex with Raniere at 15, and prosecutors introduced records of her sexualized internet chats with Raniere. The child pornography charges involved nude photos of her.

According to testimony, Raniere formed DOS, the master-slave group, in 2015. Lauren Salzman, a top NXIVM official who pleaded guilty, said the inner circle was required to take smiling nude group pictures for him and planned a dungeon with cages and sex toys.

Three women, using only first names, testified they joined for female “mentoring,” but weren’t told Raniere was in charge or that embarrassing materials they turned over would be used as leverage to require branding and sex with him. One, an actress, said he strapped her to a table blindfolded and had another woman perform a sex act.

Their testimony was the basis of sex-trafficking, wire fraud and extortion charges. Raniere, according to his lawyer, saw sex with him as somehow therapeutic, and held no one prisoner. But a British woman named Sylvie, one of the ex-slaves who testified, told jurors manipulation wore her down.

"I felt like I couldn't trust myself in telling right from wrong," she testified.

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