A senior member of NXIVM told the FBI about blackmail and branding. The response? 'Nothing.'

Victims spoke to local FBI, but downstate office made case against Keith Raniere

Albany Times-Union/October 23, 2020

By Robert Gavin

Albany – When Sarah Edmondson told an FBI agent in Albany on May 30, 2017, that she and other women had been blackmailed and branded in a Saratoga County townhouse, and that more brandings of female "slaves" were expected to take place the following week, she thought it would lead to a raid.

Edmondson, the former head of the Vancouver office of the personal-growth company NXIVM, had just supplied the FBI with a blockbuster tip — the same information that would ultimately contribute to the conviction of NXIVM co-founder Keith Raniere, the guru known within the group as “Vanguard.”

There was no raid. As far as Edmondson knows, there wasn't even any follow-up. She was able to prevent some of the subsequent brandings by dissuading women she knew had been approached about taking part, but Edmondson believes a group of NXIVM members from Mexico went through the ritual in Halfmoon in the days that followed her visit to the FBI.

She had become the latest in a long line of whistleblowers who over the years begged law enforcement in the Capital Region to investigate Raniere only to be ignored — or, in some cases, to face criminal charges themselves.

Raniere was tried and convicted in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn, more than 150 miles from the suburban enclave where Edmondson was branded by a cauterizing tool with a symbol that included Raniere's initials. Now 60, Raniere will be sentenced Tuesday after his conviction on sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy and racketeering charges.

The lack of law enforcement response in the Capital Region continued long after 2012, when the Times Union published a series of articles about NXIXM that detailed Raniere’s alleged history of sexual abuse of underage women. Raniere's 2019 trial included testimony and evidence showing he kept pornographic images of a 15-year-old girl with whom he had a sexual relationship. Raniere also ordered that victim’s older sister to be confined to a room for nearly two years after she made the misstep of kissing another man.

As he faces a possible life sentence from Senior U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis, Raniere's crimes have generated books — including Edmondson's memoir "Scarred" — and dozens of hours of television coverage, including HBO's "The Vow," in which Edmondson is a primary source.

Edmondson spoke to the FBI agent at the bureau’s McCarty Avenue office for about an hour in May 2017. She told the agent everything she knew about Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), the secret group in which female “slaves” took lifetime vows of obedience to “masters” and handed over naked photos or embarrassing personal information, referred to within the group as "collateral," that could be released if they ever turned on the organization.

Complete Times Union coverage of NXIVM

Timeline of previous coverage of Keith Raniere and his organization

Edmondson had been branded just a few months earlier by Danielle Roberts, a Clifton Park osteopath, inside the home of actress Allison Mack, a "first-line" DOS member who was later charged alongside Raniere.

Edmondson told the Times Union the FBI agent found the brandings disturbing, but said he did not see anything illegal about it — and said it “seemed like it was consensual.”

She never heard from him again.

“I thought I was going to go tell them and they were going to raid the place … but they didn’t,” Edmondson said. “I knew that there was more branding about to happen and I said, ‘This is going to happen next week.’ And I gave them the addresses, and I told them exactly who to call on, and where it was going to be, and who was involved. Nothing.”

In the months that followed, the existence of DOS was reported by western New York blogger Frank Parlato, a longtime NXIVM critic, and in October 2017 became the subject of a front-page investigation in the New York Times.

Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York brought the case against Raniere, who was arrested in Mexico in March 2018 — almost a year after Edmondson said she spoke to the FBI at its McCarty Avenue headquarters in Albany. The Eastern District, which extends from Staten Island to the tip of Long Island, pursued the case after federal and state law enforcement officials in Albany had declined to initiate an investigation.

The federal prosecutors in the Eastern District invoked jurisdiction, in part, because some of Raniere's alleged victims were residents of Brooklyn.

Still, the charges against Raniere and his associates that emerged in the case alleged that most of the illegal conduct took place in New York's Northern District — the federal jurisdiction that encompasses the Capital Region, where NXIVM has had its headquarters since the late 1990s and where Raniere has lived while cultivating his flock of followers.

“I’m befuddled by the inaction in the Northern District of New York,” said Neil Glazer, an attorney who represents victims of NXIVM in a federal lawsuit — a case filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. “A woman who was branded in DOS walked into their offices, brought this complaint to them — and they judged her. They made her feel ashamed and they sent her away. And that’s just inexcusable to me.

“This should absolutely never happen to any woman," Glazer continued. "The fact that it did ... is why women are still afraid to come forward when people do horrible things to them. It’s because of law enforcement agents like that. And that’s what has to stop.”

'A bad divorce'

Barbara Bouchey, a former high-ranking NXIVM member and ex-girlfriend of Raniere, will be among the victims of NXIVM attending his sentencing on Tuesday. Her wait for justice took a decade longer than Edmondson's.

“Never in a million years did I think it would take 11 years,” Bouchey said.

A successful financial planner from Troy, Bouchey left the organization along with eight other members in April 2009 after learning that Raniere was sleeping with several women on the company's executive board.

Within 18 hours, Bouchey said, she was served with papers accusing her of extortion, a criminal charge that was never brought against her. Her lawyer made a phone call and learned that Raniere himself was under federal investigation for possible tax evasion and other financial crimes, but those charges were never brought, either.

Over the years that followed, Bouchey spoke with federal investigators, the state Department of Taxation and Finance, the attorney general’s office and others. Bouchey said that in 2014, she learned that the attorney general's office was investigating Raniere for possible charities fraud and also examining Rainbow Cultural Gardens, a NXIVM program that claimed to immerse children in nine languages at the same time.

Bouchey said she worked for three months with the head of the office's charities division. The probe ended with no action. "It is clear that there’s corruption here," Bouchey remembers being told. "However, we have bigger fish to fry.

A spokesperson for the attorney general's office would not respond to questions about Bouchey's outreach, which was made during the tenure of Eric Schneiderman. (He resigned in May 2018 after facing allegations he physically abused women.) “The Office of the Attorney General takes any complaint made to our office with the utmost seriousness, and treats every witness with decency and fairness,” the office said in a statement.

Bouchey said she met with FBI agents in Albany in 2015 to share hours of audiotaped information she had received from Kristin Keeffe, another former high-ranking NXIVM member and ex-girlfriend of Raniere who had escaped NXIVM along with her son a year earlier.

Bouchey said she told the FBI about NXIVM possibly laundering money from Mexico and hacking into the bank accounts of federal judges, among other information.

"I kid you not, the FBI agent got snarky and said, 'Well, Barb, aren't you and Keith just, like, having a bad divorce and you're just bickering?'" Bouchey said. She responded by asking the agents how NXIVM's hacking into the bank accounts of federal judges would constitute her bickering with Raniere.

One agent, she said, argued they didn't know for sure if that would be a crime — it might depend on NXIVM's intent.

Bouchey recalls saying, "Could there be anything good out of hacking into a federal judge's bank account?"

Smudged fingers

Sarah Ruane, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Albany Field Office, said in an email that the bureau "diligently investigates any allegations or claims reported to our office."

She said she could not comment about the field office's specific handling of the Raniere case but said it provided assistance to FBI colleagues in the New York City office, including "multiple FBI Albany investigative squads and our evidence response team during several operations involving court-authorized activity in connection with the case."

Richard Hartunian, who served as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District from 2009 until June 2017, referred questions to the current office. It's led by Acting U.S. Attorney Antoinette Bacon, who arrived last month.

“The investigation and prosecution of Keith Raniere and his co-defendants was conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI in the Eastern District of New York," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Barnett, a spokesman for the Northern District office, in a statement. "Federal prosecutors in Albany provided assistance to their colleagues in Brooklyn, and to the FBI, throughout the investigation and prosecution. We congratulate the team that secured Mr. Raniere’s trial conviction, holding him accountable for his heinous crimes and the terrible harm he inflicted on his victims.”

Bouchey and others victimized by NXIVM remain puzzled about the reasons why law enforcement in the Capital Region refused to act against Raniere.  They suspected it was because NXIVM had allied themselves, legally and politically, with powerful people.

"The best that we could come up with is it was the old boys' network in Albany," Bouchey said. "Nobody really wanted to open the can of worms because there's all kinds of people that might have gotten drawn into that. ... In 2015, we all just thought to ourselves they just don't want to do anything. Too many fingers got smudged or something, and it was a mystery to all of us."

Powerful friends

"I just think they had too much protection up there," said Susan Dones, a former NVIVM member based in the state of Washington.

NXIVM employed prominent attorneys, including the Albany firm of O’Connell and Aronowitz. Wealthy NXIVM disciples Clare and Sara Bronfman, heiresses to the Seagram’s empire, made campaign contributions and provided air travel to Senate Republicans led by then-Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Brunswick Republican and one of the three most powerful people in state government until his retirement in 2008. Bruno, who died earlier this month, met many times with NXIVM President Nancy Salzman, another Raniere co-defendant.

“They were pouring tons of money into the Albany political arena,” said Toni Natalie, who dated Raniere before the creation of NXIVM and was eventually subjected to the group’s grinding litigation. “The reason it didn’t happen in the Northern District is they were paying for it not to happen in the Northern District.”

Bruno's onetime Senate lawyer, former Rensselaer County Republican Party chairman Jack Casey, was a NXIVM student and legal advisor.

“I did some legal work in a very minor capacity which involved mostly traffic violations and I really didn’t get involved in the corporate stuff," Casey said, "and I certainly didn’t get involved in the criminal stuff, so how they ever got this bounced to the Eastern District, I have no idea.”

Casey said he was "absolutely shocked and disgusted at what I have seen of this organization. It was touted to me as a self-help group, and it wasn’t. Behind the scenes, there was an awful lot of stuff. Like everybody else in the country, I’ve watched a lot of these shows and the trial and I’m absolutely disgusted with it.”

Natalie said she emailed a State Police investigator photos of a 15-year-old girl she believed Raniere was pursuing on Facebook. No charges were brought against Raniere, but they were brought against Natalie, as well as Bouchey and former NXIVM consultant Joseph O’Hara. A computer trespassing case was brought in Albany County and later dismissed.

The Times Union reported at the time that NXIVM's attorneys contacted State Police Investigator Rodger Kirsopp dozens of times, pressured him to file criminal charges, and provided much of the evidence Kirsopp used to build his case.

When asked about the New York State Police's response — or lack thereof — to allegations reported to them about Raniere and NXIVM, spokesman Beau Duffy said in an email: "As a matter of practice, we do not confirm or deny that we conducted past investigations of an individual, except when criminal charges are filed.”

Albany County District Attorney David Soares brought a grand larceny case against O'Hara in 2007 after NXIVM's lawyers and the Bronfman sisters called on him to investigate the onetime owner of the Albany Firebirds arena football team. Three months later, then-County Judge Thomas Breslin dismissed the case.

In 2012, Soares told the Times Union he received "tremendous pressure" from NXIVM's representatives and lawyers to resume the case against O'Hara. He said Salzman, Bronfman, Keeffe and NXIVM's lawyers insisted he meet with them at unscheduled times and that "when we were told they were coming, it was almost as if we had to drop everything."

Soares had previously allowed Keeffe — at the time a member of Raniere's inner circle — to work for weeks in his financial crimes office to help build the case against O'Hara.

Asked about that arrangement, Soares spokeswoman Cecilia Walsh said in an email that the case against O'Hara "was ultimately dismissed and we did not seek to re-indict. At that time, there were no allegations of any type of sexual misconduct or 'branding' that we now know occurred in other jurisdictions. In fact, there were never any allegations, criminal referrals, or complaints from victims against NXIVM for conduct in Albany County made to our office."

At Raniere's trial, she noted, testimony showed that Soares' name was among the people on a list of perceived "enemies" of NXIVM kept in the basement of Salzman's home.

"Any victims with allegations that Raniere, or anyone in that organization, committed criminal sexual offenses inside the borders of Albany County are urged to reach out to law enforcement to file a formal complaint," Walsh said. "Our office cannot conduct an investigation without a criminal complaint from a victim or a formal law enforcement referral to determine if our office has jurisdiction over the matter."

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