Nxivm’s Second-in-Command Helped Build a Culture of Abuse, Survivors Say

As Nancy Salzman awaits sentencing, some who fell prey to the Nxivm cultlike group say Ms. Salzman’s enabling made the group’s misdeeds possible.

The New York Times/September 7, 2021

By Colin Moynihan

Three days after Ivy Nevares told a Brooklyn jury last fall about the lasting pain that the Nxivm cult leader Keith Raniere had inflicted on her, she got a phone call.

The caller did not want to talk about Mr. Raniere, who had just been sentenced to 120 years in prison. He called, according to a letter Ms. Nevares later sent to a judge, with a warning: Do not talk about Nancy Salzman.

“I felt intimidated and, after the call, was deeply upset for days,” Ms. Nevares wrote.

Years after Nxivm was exposed as a cultlike criminal enterprise built to conceal Mr. Raniere’s sexual, physical and psychological abuse of women and girls, the details of Ms. Salzman’s role within the organization has remained largely shrouded. But her influence was significant: Ms. Salzman co-founded Nxivm’s predecessor group with Mr. Raniere and stood as his second-in-command for 20 years.

She was eventually indicted on several charges related to the group and pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy.

Now, as Ms. Salzman’s own sentencing hearing approaches on Wednesday, testimony from Mr. Raniere’s trial, assertions in a lawsuit, written statements submitted to the court and interviews with former Nxivm members show the power she wielded to advance Mr. Raniere’s agenda.

Ms. Nevares and other former Nxivm members say the woman known as Prefect was not only Mr. Raniere’s business partner and confidant but his abettor and protector. She managed many of Nxivm’s operations, they say, and helped Mr. Raniere control the group’s members and avoid accountability.

“I don’t think Nxivm could have existed without Nancy Salzman,” Alejandro Betancourt, a member of Nxivm’s executive board for nine years, said in an interview. “Nancy was Keith’s enabler.”

She has largely escaped the attention paid to other co-defendants like the liquor heiress Clare Bronfman and the actress Allison Mack. But Ms. Salzman was the closest thing Mr. Raniere had to an equal. Photographs of each hung side by side inside the group’s headquarters near Albany, according to trial testimony.

Over the years, Ms. Salzman helped distill Mr. Raniere’s philosophical musings into supposed self-help plans they could market and which became Nxivm’s public-facing front. And behind the scenes, former members said, Mr. Raniere tasked her to deal with women in the group who he saw as causing problems.

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That included, according to recent accounts by two women who said that Mr. Raniere sexually assaulted them, attempts at the time of the incidents to cast his behavior as natural or flattering.

Lawyers representing Mr. Raniere and Ms. Salzman did not respond to requests for comment on those rape and sexual assault allegations.

Prosecutors have asked that Ms. Salzman serve a sentence at the upper range of the 33 to 41 months calculated according to federal guidelines at the time of her guilty plea in 2019. They wrote to Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis that Ms. Salzman had participated in unlawful surveillance and investigation of Nxivm’s perceived critics and enemies including journalists, elected officials and legal adversaries.

She also sought private bank records of several people, including the Seagram magnate Edgar Bronfman and the cult deprogrammer Rick Ross, and altered evidence to be produced in a lawsuit in New Jersey, prosecutors wrote.

“She developed a purportedly therapeutic technique called ‘Explorations of Meaning’ (“EM”) that was sometimes used as a means of manipulation and control,” prosecutors wrote, adding that she had “exalted Raniere’s teachings and ideology and demanded absolute commitment and deference” to him.

Ms. Salzman was adept at using so-called EMs — deep discussions that examined the nature of reality — to convince people that any negative feeling toward Mr. Raniere was attributable to their perception rather than his conduct, said Karen Unterreiner, a former member of Nxivm’s executive board.

“You could never hold them accountable,” she said in an interview.

Nxivm’s moral framework was established by Mr. Raniere’s teachings. He would deliver lengthy, sometimes rambling, thoughts called “downloads,” and Ms. Salzman was among a select few who would help craft them into courses, according to several former Nxivm members.

“She would take all of Keith Raniere’s philosophical ideas,” a witness who was identified only as Sylvie told jurors. “She would create an educational model out of it with him that she would then teach.”

Sylvie added that Ms. Salzman translated Mr. Raniere’s ideas into lessons for a women’s organization called Jness that was described in trial testimony as teaching that women are inherently weak and duplicitous.

Another trial witness, Mark Vicente, testified that he came to believe that Nxivm teachings were meant in part to cast criticism as destructive.

“Questioning the Prefect or questioning the Vanguard was seen as a very, very bad thing,” he said.

Several former Nxivm members said that even after her arrest, Ms. Salzman had supporters who subscribed to that belief. Ms. Nevares said that the person who called her after Mr. Raniere’s sentencing was a former Nxivm official who told her that he had been in touch through his wife with Ms. Salzman. She added in an interview that she had identified him in her letter to Judge Garaufis only as Michel C. to avoid any possible retaliation.

Sometimes Mr. Raniere tasked Ms. Salzman with handling other women he deemed to be problematic, testified a witness who was identified only as Daniela.

“Nancy worked on Keith’s women,” she told jurors.

A recent amended civil suit filed in federal court in Brooklyn by ex-Nxivm members against Mr. Raniere, Ms. Salzman and others now includes a claim by Daniela’s sister, identified as Camila, who said that Mr. Raniere “forcibly raped” her twice. Prosecutors said during Mr. Raniere’s trial that he started having sex with Camila when she was 15.

After those incidents, the suit says, “Salzman added a new segment to the Jness curriculum (which Camila was required to attend), teaching that when men sense that their partner is trying to leave them, they rape them as a natural way of marking their territory.”

Ms. Nevares said in her letter that Mr. Raniere also sexually assaulted her.

“The following morning, Salzman normalized the assault after she asked about my time with the Vanguard, saying the traumatized state I was in was due to his ‘energy,’” Ms. Nevares wrote. “She insisted that I was lucky that he had singled me out.”

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