Jun 18, 2019

'This Is Just His Lifestyle': Keith Raniere's Lawyer Defends NXIVM Head as Trial Closes

Keith Raniere, center, is facing seven criminal charges. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
During closing arguments, defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo painted the NXIVM leader accused of trafficking and branding women as little more than a polyamorous eccentric

Rolling Stone
June 18, 2019

Since his arrest last year in Mexico on sex trafficking and racketeering charges, tabloids have referred to Keith Raniere, the head of the self-help organization NXIVM, as the leader of an all-female “sex cult” called DOS. The 58-year-old spiritual leader known as the “smartest man alive” was worshipped by followers, with some former NXIVM members testifying they believed he could control the weather and that swallowing his semen could help them see “a blue light.”

Yet during closing arguments at Raniere’s trial at the Eastern District Courthouse of New York, Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo adamantly denied that DOS was a cult, or that Raniere was a cult master.

“The word ‘cult’ has come up a few times. I don’t think that helps you,” he told jurors during his closing arguments, which spanned nearly three hours over the course of Monday and Tuesday.

Regarding allegations that Raniere branded DOS slaves with his initials, forced them to send him close-up images of their genitals, and coerced them into having sex with him, Agnifilo said, “the conduct, looked at objectively, is pretty out there. But that doesn’t make it a crime.”

Agnifolo presented his closing arguments in front of a courtroom packed with dozens of former NXIVM members and former DOS slaves, including India Oxenberg and her mother, Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg. Raniere is standing trial for seven charges, and faces life in prison if convicted.

Dressed in a maroon sweater and looking characteristically boyish, if not slightly more rumpled than in previous weeks at trial, Raniere watched the proceedings quietly, occasionally scribbling notes.

But before Agnifolo presented his case, U.S. Attorney Moira Penza delivered her final arguments. She started by presenting a map illustrating Knox Woods, the leafy suburban neighborhood in Clifton Park, New York, where NXIVM was headquartered.

“It looks like the American Dream,” Penza said, her voice growing increasingly hoarse over the course of her nearly four-hour closing. “But if we’ve learned anything from this trial, looks can be deceiving.”

Penza then identified the various locales that had been referenced throughout the past six weeks of testimony, including 120 Victory Way, where a DOS slave known as Nicole testified that she was blindfolded, tied to a table, and instructed by Raniere to receive oral sex from a stranger; to 12 Wilton Court, where a former Raniere paramour identified only as Daniela testified that she was held alone in a room for nearly two years, with only a mattress, a pen, and sheaves of paper to keep her company.

Penza compared the last six weeks of testimony to “a horror movie.”

“But for the defendant’s victims, it was all too real,” she added.

She pointed to evidence of activities within DOS — the branding, the alleged coerced sex, the restrictive 500-calorie diets some slaves were required to adhere to — as directly refuting the image that Raniere’s inner circle attempted to put forth of a “humanitarian, leader, guru.”

“You saw him for what he was: a predator, a crime boss, a crime man,” Penza told the jury.

During her closing argument, Penza detailed the extensive allegations against Raniere, some of which dated back a dozen years or more. She outlined what she referred to as Raniere’s acts of “deception” under the racketeering charge, including obstructing justice by editing video footage introduced in court; hacking into the email accounts of so-called NXIVM “enemies” such as billionaire Edgar Bronfman; and using the credit card and bank account of a deceased NXIVM member on thousands of dollars of purchases at Amazon Marketplace, Neiman Marcus, and the iTunes Store, among others.

She showed the jury and courtroom spectators redacted nude photos of Daniela’s sister Camila, with whom she alleges Raniere started a sexual relationship back in 2005, when Camila was just 15. As part of the racketeering charge, Raniere is being charged with acts of sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child pornography, which was found on a hard drive in his study.

Penza then alleged that Raniere had founded DOS for the purposes of his own sexual gratification, recruiting women under false pretenses by ordering “first-line” DOS slaves and members of the NXIVM inner circle, such as codefendants Lauren Salzman and Smallville actor Allison Mack, to tell recruits DOS was a female empowerment group. He then instructed his “slaves” to extract collateral from DOS recruits, task them with assignments to seduce them, and ultimately brand them with his initials.

Pointing to 2015 texts that Raniere sent to Camila saying that he wanted her to “own a fuck toy slave for me that you could groom as a tool to pleasure me.” Raniere’s ultimate goal, Penza claimed, was to create a wide-ranging network of female “slaves” “to do work for him, to have sex with him, and to recruit new sex partners for him.”

“The defendant did not create DOS to be a sisterhood…a group of best buddies,” Penza wryly said, hearkening back to Agnifilo’s classification of the group in his opening arguments. “This was not about making anybody’s life better.”

During closing arguments for the defense, which chose not to call any witnesses, Agnifilo did not deny that Raniere founded DOS, nor did he deny that DOS slaves were branded with Raniere’s initials, as former DOS first-line slave Lauren Salzman and DOS recruits identified only as Nicole and Sylvie previously testified. He also did not deny that Raniere had sexual relations with a number of DOS slaves.

He did, however, refute Penza’s assertion that DOS slaves were coerced into having sex with Raniere, or that DOS was founded with the direct purpose of furnishing Raniere with sexual gratification.

“There’s been no shortage of intimate partners for Keith Raniere pre-DOS. He’s had them his whole life,” Agnifilo said. “This is just his lifestyle.”

Agnifilo suggested that contrary to Penza’s classification of DOS as an abusive sex cult, the group was actually intended to help and support women. He said that Raniere founded the group as a way to provide support for Camila, who had at one point admitted to purposely hurting herself. “He wanted her to make a commitment to the group” that she would no longer engage in self-harm, Agnifilo argued, stressing that DOS and other teachings in the NXIVM curriculum strongly emphasized the importance of such commitments: “Commitment is virtue. Commitment builds character,” he said.

He also emphasized that despite the requirement that slaves submit collateral to join DOS, at no point was the collateral ever released, nor was there ever any threat to release the collateral. (During rebuttal from the government, assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko reminded jurors this was not the case, and that a number of former slaves testified they had heard many first-line slaves be threatened with the release of collateral, and that Raniere himself had mulled over releasing that of former DOS member Sarah Edmondson.)

Agnifolo also said that members of DOS such as Jay — a former slave who testified that she left the group after she was assigned by Mack to seduce Raniere to heal her from being molested as a child — had “a choice,” Agnifilo said. “And it’s obvious because people made the choice [to leave] and nothing happened.” (Lesko also refuted this, pointing out that the former DOS slaves never got their collateral back.)

The crux of Agnifilo’s argument about DOS was that it was not intended to be sexual, and that it was little more than a “social group.” (Lesko promptly eviscerated this line of argument, cracking, “If it wasn’t created for sex, then what was gonna happen in the dungeon? Were they gonna knit sweaters?”) To bolster this point, he alluded to testimony from Nicole, who last week testified that she was recruited to DOS after she professed to Mack in an email that she was struggling with suicidal thoughts. After providing collateral to join DOS in the form of a sexually explicit video and a letter falsely accusing her father of sexual abuse, Nicole said, she was tied to a wooden table, blindfolded, and forced to receive oral sex from a stranger.

Nicole, who was among the courtroom spectators during closing arguments, was seen to mouth “oh my God” and tear up when Penza played audio evidence of Raniere discussing the specifics of the branding process, including instructions that DOS slaves be nude and “held to the table like some sort of sacrifice.”

Despite Nicole’s visibly emotional testimony, however, Agnifilo suggested during closing that for Nicole, “maybe [DOS] worked” to cure her depression, referring to the organization as “strong medicine” when used in “the right circumstances with the right people at the right time.”

“You never saw those kinds of emails again,” he said, referring to her initial despondent emails to Mack, who recruited her into DOS a mere few days later.

During his rebuttal, Lesko appeared to take particular issue with this line of Agnifilo’s argument, which he characterized as egregious victim-blaming. “He was arguing Nicole wanted it. That it was good for her,” he told the jurors. “Don’t let him do that in this courtroom.” He also objected to Agnifilo suggesting that DOS was “strong medicine” for Nicole, deadpanning that being tied to a table and forced to receive oral sex from a stranger was “no medicine. That’s a sex crime.”

Above all else, during his closing argument Agnifilo encouraged the jury to keep in mind that there was a reason why many longtime NXIVM devotees such as Salzman and Mark Vicente, a filmmaker and former high-ranking NXIVM member who left in 2017, stayed in the group for decades. “They did things they believed in, that they thought were important,” Agnifilo said. “And what they believed in was Keith Raniere.” He attributed the government’s witnesses testimony against Raniere as a “change in perspective,” a phrase that recurred several times during his argument, even at one point citing the 1999 film The Sixth Sense as a prime example of such a shift. (“So what, Keith was dead the whole time?,” a spectator was overheard to mutter in response.)

But at the end of more than six weeks of harrowing testimony, it was clear that at least some courtroom attendees were not buying Agnifolo’s argument. At one point, when Agnifilo suggested that there was absolutely no evidence during the trial that Raniere “had a misogynist view of women,” one spectator in the gallery burst out laughing — a rare moment of levity in a trial that has otherwise been mired in dark, disturbing testimony.

Agnifilo urged the jury to acquit Raniere on all charges, arguing that while many jury members might find his behavior “disgusting” and his lifestyle “distasteful,” none of he evidence presented at trial suggested he was guilty of violating the law. “Unpopular ideas aren’t criminal. Disgusting ideas aren’t criminal,” he said.

The prosecution painted a starkly different portrait of Raniere, with Penza during the jury to recognize the “inner circle” of NXIVM for what she says it was: a wide-ranging criminal enterprise that kept the arm of the law at bay for years and built a culture of lies and secrecy to protect him.

“The defendant can’t hide anymore. A light has been shown in the darkness, and his crimes have been exposed,” she said. “Trust the evidence. Trust your judgment.”


The New York Times: Nxivm Trial: Sex Cult Was Like ‘Horror Movie’ Prosecutor Says.

Sexual abuse, branding and other crimes were committed by the group’s founder, who was a “predator,” the prosecutor said in closing arguments.

Colin Moynihan 

NY Times 

June 17, 2019

A housing development in a small upstate New York town where members of the cultlike group Nxivm had homes functioned as the set of a “horror movie,” and the group’s leader, Keith Raniere, played the role of the central villain, a federal prosecutor told jurors on Monday.

During closing arguments in Mr. Raniere’s racketeering and sex trafficking trial, the prosecutor, Moira Penza, pointed to a map of a Clifton Park neighborhood where many Nxivm members lived, then described what witnesses said had happened inside several homes.

In one, she said, a naked woman was held down — “her arms above her head like a sacrifice, screaming” — while she was branded with Mr. Raniere’s initials. In another, a terrified woman named Nicole was tied to a wooden table, blindfolded, while someone performed oral sex on her, Ms. Penza said.

A third held an archive of sexually explicit photographs taken by Mr. Raniere, who was known as Vanguard, she said. They showed multiple women within Nxivm, including one Ms. Penza called “his trophy, his sexual conquest” — a 15-year-old girl from Mexico.

Over the course of four hours, Ms. Penza recapped portions of a six-week trial that included more than a dozen witnesses, including several ex-Nxivm members who described the bizarre inner workings of the group.

She told jurors that Mr. Raniere, who presented himself as a guru who could help improve people’s lives, was actually running a criminal enterprise that sexually exploited women.

“You saw him for what he was,” Ms. Penza told the jurors. “A con man, a predator, a crime boss.”
While using the organization as a cover, Mr. Raniere “tapped into a never-ending flow of women and money.”

One of Mr. Raniere’s lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, whose closing statement will continue on Tuesday, countered that he believed that people who now say that they were coerced by the group were in fact making “adult choices.”

Although Mr. Raniere led a life that might seem “inconceivable” to some, Mr. Agnifilo said many of his followers accepted that and looked up to him because of his insight and leadership.

“What they believed in, warts and all, was Keith Raniere,” he said. “They didn’t thank Vanguard because they were a bunch of robots.”

Mr. Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) in the 1990s as a self-help organization based near Albany. He is now on trial on charges of racketeering conspiracy, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking.

In addition to exploiting women for sex, Mr. Raniere charged more than $100,000 to an American Express card belonging to a senior Nxivm member, Pam Cafritz, after her death and wrote checks totaling more than $300,000 from one of her bank accounts, Ms. Penza said.

Followers paid thousands of dollars to take courses that Mr. Raniere sold as a path to more fulfilling lives. Former Nxivm members have said the courses were a means to indoctrinate and control people.

During the trial witnesses testified that members who displeased Mr. Raniere were said to have committed ethical breaches and were subjected to punishment. 

There was also testimony that senior Nxivm members spied upon those they considered enemies, including Edgar Bronfman Sr., the liquor magnate whose daughter, Clare Bronfman, was a high-level member of the group.

Among other things, Mr. Raniere was said to have founded a clandestine sorority within Nxivm called D.O.S., in which some women were referred to as “slaves” and required to follow orders without question. Some of the women were branded with Mr. Raniere’s initials and assigned to “seduce” him.


Jun 16, 2019

ICSA Preconference Workshop: Families

ICSA 2019 Annual International Conference

ICSA 2019 Annual International Conference
  • Holiday Inn Manchester City Centre, 25 Aytoun Street , Manchester, M1 3AE, United Kingdom 
  • July 4-6, 2019 

Preconference Workshops, July 3, 2019
  • Wednesday, 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
  • Facilitator: Patrick Ryan; Joseph Kelly

Workshop Abstract: Building Bridges; Leaving and Recovering from Cultic Groups and Relationships: A Workshop for Families  (Rachel Bernstein, Linda Dubrow-Marshall, Joseph Kelly, Patrick Ryan)
This workshop will explore our experiences and the insights we have gained, over the past thirty-four years of exit and recovery practices. We will offer suggestions of how our approach may be helpful when addressing coercive control, abuse and persuasion in domestic and familial settings, human trafficking, and gangs, and in radicalization, extremist groups, and cults/sects.
Topics discussed include: assessing a family’s unique situation; understanding why people join and leave groups; considering the nature of psychological manipulation and abuse; being accurate, objective, and up-to-date; looking at ethical issues; learning how to assess your situation; developing problem-solving skills; formulating a helping strategy; learning how to communicate more effectively with your loved one; learning new ways of coping.

Aspects of Cult Recovery Research That may be Helpful to Families  (Gillie Jenkinson)

In this session, Gillie will explore some of the findings from her doctoral research (2016) and particularly the leaving phase (Phase One: The need to leave physically and psychologically). Gillie will explore what she learned from her former member research participants; that members/former members, at the point of considering leaving, need to ‘think the unthinkable thought’ and face doubts; to ‘call a cult a cult’; and to ‘unmask the cult leader’ to progress to ‘recovery’ and moving on to Phases Two-Four (which will not be discussed in this session).

This session will be both didactic and interactive.

IndoctriNation: A weekly podcast covering cults, manipulators, and protecting yourself from systems of control

IndoctriNation: A weekly podcast covering cults, manipulators, and protecting yourself from systems of control
Rachel Bernstein, LMFT has been working with victims of cults and emotional abusers for 27 years. Given the right set of circumstances, it's all too easy for anyone to fall prey to sociopaths and manipulators.

"I wanted to start a show that gives survivors a chance to tell their stories and for experts to teach us what they know. My goal for IndoctriNation is to empower our listeners to protect themselves and those they love from predators, toxic personalities, and destructive organizations".

New episodes every Wednesday.
To Err Is Human, To Forgive Divine w/ Chanon Bloch - S3E13pt2
"This episode, titled after the Alexander Pope quote, is a small component to a deeply thought out response from Chanon Bloch and Rachel. After receiving large amounts of both positive and negative comments, the two respond to the backlash of their first episode (link below) by pointing out that this is precisely how a majority can continue to remain indoctrinated.
Using South Africa's apartheid as his personal example, Chanon opened up a few weeks ago and challenged listeners to examine their own biases and behavior. Challenging thoughts by nature are not easy to accept, and are easily confused as a threat. He believes indoctrinated prejudice is a force that must be conquered in order to fully hold ourselves accountable; breaking and ending biased views instead of allowing them to manifest a new form."

  • Polyamory Problem-Solving w/ Eve Rickert - S3E14pt2
  • Problematic Polyamory w/ Eve Rickert - S3E14pt1
  • National Racism and Fear w/ Chanon Bloch - S3E13
  • If Hubbard Didn't Write It, It's Not True w/ Joey Chait - S3E12pt2
  • Crossing the Bridge w/ Joey Chait, ex-Scientologist - S3E12pt1
  • Charisma over Content w/ Ron Burks, The Gold Coast Covenant Church - S3E11pt2
  • Accepting Your Deception - Ron Burks & Gold Coast Covenant Church - S3E11pt1
  • ONE YEAR Call-In Anniversary Show - S3E10
  • Faced Away From the Family - Phil & Willie Jones' Billboard - S3E9
  • A Hamster Wheel of Self-Help w/Matthew Remski - S3E8pt2
  • Wounds Are A Kind Of Ink. w/ Matthew Remski - S3E8pt1
  • Admit You're Wrong, Then We'll Get Along w/ Dan Shaw - S3E7pt2
  • Emotional Vampires - Narcissists and Cult Leaders in Relationships w/ Dan Shaw - S3E7pt1
  • I Was Best Friends with the Messiah's Children w/ Lisa Kohn - S3E6
  • Some Kind Of Magic Path To Healing w/ Jolie Holland - S3E5pt2
  • "If It's Not Witness Brand Truth, It's Garbage" w/ Jolie Holland - S3E5pt1
  • All Basic Human Privilege Was Taken From Us w/ Nick Gaglia - S3E4pt2
  • If You Leave, You're Going To Die w/ Nick Gaglia - S3E4pt1
  • A Well Oiled Machine of Manipulation w/ Kim & David Atkins - S3E3pt2
  • It's God's Will That Our Girlfriends Should Become His w/ Kim & David Atkins - S3E3pt1
  • There Was Never Really Any Love w/ Donna Andersen - S3E2
  • A Bond That Was Life-Saving w/ Cynthia Lilley and Cathryn Mazer - S3E1pt2
  • Whisked Away By The Moonies w/ Cynthia Lilley and Cathryn Mazer - S3E1pt1
  • A Matter of Conscience w/ Wesley David Ringel S2E14
  • Welcome To Your New Family w/ Karen - S2E13
  • Guilt & Shame & Love & Fear w/ Dr. Janja Lalich - S2E12pt2
  • The Cookie Cutter Messiah School w/ Dr. Janja Lalich - S2E12pt1
  • I Have To Ask You Before I Talk To My Son? w/ Daniel O'Brien - S2E11
  • To The Finish Line w/ Nathan Rich - S2E9pt4
  • What Kept Me Going w/ Nathan Rich - S2E9pt3
  • You Can't Just Open Up A Brain & Wash It w/ Eileen Barker, Officer of the British Empire - S2E10
  • The One Billion Year Contract w/ Nathan Rich - S2E9pt2
  • Third Generation Scientology w/ Nathan Rich - S2E9pt1
  • Mind Control, Hypnosis, & Undue Influence w/ Professor Alan Scheflin - S2E8
  • They're Trying to Deprogram You! w/ Robert & Alexandra Menna - S2E7pt2
  • Denying Your Intuition w/ Robert & Alexandra Menna - S2E7pt1
  • The Mind Puppets of the Ascended Master w/ Joe Szimhart - S2E6
  • Maybe Jesus Isn't Coming Back Next Tuesday w/ Andie Redwine - S2E5
  • Escape From NXIVM w/ Catherine Oxenberg - S2E4
  • The Commune Kid w/ Dhyana Levey - S2E3
  • The Shroud of Turin In My Toast w/ Yuval Laor - S2E2pt2
  • Fervor & Awe w/ Dr. Yuval Laor - S2E2pt1
  • Home Invasion - S2E1
  • Scientology's Belly Of The Beast w/ Tony Ortega - S1E15
  • The Ripple Effect w/ Hoyt Richards - S1E14
  • The Preventative Approach w/ Jon Atack - S1E13pt2
  • Hovering Over The Room w/ Jon Atack - S1E13pt1
  • Gangs and Families w/ Adrian Reveles - S1E12
  • An "Inherently Flawed, Bad Woman"? w/ Rebecca Leon - S1E11
  • God's Bride w/ Rachel Neverdal - S1E10
  • I Met My Cult Leader At the Beach w/ Hoyt Richards - S1E9pt1
  • The Scientology Truman Show w/ Tory "Magoo" Christman - S1E8
  • The Hidden World of Jehovah's Witnesses w/ Tony DuShane - S1E7
  • Narcissistic Seduction and Manipulation w/ Donna Andersen & Sophie - S1E6
  • For the Love Of Maharishi: Trapped in Nirvana w/ Pat Ryan - S1E5pt2
  • For the Love Of Maharishi: Learning to Fly w/ Joe Kelly - S1E5pt1
  • Prisoner of the Mind w/ Chris Shelton - S1E4
  • The Euphoria of Belief w/ James Underdown - S1E3
  • The Secret Family History of L. Ron Hubbard w/ Jamie DeWolf - S1E2
  • Life After Jonestown w/ Patricia Ryan - S1E1


    Tony Robbins' Book Has Been Scrapped By His Publisher

    Simon & Schuster dropped the book after BuzzFeed News revealed the self-help guru has berated victims of rape and domestic abuse, and former fans and staffers have accused him of sexual harassment.

    Katie J.M. Baker BuzzFeed News Investigative Reporter Jane Bradley Investigations Correspondent
    May 30, 2019,

    Simon & Schuster will no longer publish a book coauthored by Tony Robbins and a famous financial adviser that was slated for release this July.

    BuzzFeed News revealed earlier this month that Robbins has berated victims of rape and domestic violence, while former staffers and fans have accused him of groping audience members, exposing himself to women assistants, and sexually harassing fans. BuzzFeed News also reported that Tony Robbins was filmed repeatedly using racial slurs. The allegations are from the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.

    Simon & Schuster removed the forthcoming book, The Path: Accelerating Your Journey to Financial Freedom, from its website, a cached version of the site shows, after BuzzFeed News published its first report on May 17.

    Robbins’ lawyers said in a statement that the book had simply been “postponed” and the publisher had not cut ties with Robbins. “To state or suggest otherwise is absolutely false,” it said.

    But a source at Simon & Schuster said: “We are not proceeding with publication of The Path.”

    Robbin’s former coauthor, Peter Mallouk, is the president of Creative Planning, a $38 billion wealth management firm, and is considered one of the most powerful people in global finance. Following BuzzFeed News’ reporting, Creative Planning disclosed Robbins’ departure in an updated filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which said his position as chief of investor psychology had been eliminated and that he was no longer associated with the firm or on its advisory board. The split was first reported by Citywire.

    Robbins joined Creative Planning in 2016, and he and Mallouk coauthored another financial advice book through Simon & Schuster, Unshakeable, in 2017.

    The firm's decision to sever ties with Robbins was welcomed by some financial experts. “There’s a woman issue here and there’s a brand issue here, and when these things come up it’s important to take swift action,” April Rudin, president of the Rudin Group, toldInvestment News.

    But Creative Planning issued a press release after BuzzFeed News requested comment saying the split had been planned months in advance.

    “The parting between Tony and Creative Planning was imminent regardless and it was a mutual decision and amicable,” Mallouk said in the statement, which noted that Robbins will no longer have a financial interest in Creative Planning but will remain “a client and continued supporter of the firm.”

    It said that the upcoming book included "contributions from Robbins” and “contractual terms were never reached nor finalized with its planned publisher.”

    “To be clear, Simon & Schuster has not severed its publishing agreement with Mr. Robbins,” Robbins’ lawyers said in a separate statement.

    His lawyers declined to comment on whether the book would be published in the future.

    The book’s original Amazon listing said it would be available on July 23, 2019. That page has now been stripped of information about its title and contents, and the publication date has been revised to “December 31, 2050.”


    Heaven's Gate Survivor Desperately Tried to Pull Girlfriend Out of Cult Before Mass Suicide

    Frank Lyford looks back on his decision to leave the the Heaven's Gate cult, whose members were all found dead wearing matching Nike sneakers in a 1997 mass suicide

    June 14, 2019

    He didn’t know what it was or where it was coming from, but it was a feeling Frank Lyford knew he couldn’t just ignore.

    A somewhat foreign sensation, it struck towards the end of the summer of 1993, and, because of it, Lyford walked away from the Heaven’s Gate cult after 18 years of devotion — leaving behind the woman he loved.

    “It was this deep, gut-felt misgiving of remaining in the group, remaining in the cult,” Lyford — who defected from the alien-obsessed religious sect when he was 39 — recounts ahead of the next episode of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 17, at 9 p.m. ET.

    “I couldn’t express it at the time and I didn’t know what my life would look like — what it’d be like adjusting to life outside of the group — I just knew I couldn’t remain in the cult anymore.”

    Two days later, Lyford — back under his parents’ Canadian roof, but still under the spell of Marshall Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate’s wild-eyed leader — received a call from Erika Ernst, who he still refers to as “the love of my life.”

    She pleaded with him to return; he asked her to leave. The call ended, much like Erika’s life would little more than three years later.

    Ernst and 37 other brainwashed followers of Heaven’s Gate methodically died by suicide over three days in late March of 1997 — their bodies discovered inside a Rancho Santa Fe, California, monastery after someone called police with an anonymous tip.

    Also dead in the compound was Applewhite, who’d systematically convinced the group they’d need to free their mortal souls in order to board a spaceship that was trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet, bound for a distant, androgynous alien planet called “The Next Level.”

    Dressed in black track suits with matching Nike sneakers and plastic bags over their heads, all had willfully ingested apple sauce laced with barbiturates, which was then washed down with vodka. Hidden beneath purple shrouds, all had a small amount of cash and their I.D.s in their pockets.

    News of the suicides rocked Lyford’s world.

    “I knew it was the same group I was a part of, so it was a very emotional time for me, from the standpoint of feeling the loss of all of my friends who I had been with for 18 years,” Lyford tells PEOPLE.

    Now, at 65, with 20 years of introspection under his belt and the benefit of hindsight, Lyford wishes he’d pushed Ernst harder to leave.

    The cover of People Magazine's April 14, 1997, issue focusing on the Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide

    “If I were back on that call with her right now, I would be more emphatic about her leaving,” Lyford explains, noting he’d share with her some of the knowledge he’s acquired since the cult’s demise.

    “We all have a connection to the divine within us, we all have that radio transmitter built in — we don’t need anyone to translate that for us,” Lyford says. “That was the big mistake that we all made, in my mind — it was believing we needed someone else to tell us what our best path should be.”

    People Magazine Investigates: Cults airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 17, at 9 p.m. ET.


    Former neo-Nazi and counter-violent extremism experts issue warning to Australia

    For Arno Arr Michaelis, anti-social behaviour became a kind of addiction as a kid.
    Sowaibah Hanifie
    June 11, 2019
    ABC Riverland

    For Arno Arr Michaelis, anti-social behaviour became a kind of addiction as a kid.

    "Hate was just another part of the thrill," he says.

    "Really what I craved was to repulse civil society and nothing appals people more than a swastika."

    He joined a neo-Nazi skinhead group in the US for seven years and was part of the worldwide Hammerskin Nation movement.

    By 1994, Mr Michaelis was a single parent to his young daughter in Wisconsin. He decided to leave the group after a friend was shot dead in a street fight and others were jailed.

    "It finally hit me that if I didn't change my ways, death or prison would take me from my daughter," he says.

    "The violent extremist person needs to get to the point where they think, 'this is f***ed up, I can't do this anymore'."

    Now, Mr Michaelis is one of several former extremists leading efforts to reform those attracted to far-right or Islamic terrorism around the globe.

    "We want to get them talking about it, that's basically like therapy 101," he says.

    Mr Michaelis believes governments, including Australia's, aren't doing enough to learn from experiences like his to confront rising far-right extremism.

    "The States is just as far behind as Australia if not more so. Mainly our Government doesn't see white nationalism as a threat.

    "Even if they were able to admit that it was a threat, I don't know that they're going to be able to put a lot of resources behind it."
    'Nothing's going to change unless there's a body count'

    Matthew Quinn is the founder of Exit Australia, a program established in 2016 that monitors and works with extremists to disengage them from violent ideologies.

    He says Australia is more than a decade behind when it comes to soft intervention for non-Islamic extremists, such as those on the far right.

    Soft intervention includes programs that police, community leaders and schools could refer people vulnerable to extremism to, before they become entrenched in the ideas and join an extremist group.

    "Myself and others have been banging our heads on the wall to try and get the Government to listen to these other violent extremists coming up," Mr Quinn says.

    "They're just spreading the hate and influence online, they've talked about doing attacks and nothing's done."

    Mr Quinn says following the Christchurch attack, he and others expected Government to convene counter-extremism leaders to improve programs for far-right extremism, but there was no communication.

    "We don't actually think the Government is taking it seriously until there's another violent extremist attack by a far-right — or any other violent extremist other than ISIS — in Australia."

    Mr Quinn claims that in a large number of the cases he has worked on, individuals who were identified as potential extremists were not referred to any form of intervention program before they became radicalised.

    Since 2014, at-risk individuals have been able to be referred to the Government's Living Safe Together programme. But Mr Quinn claims many have not been referred for soft interventions.

    "I know of cases and investigations going on at the moment, many that I've been involved in, where violent extremists [have been known to police but not referred for intervention]."

    He wants a policy shift to encourage police to make referrals for soft intervention, rather than the current system which favours monitoring an individual until there is sufficient evidence to make an arrest.

    The ABC spoke with someone else who has worked on the frontline of Australia's counter-terrorism efforts, but did not want to be identified.

    He backed up Mr Quinn's claim that at-risk individuals were not being referred to disengagement programs and suggested a belief existed within government and policing circles that an arrest — rather than soft intervention — gave an improved perception of community safety and made it seem as if police were "doing something" about the problem.

    He says it's distressing Government is not taking the threat of right-wing extremism seriously.

    "Nothing's going to change unless there's a body count … right-wing extremists are seen to be unthreatening hillbillies with mental health issues.

    "They don't acknowledge there's a problem … the Government has identified their "other", the radical Islamists, and ignored the white extremists."

    The NSW Police Force said in a statement to the ABC that a number of State and Federal programs exist that can be tailored to an individual wanting to travel to and from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq. But the statement made no mention of initiatives targeted towards the far right.

    A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said the Government's countering-violent extremism strategy addresses all forms of violent extremism, including far-right extremism.

    "All extremist groups are taken seriously, regardless of the background of the perpetrator."

    Current government-funded counter-violent extremism programs in Australia include deradicalisation programs in the prison system, online programs to identify extremists, and community projects that encourage social harmony.

    In a statement, the Multicultural Affairs Minister David Coleman said:

    "I regularly meet with community leaders to discuss our counter-violent extremism and social cohesion programs to ensure they are fit for purpose."

    The Minister also emphasised that the Coalition's 2019-20 budget includes increased funding for grassroots initiatives with $71 million pledged for a social cohesion package.

    But experts like Mr Quinn say little of this is dedicated to the far right.
    Australia could look overseas

    International groups that harness the experience of former extremists are finding success, in a model that could be replicated in Australia.

    The US State Department's director of counter-violent extremism, Irfan Saeed, has been working with Australian authorities on counter-terrorism.

    He says Australia's approach needs to adapt so communities' members are at the forefront.

    Mr Michaelis works with Serve to Unite in the US and is in the process of setting up a hotline which families and extremist groups can call for help.

    He says there is one thing that drives every violent extremist he has met in his 10 years in the field.

    "In every single instance, it's suffering that drives people."

    His approach is to use his own experience to show it's possible (and desirable) to leave an extremist group.

    Survivors of extremist attacks are also becoming active in prevention. In Norway, Bjorn Ihler became interested in rehabilitation after surviving the 2011 mass shooting on the island of Utoya that killed 77 people.

    He's worked to rehabilitate around 40 fighters from the Middle East and North Africa and supporters of far-right movements through his organisation Khalifa Ihler Institute.

    "There's a lot of former extremists, people who've been engaged in far-right movements or Islamists, who are now heavily working against violent extremism and helping others," he says.

    Mr Ihler's team identify people who engage with or share extremist content on social media.

    "They've been surprisingly responsive and a lot of them are engaging in dialogue, sharing the reason why they've been radicalised," Mr Ihler says.

    Enticing someone to leave a group, he explains, comes down to practical solutions like employment and protection from those who would see an ex-member as a traitor.
    Education is key

    Across the different types of extremism, education is a factor that comes up time and again in preventing radicalisation.

    Rahmatollah Andar is a former member of the Taliban and can vouch for the need to educate youth.

    After eight years of fighting, he was imprisoned for three years for his involvement with the Taliban.

    "The upbringing of my family and the place where I studied in Pakistan influenced me," he says.

    "The fight of the Taliban is not straightforward, they call it jihad, but jihad is a holy war, and this is not."

    Mr Andar says the Taliban wouldn't let him leave.

    "They kidnapped my brother and I had to fight against them and I started an uprising," he says.

    Mr Andar now works with the Afghan Government in counter-violent extremism to educate those who may be influenced to join.

    "The youth [who join Islamic State or the Taliban], they have no education, they haven't studied, they live rurally where the Taliban are strong", he says.

    "In Afghanistan, death is normal and the chance to live is limited, especially for people working in counter-violent extremism."

    Saba Story Media & Research Organisation's Nangyallah Nang says his group focuses on contextualising holy text and streamlining religious rulings so it comes from approved channels, not recruitment groups.

    "We are graduating thousands of Ulema (religious leaders) a year, but there are no employment opportunities. They live in the districts with poor economic conditions," he says.

    "When the extremist groups come to them, they offer them some amount of salary."

    To offer an alternative, SSMRO trained thousands of students of religion to work in local radio stations to disseminate counter-violent extremism messages to the 2 million people who tune in.

    Mr Nang says while some youth were completely opposed to hearing counter-terrorism messages, many others abandoned support for the Taliban after their interaction.

    Beatriz Buarque's organisation Words Heal the World uses a similar approach in Brazil.

    They target university students, working with them to produce messages to challenge hate and their own stereotypes: 88 per cent of participants enrolled in their course indicated they had a different perspective on an ethnic or religious group on completion.

    "Students write articles, they do interviews, they produce short documentaries, social media campaigns and events, like a day about anti-semitism," Ms Buarque explains.

    "When they change their own misconceptions, they reproduce this with their friends, with their families and with their community."

    In Brazil and the UK, the course has become an elective at two major universities.


    New Bedford native speaks out against child marriage

    Susannah Sudborough / Boston University Statehouse Program
    Milford Daily News 
    June 15, 2019

    Monteiro said her husband would tell her she was a bad person who was going against Christ, and would punish her by trying to ruin her relationships with friends.

    BOSTON – Tammy Monteiro was married at 16.

    “My whole life has been a struggle to do basic things because I was married so young,” she said.

    Under Massachusetts law, a judge can give permission for a person of any age to marry if a parent gives consent. There is no statutory age limit. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,200 girls under the age of 18 were married in the commonwealth from 2000 to 2016.

    Human rights advocates say child marriage robs girls of their childhood and violates their human rights. Monteiro’s experience is no exception.

    Born Tammy Smith, she was born and raised in New Bedford. At age 3, her father was incarcerated, and from then on was in and out of prison. Her mother, she said, struggled to take care of her, as she suffered from mental illness, severe social anxiety, and was disabled and unable to work.

    “As a teen, I was raising my mother,” Monteiro said.

    Monteiro was put into a foster home at age 15.

    She then met a 24-year-old man who “took interest in her.” She said he had a Bible and would teach her Scripture. He was a part of the Branches of Christ Church congregation in Brockton, a sect that falls under the umbrella of a larger faith commonly known as the Black Hebrew Israelites.

    Followers of this religion, whose practices and affiliations can vary, are united in the belief that African Americans are the true descendants of the tribe of Israel, and believe they are God’s chosen people.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have called some denominations of this religion “hate groups” for their controversial views on LGBTQ+, white and Jewish people.

    Monteiro said the man told her she was a part of God’s chosen people, which made her feel special and appealed to her young sensibilities.
    “I was just a young girl looking for male acceptance,” Monteiro said.
    After less than a year, Monteiro said, the man told her that the only way they could be together was to be married. To do this, the couple would need the permission of both a judge and one of her parents. Her birth mother gave permission, Monteiro said, because she believed this man would take care of her daughter.

    “He was very charming, educated and well-spoken,” said Monteiro. “She fell for it. She thought she was doing the right thing.”

    Reborn as Raiyah
    As for the judge, Monteiro said he talked to the groom-to-be for about 20 minutes, asking why he wanted to marry her. She said he told the judge it was simply because he loved her. With no further investigation, the judge gave permission, giving her new husband full custody of her.

    In January 1999, they wed. From this point on, everything changed, Monteiro said. She said she was immediately pulled away from her friends and family. She was even given a new name as a part of being reborn in her new religion: Raiyah.
    “I was groomed and indoctrinated from the day we were married,” she said.

    As part of her new religion, Monteiro said, she had to follow a multitude of rules, such as always wearing a head covering, wearing only ankle-length dresses and specially decorated clothing, and eating a strict diet.

    Monteiro characterizes the religion as “male supremacist.” She said she was taught that women were not supposed to speak out, that wisdom was only given to men and that to “get right with God,” a woman must submit to her husband.

    On the church’s YouTube channels, leaders explain their beliefs regarding the role of women in two videos uploaded in November. The videos show one of the two church leaders teaching doctrine including ideas that women were created to serve their husbands, that independent women are being led by Satan, and that husbands are to rule over their wives.

    A friend of Monteiro’s who was a member of the church for 23 years and requested anonymity said that the church was even more restrictive in terms of what a woman was allowed to do when she first joined in the 1990s. She said they taught a wife was a man’s possession, and that the husband must “train” her.

    She said not everyone followed the doctrine to the letter, and that over time the focus of the church shifted from strict gender roles to finding peace in Christ. But, she said, it still teaches similar doctrine, including the idea that how a woman “serves” her husband is how she shows gratitude to God.

    A spokesperson for the Branches of Christ Church said that it neither encourages nor condones child marriage. The spokesperson also said church teachings come directly from the Bible, and that it does not believe in interpretation.

    Monteiro said she was taught that while her husband was out building his career, she was to be a keeper in the home and to have children, which she dutifully did. She said she was even praised as a role model for others.

    “People would say ‘see how Sister Raiyah obeys her husband?’” said Monteiro.

    This situation was ideal in the religion, the friend said. But she clarified this was not meant to keep a woman “captive,” and that the church did not encourage men to mistreat their wives. In fact, she said, most people coming into the congregation were looking to better their lives, and were looking for a life with more unity and family.

    “The goal is to get these men to stop smoking, stop drinking, read the Bible, read the Commandments,” said the friend.
    Still, she said, given the age difference between Monteiro and her husband, she believes her friend was not able to stand up for herself the way an older woman might have, and that her husband misused the teachings of the church.

    “You can give two people the same instruction, and based on where that person is in their mind, they could manipulate those scriptures to fit their own needs,” the friend said.

    Struggle for ‘sense of self’
    Monteiro said that while married, she was unable to build a career, educate herself or do anything but be his wife. She said she had to fight to be allowed to wear pants, go to the library and get her driver’s license.

    “I struggled to be my own person and find a sense of self,” said Monteiro.

    A few years into the marriage, Monteiro said she convinced her husband to leave the group. But even once he did, he retained the group’s rules and beliefs.

    Because she was supposed to “be fruitful and multiply,” Monteiro said she was not allowed to use contraception. As a result, over nearly 20 years, she gave birth to eight sons. Her eldest is now 19.

    Monteiro said being a mother and creating a family atmosphere came naturally to her. She said she considered herself a professional, home-schooling the children and doing her best to build a good life for them.

    “He expected me to be this super woman of God, which was so much to live up to,” said Monteiro.

    From the outside, the friend said Monteiro and her husband seemed happy. She described Monteiro as “a hell of a mother” and said she was always cheerful and finding meaning in the home she was building.

    “People thought we had a picture-perfect marriage,” said Monteiro. “We were married for so long and we had great kids. But under the surface, his relationship with me was bad.”

    Monteiro said her husband was nice to everyone else, including her children.

    “It was different with me because I was supposed to be his possession,” said Monteiro.

    During this time, Monteiro and her husband were interviewed by the Standard-Times of New Bedford when he lost his job. She said that while the article accurately portrayed their positive family life, the “high spirits” described in the article were not representative of what she was truly feeling.

    “If a reporter comes into your home, you’re going to act like everything is fine,” said Monteiro.

    ‘Living his truth’

    In 2012 and 2013, Monteiro went through a difficult time when her mother died and her sister committed suicide a few months later. Her husband was not supportive during this time, she said, and even often became angry at her for being sad, which weakened the marriage.

    “When my mom and sister died, I realized I had to live more authentically,” said Monteiro. “I was living his truth.”

    Monteiro said she began to change rapidly, working hard to educate herself. She said she became interested in other religions. She recalls going to the library and picking out books such as “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle, and other books on self-empowerment.

    But Monteiro said her husband told her that by doing these things she was not worshiping God the right way. She said he would tell her that she was a bad person who was going against Christ, and would punish her by trying to ruin her relationships with friends.

    When Monteiro finally asked for a divorce, she said her husband started to be more appreciative and do nice things for her. She stayed because she was forgiving and believed he would change, she said.
    “The first 15 years, he didn’t pay any attention to me,” said Monteiro. “Then I get rebellious and he’s smothering me.”

    Monteiro said she felt “emotionally squeezed” by her husband, who was controlling and paranoid about her interactions with others. She said that while she loved her husband, she was afraid of him.

    “He wouldn’t divorce me,” said Monteiro. “I was in a relationship with someone who didn’t accept me. He wanted me to stay the same.”

    Monteiro said the two tried to work out their differences but were unable. In the fall of 2017, she went to The Women’s Center in New Bedford to seek help. There she was shown a “spiritual abuse wheel,” that detailed what spiritual abuse is like. She said she was floored when she realized she had experienced everything listed.

    The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes spiritual (or religious) abuse as when someone ridicules or insults the other person’s religious or spiritual beliefs, prevents the other partner from practicing their religious or spiritual beliefs, uses their partner’s religious or spiritual beliefs to manipulate or shame them or uses religious texts or beliefs to minimize or rationalize abusive behaviors. It is often accompanied by other forms of abuse, such as emotional or physical.

    “It’s a different level of abuse when they’re using God as justification,” said Monteiro.

    Leaving the home

    In the final months of 2017, Monteiro said she made plans to leave the state. She took her three youngest children in the middle of the night and stayed with a friend who lived nearby for several weeks. She then traveled with the children to North Carolina, then on to Atlanta and finally to Pennsylvania where she currently resides.

    “The marriage left me spiritually strong but in financial ruin,” said Monteiro.

    Without a career or an education, Monteiro said, her husband had kept her dependent on him. When she left, he closed down her bank account and would not allow her to use her car.

    In the months following her departure, Monteiro said she was on the verge of homelessness and had to get food from pantries to get by.

    “This is what being married does to a person,” said Monteiro. “It leaves you in pieces.”

    Eventually, Monteiro said, her husband came to collect the children. He threatened legal action against her, and knowing nothing about the law, she acquiesced.
    “It was the hardest day of my life,” said Monteiro.

    Monteiro said her husband is currently preventing her youngest sons from having any contact with her, though her older sons have been able to. She is currently working with lawyers from Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that provides legal and emotional resources to women who are victims of child marriage, to gain visitation rights.

    Monteiro, now 36, works as an Uber driver, caregiver and activist. She has a new partner who helps empower her to tell her story.

    “He’s teaching me that I can be in a relationship and still be me,” said Monteiro.

    Her life has been much better since leaving her husband, Monteiro said. She said she hopes to one day become a minister and help other people who have been hurt by religion. She said she does not subscribe to any particular doctrine and sees beauty in all religions.

    Monteiro runs a Facebook page called “Sister Raiyah.” She said her followers, whom she considers her congregation, have donated money to help her, and that she does not know what she would have done without the emotional and financial support she has received through social media.

    “I’ve gotten to see who I am without him,” said Monteiro.

    Monteiro still goes by Raiyah, as she said she finds it difficult to relate to her original name. She maintains that her negative experiences all stem from being married as a minor, and believes the commonwealth bears some responsibility, as it allowed the marriage to take place.

    “Where my parents failed, the state should have held integrity,” said Monteiro.

    Monteiro said that she feels she lost out on her childhood and was unable to do all the things normal teenagers do.

    Still, she does not see herself as a victim. She said she wants to help other women in similar situations.
    In late March, Monteiro joined other survivors of child marriage at the Statehouse to protest child marriage and support House and Senate bills that would make 18 the absolute minimum age for marriage. In doing so, she became the first woman from Massachusetts to speak out about child marriage.

    “I know my future is bright,” she said.


    Jun 15, 2019

    Lurid testimony wraps up in case against NXIVM self-help guru

    Associated Press
    June 14th 2019

    NEW YORK (AP) — After weeks of relentlessly lurid testimony, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn on Friday wrapped up their sex trafficking case against Keith Raniere, the former spiritual leader of the self-improvement group NXIVM.

    Prosecutors and defense lawyers told the judge they were finished calling witnesses in a trial that has given a disturbing inside look at the bizarre world Raniere created for followers attracted to his cult-like group in upstate New York.

    Closing arguments and jury deliberations will happen next week.
    Since early May, jurors have been hearing testimony from what prosecutors say are former "sex slaves" who spoke about the torment of being branded with the Raniere's initials — their "supreme master."
    The jury has also seen alleged child pornography involving a teenage girl prosecutors say Raniere coerced into sex.
    Attorneys for Raniere, 58, say that he had no criminal intent and that his sexual encounters with female followers were consensual.
    Some takeaways from the trial as it heads into closing arguments and deliberations:

    100% OBEDIENCE

    Some of the most damning allegations against Raniere center on a Mexican teen whose family joined a NXIVM community based near Albany.
    Prosecutors say Raniere groomed her for sex, starting at age 15. They introduced a series of text messages between Raniere and the now-adult woman — whose name and those of other alleged victims were withheld to protect their privacy — to show he abused and manipulated her for years as one of his original slaves.
    One 2014 exchange:

    I need a vow of absolute obedience. I expect you to text me this vow now."

    "I vow to do as you say. . 100% obedience."

    In another text, Raniere wrote that he wanted to "find other virgins" for him.
    Prosecutors say the defendant, known within his groups as "Vanguard," also collected nude photos of the victim while she was still underage that were recovered from a computer during the investigation.
    They gave jurors a look at the photos while keeping the images hidden from everyone else in the courtroom.


    There was anticipation that the highest-profile defendant in the NXIVM case, TV actress and former Raniere loyalist Allison Mack, might testify at the trial in light of her guilty plea to conspiracy and other charges.
    She didn't, but her name came up several times in testimony identifying her as a "master" in a secret society of brainwashed sex slaves for Raniere sometimes called "The Vow."
    A former member of the sorority testified that Mack, best known for her role as a friend of a young Superman in the "Smallville" series, recruited her in 2016 and ordered her to do whatever Raniere wanted.

    Now, go be a good slave," she testified Mack told her.

    The 31-year-old witness said Raniere ended up tying her to a table while blindfolded so another woman could perform a sex act on her.
    She said it left her "completely in shock."


    "Master, please brand me. It would be an honor."
    It was after reciting those words in 2017, that Lauren Salzman was held down as another Raniere devotee used a cauterizing pen to etch the initials of Raniere into an area near her pelvis, according to her testimony. It was "the most painful thing I've ever experienced," she said.
    The 42-year-old Salzman, a former member of Raniere's inner circle who pleaded guilty and agreed to become a government cooperator, was one of two witnesses to testify about submitting to a barbaric ritual meant to show his slaves devotion to him.
    Salzman testified that she organized other brandings, inviting women to her house, where they were required to strip naked and sit blindfolded in a circle as part of the ritual.
    The first woman branded, she said, "was screaming and squealing."


    Another witness testified about turning the tables on the man known as a master manipulator.
    The 29-year-old witness testified that after taking NXIVM self-help courses as a way to overcome childhood traumas, she was recruited by Mack to join the sex slave subgroup. He said she was horrified when Mack gave an assignment in 2017 to "seduce" Raniere, something she should consider it an "honor."

    It was basically my worst nightmare come to life," she testified.

    Before anything happened, she said, she came up with a story that she needed to return to California to deal with a family illness. Then she flattered Raniere by writing him a glowing note about the "bliss" she had achieved because of him, saying "You are an incredible human being."

    It was a con job, she said.
    "Were you feeling more bliss?" she was asked on cross-examination.

    "Yeah," she shot back. "Because I was leaving."


    Nxivm trial testimony ends with video of founder discussing child sex abuse

    Sonia Moghe, CNN

    June 14, 2019

    New York (CNN)As testimony in the trial of Nxivm founder Keith Raniere concluded Friday, jurors watched a video of the leader of the cult-like group discussing his views on child sex abuse.

    Before resting their case after nearly six weeks of testimony, prosecutors played a video of Raniere, 58, talking about how the age of sexual consent differs in various countries and states.

    "Most people scream abuse, and a lot of times the screaming of abuse is abuse in itself," Raniere said, facing the camera as he sat at a kitchen table. "Some little children are perfectly happy with it."

    Prosecutors did not say when the video was shot.

    Raniere is facing charges including racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, human trafficking, sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of a child. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

    Prosecutors have accused Raniere of having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl. Earlier this week, they showed jurors graphic photos of the teen that were found on a computer believed to be his.

    Raniere's attorney, Marc Agnifilo, contested the time-stamping of the photos, saying it could be unreliable and easy to alter.

    But prosecutors pointed to testimony that the girl had a noticeable scar on her lower right abdomen from an appendectomy she had when she was 16. FBI case agent Michael Weniger, who investigated the case for nearly two years, testified the girl did not have that scar in the graphic photos presented in court.

    After prosecutors rested their case against Raniere on Friday, Agnifilo told US District Judge Nicholas Garaufis that he was not going to present a case in court. Raniere chose not to testify.

    Prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected to make their closing statements Monday morning. The jury, made up of eight men and four women, with four alternates, is expected to begin deliberations by Tuesday.

    Lesson plans on rape and abuse

    Witnesses discussed throughout the trial how Raniere's thoughts would be "downloaded" or transcribed and turned into lesson plans for Nxivm's "self-help" courses, which claimed to help people achieve success.

    Before the start of the trial, Agnifilo told CNN his client "firmly believes that his ideas are sound ideas, are good ideas, are humanitarian ideas."

    Weniger said in court that investigators found Nxivm course lesson plans that Raniere forwarded between two of his own email accounts. Some of the lesson plans were for a course aimed at women with a section on rape.

    "Do you know there's a certain percentage of women who have an orgasm when they get raped? Even if they don't want it," the lesson plan reads.

    Another section is entitled "rape as a metaphor for orgasm," and claims: "There is the tension ultimately of being overcome, the release, and it is a sexual experience."

    Former Nxivm members have testified about their interactions with Raniere, ranging from being held in isolation for years to being tied down and having sexual acts performed on them.

    Several women said they were recruited to be part of what they were told was a "women's empowerment group" within Nxivm. They were told to give damaging personal information about themselves, nude photos or other types of "collateral," before they could hear more about the group, known as DOS.

    Several testified that they had no idea that, once a member of the group, they would become "slaves" to "masters" in a chain that ended with Raniere as the head of the group, or "grandmaster."

    One woman, identified only as "Nicole" in court, testified that she was told to write a letter to a local news outlet falsely accusing her father of sexual assault.

    "There were so many things that were added on later once you were, like, sealed into this situation," she testified.

    She said she was later tasked with meeting up with Raniere, who blindfolded her and tied her wrists and ankles to corners of a table, and then had another DOS "slave" perform oral sex on her.

    Raniere was originally charged with five other co-defendants, all high-ranking women formerly from Nxivm who have pleaded guilty in the case. Former "Smallville" actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges.

    Lauren Salzman also pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges. Seagram's liquor heiress Clare Bronfman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain and fraudulent use of identification. Nxivm bookkeeper Kathy Russell pleaded guilty to one count of visa fraud, and Nxivm CEO Nancy Salzman pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy.

    CNN's Nicole Chavez contributed to this report.



    Jun 14, 2019

    From the Archives, 1987: Police raid on secretive sect "The Family"

    The Hamilton- Byrne sect school at Eildon on Bolte Bay.CREDIT:MARK WILSON
    David Elias
    The Age
    June 14, 2019

    First published in The Age on August 17, 1987

    Children taken into custody after raid on sect

    Police are trying to establish the identities of six children they have plucked from the bush hideaway of a secretive pseudo-religious sect where they have been kept locked away from society since they were babies.

    The six children, aged between 12 and 17, will be taken to the Children’s Court today to seek order for their care and protection under the Community Welfare Services Act.

    Meanwhile, Victorian and federal police will continue a long running investigation into the affairs of the cult, which is controlled by a mysterious 66-year-old woman guru who believes that she is a reincarnation of Jesus Christ and long dead figureheads from eastern religions.

    In a series of raids on properties owned by sect members and their guru, Mrs Anne Hamilton-Byrne, on Friday morning, police seized a number of prescription and non-prescription drugs of dependence, passports and photographs.

    According to police, the children are in a dazed and confused state, brought about by the sudden break from their life of seclusion in a house on the shores of Lake Eildon, where they have been raised under a strict regime by disciples of Mrs Hamilton Byrne.

    Over the years, the house has been home and school room to at least 14 children, most of whom were adopted by sect members on the instruction of the guru they call “The Teacher”. Most of them are now over 18 and some, on reaching majority, have left the group. It is understood they have volunteered help to the police investigation.

    Until ‘The Age’ carried out an investigation into the sect and the plight of the children in 1982, they were all made to have the same hair dyed blonde to satisfy a whim of Mrs Hamilton-Byrne, who always believed that they would lead a new order of humanity after a nuclear holocaust.

    The property is registered with the Education Department as a private tuition centre and, in 1982, a departmental inspector told ‘The Age’ that the children were well cared for, well clothed in uniforms and their educational standards were higher than normal for their respective ages.

    But, he said, he felt there was something strange about the set-up. They were regimented like the Von Trapp family of ‘The Sound of Music’ fame and each child when asked for his or her name immediately volunteered a date of birth. The officer said that while he had misgivings there was nothing which could be pinpointed to recommend d the registration should be refused.

    After the publication of a story about the children, a question was asked in State Parliament and the then Minister for Education, Mr Fordham, said that there were no grounds for rescinding the registration.

    Mrs Hamilton-Byrne, the daughter of a railway worker, was born Evelyn Edwards in Sale 66 years ago, but claims she is younger and has tried to hang on to her youth and beauty with a number of plastic surgery operations.

    She formed the sect, known as “The Family”, in the Dandenong ranges more than 20 years ago, after meeting a former member of Melbourne University’s Queens College, Dr Raynor Johnson, who was a scholar of and author of eastern religions and, until his death, a fervent believer in the spirituality of “the Teacher”.

    The sect’s beliefs are based on a hotch-potch of Yoga, Buddhism and Christianity and a doctrine of reincarnation and total obedience to the will of “The Teacher”. Its religious rites are practised in a modern temple in Ferny Creek. The temple is protected by barbed wire, padlocked gates and electronic security.

    At its height, the sect had more than 200 members, predominantly middle-class professionals, who have worked slavishly for Mrs Hamilton-Byrne and have helped her amass a large number of properties in Australia, Europe and America.

    Mrs Hamilton-Byrne travels extensively between her various homes but, since ‘The Age’ published its investigation, she has spent little time in Australia.

    The sect’s practices have also had a long connection with the hallucinogenic drugs LSD and psilocybin and, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, it had control of Newhaven, a private mental hospital in Kew where members were submitted to drug treatments, known as clearings.

    During these clearing, the subjects were supposed to have been take back into past lives so that they could establish a better understanding of the weakness in their characters and the reasons why they had been condemned to yet further tormented existences on earth.

    The drugs were usually administered by qualified medical practitioners who had been recruited into the group. When LSD was banned in the early 1970s the clearings continued, using whatever drugs were available.

    According to police, in Friday’s raids on two houses in the Dandenong Ranges, a small quantity of LSD was seized along with other drugs. Members of the groups have been interviewed about these drugs and passports in their possessions. No charges have been laid.

    The investigation by the Nunawading community policing squad was started more than two years ago and has been carried out in conjunction with the Federal Police. It is also understood that the sect is under separate investigations by both the Federal Police and the Federal Health Insurance Commission.


    Cult of Personality: Ties to the Fringe

    Being a member of associated with some fringe groups and communities can have serious implications

    Rolling Stone
    JUNE 13, 2019

    When we think of cults, we tend to picture charismatic leaders with legions of brainwashed followers, eager to devote their lives to the group’s mission. But in reality, most of us, at some point in our lives, have been seekers — open to discovering new ways of life and paths to enlightenment — and celebrities are no exception. Here are a few examples of some who were, at some point, either members of cults or fringe groups, or have some association with them.

    Jayne Mansfield

    When 20th Century Fox signed actor Jayne Mansfield in 1956, they primed her to be their next “blonde bombshell,” following in the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe. Though her films are largely forgettable, she remains one of the most iconic mid-century sex symbols, thanks to being one of the original Playboy Playmates, and a string of publicity stunts, which usually involved her in some state of undress.

    But what many don’t know about her is that she was thought to be involved with the Church of Satan. She met Anton LaVey, the high priest of the sect in 1966 and they struck up an unlikely relationship. Whether this was just another publicity stunt or something Mansfield truly believed in, rumors about this connection swirled after her untimely death in a car accident at the age of 34.

    Joaquin & River Phoenix

    Whether you’re more familiar with Joaquin Phoenix’s work in movies like Walk the Line and Her, or grew up watching his brother River in the iconic film Stand By Me, you may not know that the brothers grew up in a cult. In a 2014 interview with Playboy, Joaquin opened up about his unconventional upbringing in the Children of God fringe religious sect and traveling around South America with the group and his family in the early 1970s.

    Though the cult is best known for their recruitment technique called “flirty fishing” — where they would use young women lure in new members by having sex with them — Joaquin Phoenix said that his parents’ involvement with the group was “innocent” and they truly believed in their Christian-based message. Both Joaquin and River Phoenix decided to leave the cult — as did Rose McGowan. The activist and actor was also born into the group, but got out along with her parents once they started advocating adults having sex with children (a policy the group, now known as the Family International, has since abandoned).

    Toni Braxton

    In her 2014 memoir, Unbreak My Heart, R&B singer Toni Braxton wrote about her childhood in a rigid Apostolic Pentecostal congregation known as the “Pillar of Truth.” The group had many rules, including prohibiting seeing movies, listening to pop music, and celebrating holidays. Braxton did enjoy singing in the church’s children’s choir called the Sunshine Band.

    Like other extremist religious sects, the Pillar of Truth believed that the rapture was quickly approaching, and that the only way to be saved was to follow the church’s strict doctrine and speaking in tongues — which was considered evidence that a person was worthy of a spot in heaven. Living in fear, Braxton began to fake speaking in tongues at the age of eight. As she grew up, her family broke ties with the church and she began her musical career.

    From connections with the Church of Satan, to growing up in extremist religious sects, the association between celebrities and fringe groups is hard to ignore. Famous or not, we’re all searching for knowledge and truth, but some end up finding it in very different — sometimes dark — places.


    Nxivm: How a Sex Cult Leader Seduced and Programmed His Followers

    Former Nxivm members testified they were brainwashed into being branded and assigned to have sex with him.

    Colin Moynihan
    New York Times
    June 14, 2019

    When she first attended classes run by the self-help group Nxivm, Sylvie noticed multiple pictures on display of the group’s leader, Keith Raniere, known as Vanguard.

    People in the classes, held in Albany, appeared to venerate Mr. Raniere, Sylvie testified during his racketeering and sex trafficking trial. She said class participants clapped, bowed, huddled, recited a “mission statement” and then said in unison “Thank you, Vanguard!”

    The experience left her thinking she would never take another class, Sylvie said. Yet she did, eventually joining a clandestine subgroup within Nxivm in which she was called a “slave” and required to blindly obey a “master.” She even allowed Mr. Raniere to perform oral sex on her, believing she could not refuse.

    For six weeks, the question of how Mr. Raniere persuaded so many seemingly perceptive people to let him control their lives has hung over his federal racketeering trial in Brooklyn.

    Six former Nxivm members have taken the stand, providing a window into how the group indoctrinated people, undermined their moral beliefs and convinced them to blindly follow Mr. Raniere’s edicts, even when that meant breaking the law or tolerating unwelcome sexual contact.

    Over the years, Nxivm’s curriculum's provided the philosophical framework for a group in which members were taught to substitute Mr. Raniere’s principles for their own and see deviation from his teachings as heresy. The community was an echo chamber, witnesses said, and dissenters were subject to recrimination.

    At the root of Nxivm teachings, witnesses said, was the notion that people had to learn to override their instincts, behave rationally and reject social conventions that turned them into “robots.”

    Richard Ross, who runs the Cult Education Institute in Trenton, testified that he was hired by the parents of Nxivm members to extricate them from the group. “It became clear to me that this was a personality-driven group defined by a leader, eerily reminiscent of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard,” he said.

    Besides Sylvie, the jury has heard from three other witnesses: Daniela, “J” and Nicole, whose full names were withhold because they were considered victims.

    Two former high-ranking Nxivm leaders, Lauren Salzman and Mark Vicente, also testified. Ms. Salzman, whose mother founded Nxivm with Mr. Raniere, was indicted along with him but pleaded guilty in March.

    Dr. Janja Lalich, a sociologist at California State University, Chico, and an author of books on cults, said Nxivm shares characteristics with many of these types of groups.

    Cults often display a zealous commitment to a special and unaccountable leader, discourage dissent and control members through shame, guilt and peer pressure, she said.

    “The more that they have absorbed and internalized the belief system the harder it is to question it,” she said of cult members. “Your personal sense of self has been replaced by your cult self and when you’ve become enveloped in a sphere of influence all the aberrant behavior becomes normalized.”

    Mr. Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) in the 1990s as a self-help organization based near Albany. Members regarded him as the most ethical man in the world and someone who could help them lead more fulfilling lives.

    Prosecutors have said that he exploited his followers, who paid thousands of dollars for courses. Among other things, Mr. Raniere is accused of founding the secret subgroup, called D.O.S., which included women who were branded with his initials and assigned to have sex with him.

    He is now facing conspiracy, racketeering, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking charges.

    His lawyers have said that Mr. Raniere’s teachings benefited untold people and his sexual relationships were consensual. While some may question his methods, they said, Mr. Raniere acted in good faith.

    During the trial, several witnesses described Mr. Raniere’s exalted standing among his followers.

    “People would talk about how he could affect weather, how he would affect technology,” said Mr. Vicente, a filmmaker from Los Angeles. “By the time you saw him, it was a little bit like you were seeing, you know, some kind of god.”

    Ms. Salzman, who was among as many as 20 women said to have had a sexual relationship with Mr. Raniere, testified that some Nxivm programs were “creating a community of people and kind of even an army of people to insulate and protect Keith and his views and legitimize and advocate for the lifestyle that he wanted.”

    According to the testimony, Nxivm leaders sought to learn what people most wanted or feared, then presented courses as a solution.

    Mr. Vicente said that some upper-level courses were aimed at changing students’ “programming,” likening the process to hacking a computer. The courses eroded people’s “instinctual” sense of ethics, he said.

    “It in essence played with our moral compass,” he said.

    The courses served as a recruiting ground and a means of evaluating how susceptible people were to Mr. Raniere’s philosophy, said Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst and the author of a book that explores the relationship between cult leaders and their followers.

    Mr. Shaw, who said he had spoken with 20 or more former Nxivm members over the years, said the teachings were intended to improve people’s lives, but they were also designed to test the limits of how far they might go to advance Mr. Raniere’s goals.

    A Nxivm program called Jness taught that women are fundamentally self-absorbed, narcissistic and manipulative, Sylvie said, leading her to “hate the fact that I was a woman.”

    Sylvie, who joined the group at age 18, believed that additional classes could “fix” her. She testified that D.O.S. was presented as something that would “help me be the person that I’ve always wanted to be.” Nobody told her that Mr. Raniere was involved.

    To join she gave explicit photographs of herself to a senior D.O.S. member, Monica Duran. Sylvie said she was told that providing “collateral” was meant to show dedication.

    In reality, she said, the fear of its dissemination made her feel she could not refuse orders from her master, Ms. Duran, including one that led her to a bedroom where Mr. Raniere performed oral sex on her.

    “It just felt like in a whole different realm of darkness,” she said. “It was nothing like what I expected in the conversation with Monica in the Jness room about me becoming a better person.”

    Some ex-Nxivm members said that they remained in the group despite reservations partly because they did not want to doubt people and programs they had trusted.

    An actress from California named Nicole said she joined D.O.S. at the invitation of Allison Mack, known for her role on the television series “Smallville,” whom she looked upon as a mentor. Ms. Mack assuaged any fears she had.

    “I was already stuck,” Nicole testified. “I wanted to believe her.”

    Another witness, identified as “J,” testified that her D.O.S. collateral included an account of being sexually molested when she was 12. Ms. Mack later told her that fulfilling an assignment to “seduce” Mr. Raniere would help heal the trauma from that incident, “J” said.

    “My understanding now is that I was being groomed to be part of his harem,” she testified, adding that she fled and did not carry out the assignment.

    Nxivm members were also conditioned to believe in Mr. Raniere’s moral superiority. People who displeased him were often accused of “ethical breaches,” witnesses said, and were expected to repair them through “penance.” Those who did not could be shunned.

    Daniela, whose parents moved to New York State from Mexico to join Nxivm, testified that Mr. Raniere began a sexual relationship with her and with her younger sister when both were teenagers. He became enraged, Daniela said, when she told him she was attracted to another man. But Mr. Raniere told others that Daniela was being punished for acting overly “prideful.”

    “I felt that I was bad, that I had done something wrong, that really I had something that I needed to fix,” Daniela testified.

    Finally, Mr. Raniere directed that she be confined to a room until she had mended her breach.

    She remained in the room for nearly two years until her father and a senior Nxivm member drove her to the Mexican border.

    “I think that we were being incredibly abusive,” Ms. Salzman testified. “Nothing she could do was the right thing, and she got no help and was just cast out of the family.”

    A version of this article appears in print on June 14, 2019, on Page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Members Spellbound By ‘Some Kind of God’ Tell of Shadowy Group.