Aug 30, 2020

Nxivm ‘Sex Cult’ Leader Should Get Life in Prison, Prosecutors Say

Keith Raniere was convicted last year in a trial that exposed the inner workings of the group, in which women were branded and coerced into sex.
Keith Raniere was convicted last year in a trial that exposed the inner workings of the group, in which women were branded and coerced into sex.

Colin Moynihan
New York Times
August 28, 2020

The self-help group Nxivm gained notoriety as a “sex cult” last year when its leader, Keith Raniere, was convicted of sex trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy after testimony that he had created a harem of sexual “slaves,” branded with his initials and kept in line with blackmail.

Now, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have asked that Mr. Raniere be sentenced to life in prison, citing the severity of his crimes and his lack of remorse, reflected in communications with supporters in which he denigrated his victims.

For more than a decade, Mr. Raniere, known to his followers as Vanguard, claimed that Nxivm could help people find enlightenment and inner peace. But Mr. Raniere, who attracted high-profile adherents like the actress Allison Mack and the liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, instead preyed upon Nxivm’s members, presenting himself as an omnipotent savant and forming a secret subgroup called D.O.S., in which women were assigned to have sex with him.

“Raniere wreaked a path of destruction through his victims’ lives,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo that was filed with the court on Thursday, adding that he “concealed his abuse behind the smoke screen of his supposed ‘personal growth’ programs — a charade he continues to this day.”

Mr. Raniere, 60, is set to be sentenced on Oct. 27. One of his lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, wrote in an email on Friday that Mr. Raniere was maintaining his innocence and that he continued to believe in his teachings.

“He is committed to fighting his case,” Mr. Agnifilo added. “And believes he will be vindicated.”

The six-week trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn drew upon testimony from several former Nxivm members, some of whom said that Mr. Raniere had sexually abused them. Evidence, including videos of Nxivm events, provided an inside view of how the group operated and showed how he wielded near-absolute power.

One former Nxivm member, Mark Vicente, testified that Mr. Raniere was seen as “some kind of god.” Many followers believed his teachings to be so powerful that they could change the weather.

Mr. Raniere portrayed himself to followers as a misunderstood genius, spied upon by government agencies as part of a conspiracy that “reached the highest levels” because of his high I.Q. and problem-solving abilities.

He co-founded Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) with Nancy Salzman near Albany, N.Y., in the 1990s as a self-help organization. Eventually, more than 16,000 people paid substantial amounts of money to take the group’s classes in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

At the trial, witnesses described Mr. Raniere’s views of women as deeply misogynistic. He demanded that some women starve themselves to attain the physique he found most appealing and sometimes grunted like a pig when women went to eat, according to testimony. Although he had simultaneous sexual relationships with up to a dozen women within Nxivm, those women were told they could only have sex with him.

Those sexual relationships included a 15-year-old from Mexico who was identified at trial by only her first name, Camila, prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo, adding that Mr. Raniere took nude photographs of her that constituted child pornography.

He also had a sexual relationship with Camila’s older sister, Daniela. When Daniela displeased him by saying that she was attracted to another man, Mr. Raniere ordered that she be confined to a room for nearly two years, demanding that she apologize to him, withholding her birth certificate and threatening to send her back to Mexico.

Mr. Raniere also directed Daniela to obtain the user names and passwords for email accounts belonging to people he saw as enemies of Nxivm, prosecutors wrote. Among them was the liquor magnate Edgar Bronfman, who had referred to Nxivm as a “cult” and whose daughter, Clare, acted as one of Mr. Raniere’s chief deputies and subsidized some Nxivm activities.

Nxivm eventually began disintegrating, partly as a result of Mr. Raniere’s formation in 2015 of the clandestine subgroup D.O.S., an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions.”

He recruited eight women, including Ms. Mack, known for her role in the television series “Smallville,” as “first-line masters.” Ms. Mack and the other women were considered Mr. Raniere’s “slaves” and also recruited slaves of their own.

Recruits were told that D.O.S. was formed to empower women and that as a condition of joining they were required to provide “collateral” — embarrassing and incriminating information, including nude pictures and false confessions of being a prostitute.

That material was then used to coerce women, including some who were assigned to have sex with Mr. Raniere, prosecutors said. Mr. Raniere also directed that D.O.S. members be branded with a logo that included his initials, describing a ceremony to Ms. Mack in which women were to “be completely nude and sort of held to the table like a, sort of almost like a sacrifice?” and required to say, “Master, please brand me. It would be an honor.”

When Mr. Raniere learned that The New York Times was about to publish an article about D.O.S., prosecutors wrote in their memo, he and Ms. Bronfman drafted intimidating cease-and-desist letters to victims who they feared would talk with reporters, saying “people in the media” can “force unwitting, uninformed, participants to complicate situations.”

Earlier, Mr. Raniere had directed others, including Ms. Salzman’s daughter, Lauren, to lie about his involvement in the group. Lauren Salzman later testified that she had misled reporters and the public.

Prosecutors said that Mr. Raniere’s unwillingness to acknowledge his actions and accept guilt has continued as he has maintained contact with followers while awaiting sentencing, even entering aliases for some of them onto a Bureau of Prisons contact list in an apparent effort to prevent the authorities from knowing whom he was communicating with.

According to government exhibits filed on Thursday, Mr. Raniere sent an email in November to Nicki Clyne, an actress with a role on the television show “Battlestar Galactica” who was also a “first-line” D.O.S. member, saying: “The sorority is good — not just good and even noble, but great.” During a phone call in April with another supporter, Mr. Raniere said that “the major witnesses all lied” and claimed that the judge who presided over his trial was corrupt.

Mr. Raniere also told his supporters to develop a podcast and set up a contest in which members of the public would be invited to find purported errors in his prosecution and trial in exchange for a cash prize, prosecutors wrote.

And Mr. Raniere appears to have hung onto his belief that he is being persecuted because of his important work, describing himself as a “nonviolent peace movement leader” in an email to a supporter.

“This situation has been a purely political, envy-driven, money-powered lie,” he added. “This lie is perpetrated by certain politicians, prosecutors, lobbyist, agents, judges, and people of influence.”


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

Nxivm: How a Sex Cult Leader Seduced and Programmed His Followers
June 14, 2019

Review: ‘The Vow’ Follows Nxivm Down Dark, Damaging Paths
Aug. 23, 2020

No comments: