Keith Raniere led a group in which women were branded and taught to revere him. Now, he's on trial, and testimony is expected to be prurient, bizarre and nauseating, court filings suggest. Barry Meier from The New York Times reports.
It seems a fitting final act to a strange saga: On Tuesday, Keith Raniere, who once led a cultlike group in which women were branded and taught to idolise him, will face trial alone, abandoned not only by the women he subjugated and abused, but by those who served him loyally for years.
For two decades, Keith Raniere, 58, was referred to as "Vanguard" by his followers in a group called NXIVM (pronounced Nex-e-um).
He ordered women to maintain near-starvation diets to achieve the type of body he found desirable and punished those who disobeyed his edict to have sex only with him, former followers said. In recent years, some women were branded on their pelvis with a symbol containing Raniere's initials, an act he described in a text message as a "tribute" to him.
During his trial in Brooklyn federal court, which is expected to last six weeks, jurors will hear testimony that will be prurient, bizarre and nauseating, court filings suggest. Among the graphic details: Prosecutors plan to use pictures of a naked 15-year-old girl in Raniere's bed to prove he exploited underage women.
Several women are also expected to describe the agony they endured when the symbol containing Raniere's initials was burned into their skin. And a woman from Mexico is likely to testify that she was kept for 18 months as a virtual prisoner in the home of one of Raniere's supporters because she had defied his order not to become romantically involved with someone else.
In recent weeks, five women who were Raniere's co-defendants pleaded guilty to various federal charges, and it is anticipated that some may appear at his trial. Others who were in the group and their relatives had hoped that Raniere also would strike a plea deal to spare his former followers the ordeal of testifying in public.
"My one reservation about the trial is that these victims are going to have testify and it is going to be terribly traumatic for them," said Catherine Oxenberg, an actress whose daughter, India, was a member of NXIVM. "If Keith had any decency, he would plead out."
Doing so, however, would have required Raniere to publicly acknowledge he is someone other than the person he has long professed to be — a brilliant philosopher blessed with a vision of how to create a better world.
He persuaded his followers that if they followed his teachings, they would become stronger people would live more meaningful lives. "Humans can be noble," he stated on his personal website, which no longer exists. "The question is: will we put forth what is necessary?"
Started in 1998, NXIVM, which was based in Albany, New York, offered workshops that it said offered skills that could provide participants a path to greater self-fulfilment. But for some people, those sessions served as a portal into the sort of communal madness associated with a cult.
NXIVM members were taught that Raniere was the "smartest and most ethical person" alive, according to a court filing. He also described himself as one of the world's top three problem solvers; he claimed that he spoke in complete sentences by age one and had graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, with three academic degrees.
On a recent day, while US District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis questioned prospective jurors, Raniere sat next to his lawyers, looking diminished after 13 months in custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center. His hair, which had once been shoulder-length, was cut short.
He had pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. His lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, said Raniere believed the work he did through NXIVM was important and was intended to help people and raise the level of humanity.
"He devoted every waking moment to it," Agnifilo said.
Over time, an estimated 16,000 people in the United States and Mexico took NXIVM courses, which cost over $5,000 each. The group, which was founded by Raniere and a partner, Nancy Salzman, offered techniques that it said could help people overcome psychological and emotional roadblocks and achieve greater success.
NXIVM attracted wealthy supporters including Sara and Clare Bronfman, the youngest daughters of Edgar Bronfman, the deceased chairman of Seagram Co.
An actress, Allison Mack, known for her role in the television series Smallville, also became one of Raniere's acolytes. She soon gave up her acting career and spent much of her time in Clifton Park, New York, the Albany suburb where most of Raniere's closest followers lived.
During the height of his power, NXIVM members celebrated Raniere's birthday with a festival known as "V Week," during which he was regaled with songs and praise, former members said. On most days, he would sleep during daylight hours, emerging at night to play volleyball or take female followers for long walks.
Raniere demanded obedience from his male followers. But his treatment of women suggested a deep well of misogyny.
The diet he insisted female followers adopt was so severe that some of them stopped menstruating, former members said. At meetings of a NXIVM-affiliated group called "Society of Protectors," women were forced to wear fake cow udders over their breasts while men called them derogatory names, according to court filings.
NXIVM had long succeeded in fending off scrutiny. In 2012, when a series of articles in a newspaper, The Albany Times-Union, described alleged abuses within the group, officials largely ignored the disclosures.
Clare Bronfman, who rose to become one of NXIVM's executives, took on the role of its legal enforcer, filing numerous lawsuits against people perceived as the group's enemies, prosecutors said.
Mark Vicente, a documentary filmmaker who also was once a NXIVM executive, said in an earlier interview that Raniere was highly skilled in convincing his followers that criticism of the group reflected attacks aimed at undermining him and NXIVM's mission.
But as NXIVM's practices grew more troubling, that strategy unravelled.
About two years ago, some of Raniere's closest female associates including Mack, the actress, and Salzman's daughter, Lauren Salzman, formed a secret sorority within NXIVM known as DOS, former members said. The initials are an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly translates to "Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions."
Mack and Lauren Salzman approached other female followers of Raniere and told them the sorority had been formed to "empower" women, these former members said. But to join it, women would have to agree to become their "slaves" and give them naked photographs or other compromising material. They were warned such "collateral" would publicly disclosed if they revealed the sorority's existence.
It was to seal that vow of sisterhood that some women underwent branding ceremonies unaware that the symbol used contained Raniere's initials, the former members said. When one of his female followers learned about the practice she confronted him, but he appeared to shrug it off.
"if it were abraham lincolns or bill gates initials no one would care," he wrote in a text message to the woman.
Word of the branding ceremony first appeared on a website run by a critic of NXIVM, Frank R. Parlato Jr., a Buffalo-area businessman who was once close to the group.
Then, after The New York Times ran a story in late 2017 about the group's practices, the Justice Department launched an investigation.
When that inquiry began, Raniere went to Mexico. But in March 2018, US federal agents located him there and the Mexican authorities arrested him on sex-trafficking charges. He was extradited to the United States and, not long afterward, Mack was also indicted on similar charges.
The sex-trafficking charges arose out of claims that the women were coerced into having sex with Raniere because they feared the compromising material they had given to join the secret sorority might be released.
Last July, prosecutors issued a racketeering indictment against Raniere, Mack and four other NXIVM members; Nancy Salzman, Lauren Salzman, Clare Bronfman and Kathy Russell, who worked as the group's bookkeeper. They were charged with conspiring with Raniere to commit a variety of crimes, including extortion, computer hacking, human trafficking and obstruction of justice.
Raniere is also accused of possession of child pornography and sexual exploitation of a child. If convicted on all counts, he could face life in prison.
Over the past year, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, led by Moira Kim Penza and Tanya Hajjar, have sought to cast Raniere as a sexual predator who fabricated his past. A review of his college transcript, they stated in one court filing, showed that he had graduated "with a 2.26 GPA, having failed or barely passed many of the upper-level math and science classes he bragged about taking."
For Raniere's co-defendants, the prospect of lengthy prison terms outweighed their years of devotion to him. But some of the women who pleaded guilty were also apparently shocked by information gathered by prosecutors indicating that Raniere's involvement with underage girls, three people with knowledge of the case said. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
As for Raniere's former followers, several said in interviews they were still trying to recover from the trauma of having been part of a cult. One woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of damaging her career, said she experiences difficult emotions every time the NXIVM case resurfaces in the news.
"I had never thought of myself before as a naïve person, but now I have lost trust of my own judgment," she said.
Former NXIVM members said they believed that Raniere was relishing the prospect of his trial because they thought he viewed it as a perfect forum for the public to witness his brilliance.
Oxenberg, the actress whose daughter was in NXIVM, said there was only one outcome for his trial that would satisfy her. "I would like to see him behind bars for the rest of his life," she said