An heiress to the Seagram Company fortune was arrested in a widening probe of a self-help organisation that prosecutors say was a secretive cult that branded its victims and forced them to participate in sexual acts.
Clare Bronfman, the daughter of former Seagram chairman Edgar Bronfman, was one of four women charged today in connection with the investigation of Nxivm, an Albany, New York-based multi-level marketing company founded by Keith Raniere.
The new charges add a bizarre twist to a sensational case that generated headlines with the April arrest of Allison Mack, 35, an actress who allegedly recruited slaves for Raniere.
A month earlier, Raniere, 57, was apprehended in Mexico and accused of sex trafficking and forced labour. He's being held in custody. Both deny wrongdoing.
Bronfman, 39, is one of seven children of her father, a second-generation heir who captained Seagram's expansion during his years leading the company.
She, Kathy Russell, 60, Lauren Salzman, 42, and Nancy Salzman, 64, were allegedly members of Raniere's inner circle who recruited and groomed sexual partners for him.
Prosecutors said Nxivm operated like a pyramid scheme, charging participants thousands of dollars for courses while encouraging them to sign up for more and recruit others. Raniere created a "secret society" within the organisation in 2015, known as DOS, with women serving as "slaves" overseen by "masters," according to prosecutors.
Recruits were expected to provide "collateral" before joining - including damaging information about friends and family, nude photographs and rights to assets - that could be used against them if they revealed the existence of the organisation or tried to leave, prosecutors said. Many "slaves" were branded on their pelvic areas with a cauterising gun with a symbol that incorporated Raniere's initials, according to prosecutors.
Using trust funds established by her grandfather, Clare Bronfman loaned US$65 million to Raniere, which he lost trading in commodities markets, prosecutors said in a letter today arguing that she and the other defendants might flee before a trial.
She has a private jet and a stake in a private island in Fiji. In the last three years she's travelled to Paris, Mexico City, Toluca, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Vancouver, Toronto, Israel, Fiji and Havana.
Clare Bronfman served on Nxivm's executive board from 2009 until this year, prosecutors said. They said she and Rainier conspired to steal email user names and passwords to spy on his critics.
In a 2010 article, Vanity Fair painted Clare's sister Sara as the more outgoing of the pair and the first to join Nxivm, "desperately looking for some purpose in her life," according to a family friend.
She urged Clare, then 23 and a competitive equestrian jumper who trained horses and owned her own company, to attend a workshop. Clare showed up in a dirty T-shirt and, an unnamed female Nxivm trainer recalled: "She would tell people that she had decided to spend the rest of her life with horses, because she didn't like human beings."
Raniere's influence over Clare led her to sell most of her horses, put her US$7 million New Hope, Pennsylvania, estate on the market, and throw herself into managing Raniere-inspired projects, according to the article.
Sara and Clare Bronfman declined to comment for the Vanity Fair story. A call to a foundation tied to Sara Bronfman wasn't immediately returned.
The four women are scheduled to appear in federal court in Brooklyn and Albany, New York. The company said on its website that it has suspended events until further notice.