Sex slaves, branding, actresses, heiresses, extortion and fraud — a jury in New York began hearing evidence about all of that and more this week, as the trial of the spiritual leader of the secretive upstate organization called NXIVM started.
The “self-help” guru who allegedly ran the cult-like society appeared at a federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, and some of his former female supporters were among the first to take the stand.
Six people had been due to appear in the dock, but 58-year-old Keith Raniere will now be the only one to stand trial. He faces a host of federal charges, including sex trafficking, extortion and conspiracy.
The other five — all women who held management positions in various organizations headed by Raniere, including actress Allison Mack and Seagram liquor fortune heiress Clare Bronfman — have pleaded guilty one by one as part of plea deals.
Raniere was the leader of NXIVM, a purported life coaching group that prosecutors say instead extorted money from followers and enabled the accused to sexually exploit female devotees.
Over the course of two decades, more than 16,000 people took at least one of Raniere’s “self-help” workshops, which promised to develop a student’s “human potential” — to the tune of $5,000 for a five-day course.
Many who signed up quickly became indebted and ended up having to work for NXIVM (pronounced Nexium) to pay for their courses.
Bronfman, the 40-year-old daughter of the late World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman Sr., was a member of NXIVM’s executive board, and was accused of using her wealth to fund the group to the tune of more than $100 million.
Under her plea agreement, Bronfman admitted to harboring someone who was living in the US illegally for unpaid “labor and services” and to committing credit card fraud on behalf of Raniere. She now faces up to 25 years in prison, but federal sentencing guidelines will likely see her incarcerated for up to just 27 months. Her sentencing hearing is set to take place July 25.
“He was a mentor, but he was a predator,” federal prosecutor Tanya Hajjar said of Raniere in her opening statement on Tuesday. “He was a leader of a criminal organization.”
In two days of testimony, the first witness described herself as a lost soul from England who was introduced to NXIVM at age 18 by Bronfman.
She said she had hoped to overcome her fears in life by taking courses that earned her a position as a “coach” in NXIVM. Women who joined were expected to watch their weight and adhere to Raniere’s slogans like, “There are no ultimate victims, therefore I will not chose to be a victim,” she said.
In 2015, she was recruited for the secret society, agreeing to turn over nude photos and other embarrassing “collateral” that could be used against her if she disobeyed her masters, she said.
Her status as a slave meant she had to idolize Raniere and follow his commands, even if it meant submitting to having sex with him, she said. “I think I felt shame and still do, honestly, about the whole thing,” she said. “I felt everything was lies and secrets and darkness.”
Another former female member testifying using only her first name claimed that she was groomed by a “master” working under Raniere to become his “slave.” She testified that the man known within the group as “Vanguard” performed unwanted oral sex on her and afterward told her it meant that he was her “grand master.”
Raniere has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers have claimed that any sexual contact he had with female followers was consensual.
On the third day of trial, former NXIVM official Mark Vicente described his despair to the jury after learning about allegations that Raniere assembled a harem of sex slaves that he branded with his initials.
Vicente, the former board of directors member took off his glasses and appeared to wipe away tears when a prosecutor asked him to read to himself a copy of the group’s mission statement about Raniere’s prescription for enlightenment.
“It’s a fraud,” he said after he composed himself during Thursday’s hearing. “It’s a lie.”
Vicente, 53, had served on NXIVM’s board alongside Bronfman. But unlike Bronfman, he has not been charged in the case.
Prosecutors used Vicente to describe how NXIVM members used a “sales pitch” promising Raniere’s new age methods would help them cast off their irrational fears. He said they paid $6,000 tuition to take the first of a series of courses that would elevate them to different levels of achievement as long as they also recruited new members — what prosecutors have described as a pyramid scheme.
There were various ploys and constant paranoia: Raniere cooked up new curriculums as a way to bolster finances. Cameras and other technology portrayed to followers as an internal communications system actually were used to spy on them, just as Raniere believed the government was spying on him because he knew too much.
“He told me he was being watched all the time,” Vicente said.
Members of Raniere’s inner circle spoke in hushed tones “about how he could affect the weather,” he said. Lower-level true believers who got a chance to meet him acted as if he was “some kind of god,” he added.
Asked how he feels now, Vicente didn’t mince words.
“I feel bamboozled,” he said. “I feel fooled.”