For two years, she said she was kept in a single room with blacked-out windows. She had only one set of clothes, which she wore for weeks at a time without washing. And she barely had any contact with the outside world.
The story of forced isolation came from a woman, identified by prosecutors only as “Daniela,” who testified last week in the trial against Keith Raniere, the founder of Nxivm, the Albany, New York-based company that sold pricey classes claiming to help people achieve success.
Raniere faces federal charges of racketeering, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child and human trafficking, among others. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
Daniela described how she went from being a bright and promising high school student in Mexico with dreams of becoming a scientist to being pulled into the self-help curriculum of Nxivm, and eventually kept in isolation in a room for nearly two years at the direction of members of the cult-like group.
“Was the door locked?” prosecutor Moira Penza asked.
“No,” Daniela testified.
“Did you feel like you could leave the room?” Penza asked.
Daniela testified that Raniere and other Nxivm members convinced her own family that she had done something horrible enough to warrant being held in a room in isolation, and that they enlisted her family’s help to keep her there. She went years without seeing her family.
How did she get there?
Nearly a decade earlier, Daniela was one of the top students in Mexico. She’d gained admission to an elite high school in Switzerland and her father, Hector, gave her Nxivm classes as a farewell present in 2002, before she was set to leave for Europe.
Through the course of the lessons, Daniela testified, Nxivm members discouraged her from completing high school, and they encouraged her to help the group’s mission and move to Albany – which she did that fall.
She did not learn computer programming, as she was promised, but did work organizing Raniere’s library and writing summaries of books for him. She also testified that, at Raniere’s direction, she was instructed to hack into the computers of perceived Nxivm enemies, mostly former members of the group. She was not paid for much of her work, she said.
While a minor, Daniela testified, she was groomed for a sexual relationship by Raniere, who she said had sex with her days after her 18th birthday.
By 2005, Daniela’s entire family – her father and mother and three siblings – had followed in her footsteps to join the Nxivm community in Clifton Park, just outside Albany. Daniela said her parents were fans of Raniere’s classes, and the entire family took part in Nxivm community activities.
Daniela’s parents were unaware that she was having a sexual relationship with Raniere, whom most Nxivm members believed to be celibate. If you had a relationship with Raniere, Daniela testified, you committed to be with only him for life. But she said Raniere himself had sexual relationships with multiple women simultaneously.
Daniela said she later found out Raniere was also having sex with both her sisters. All three of the sisters had gotten pregnant by Raniere at different times and had abortions at his urging, Daniela said.
Daniela said she was disturbed knowing that Raniere was having a relationship with her sisters and many other women in the Nxivm community, and their relationship slowly began to unravel. It finally deteriorated over what was known in the Nxivm community as “an ethical breach.” She said she had feelings for another Nxivm member – the pair had kissed and he’d touched her under her clothes a few times in 2007. Daniela decided to tell Raniere about the relationship that year.
“In my mind, it was simple: I was going to talk to Keith and almost negotiate.” But after she told Raniere about her interaction with the other member, Daniela said, he blew up. Their relationship and Daniela’s life were never the same.
“It was an immediate isolation, like a shunning of sorts.”
She said she and Raniere began to correspond by email only. He would incessantly ask her for details about her interaction with the other man. She said her freedom and possessions slowly started being taken away from her: her iPod, phone, computer, and even her immigration and identification papers – her only way of getting on a plane or leaving the country.
Daniela testified that Raniere and other Nxivm members enlisted the help of her own family to “work on her.” They were told, “Your daughter is prideful and destructive.’”
Her family didn’t know that the basis of Daniela’s “ethical breach” was that she had developed feelings for another man. Instead, Raniere told her family about an incident years earlier in which she had stolen and promptly returned money. Raniere encouraged her family to be strict with Daniela.
“It was a tightly controlled environment around me,” she testified.
She said she had to ask permission to sleep, eat or go out.
Daniela said she was determined to leave in 2009. “I really was sick of this life.” But other Nxivm members would intimidate her into staying, she said, with one even telling her, “You can’t leave. You destroyed so much. We brought you here. You owe us.”
She felt that she couldn’t go to the authorities because she had been in the country without legal immigration status for several years by that point. She had last crossed the border illegally in 2004 with the help of Kathy Russell, a co-defendant who has pleaded guilty in the case to one count of visa fraud.
In March 2009, Daniela said, she had had enough. She emailed Raniere to tell him she wanted nothing to do with him and that their time together had been “half dream, half nightmare.” She said Raniere told her: “You need to not only make me a part of your life, I need to be your WHOLE life.”
“I want to go to school,” Daniela said she told Raniere in her email. “I want to do something with my life. I want to work. I want to make money, be self-sufficient.”
According to Daniela’s testimony, Raniere responded: “You should reject this thinking at all costs,” and “this is the biggest mistake of your life.”
Every waking hour of her life was focused on how to repair her so-called ethical breach, Daniela testified. She said her parents and high-ranking members told her the only way to fix things would be to stay in isolation in a room in her family’s home indefinitely.
“I said, ‘No way.’ There’s no way I was going in that room,” she recalls.
But it was her once tight-knit family that made her change her mind, she testified.
In a recorded conversation between Raniere and Daniela’s mother, played in court, Raniere is heard telling Daniela’s mother she needs to be more strict with her daughter, and mentions vaguely that Daniela has done something bad – saying what she had done was equivalent to having “killed a child,” according to the audio played in court.
“If I were (Daniela’s) parents and she were going back to Mexico, I would make her choose between staying here and doing the right thing, or losing communication with me,” Raniere is overheard saying in the recording. “Sometimes it has to be that strict.”
In the recording, Raniere repeatedly compares what Daniela did to the killing of a child, and Daniela’s sister is faintly overheard interpreting the conversation for her mother. It is unclear whether the translation is accurate.
Penza, the prosecutor, asked Daniela whether she had actually killed a child.
“No,” Daniela testified.
“What had you done?” Penza asked.
Daniela responded by testifying she had kissed another man.
On March 9, 2010, Daniela entered the room, which was simply a bedroom in her family’s home, where she would stay in isolation for an unspecified amount of time.
“It was really clear that my parents were on board and I was going to lose my family. It was the only thing that I had.”
‘I want to come out of this room’
Daniela, who remained unemotional throughout much of her testimony, began to cry as she described the years she spent in the room, alone, with nothing to do except write letters to Raniere. She would reread the backs of shampoo bottles in French and English. She made a newsletter for each of her family members, calling it “The Wilton Times” – the name of the street on which the house was located. She cut her hair.
“It was something I could control,” she testified. “It was something I could do.”
Daniela said she was told that cutting her hair was another “ethical breach” and that she would not be let out of the room until it grew back.
“That would be years,” Daniela testified.
For the entire time she was in the room, the only person she says she saw was Lauren Salzman, who would visit her occasionally for “coaching” – to see whether she had fixed her “ethical breach.” Salzman is another co-defendant in the case and has pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges.
Daniela said she asked to leave the room multiple times over the years, but it was only Raniere who could determine whether she had fixed her “ethical breach.” She wrote to him every day, as instructed.
“I think I’ve made myself very clear,” Daniela wrote to Raniere on October 30, 2010. “I want to come out of this room.”
She said she was so starved for human interaction that she would lean against the wall of her room to try to listen to any noises that came through the air vents. She once snuck out of the room when no one else was at home, figured out her father’s Facebook password and logged in – just so she could see pictures of her family.
“I just wanted to see them – and it was great seeing them,” she testified.
The time she spent in the room quickly took its toll on her psyche, and she testified that she began having suicidal thoughts. On the day she decided to try to kill herself, she caught a glimpse of a bird outside her window with a nest of baby birds and changed her mind.
“F–k everybody,” she said firmly in court. “F–k you, Mom. F–k you, Dad. Go f–k yourselves – but I’m going to live.”
She said she immediately gained the strength to walk out of the house.
Raniere’s defense attorney Marc Agnifilo has argued that his sexual relationships with Nxivm followers were consensual. During Daniela’s cross examination, Agnifilo asked her why she didn’t just walk out of the room. Daniela testified that she feared her family would no longer speak to her, and that she would have no place to go, since her legal documents had been taken away by her family, at the urging of Nxivm members including Raniere.
Raniere’s attorneys did not respond for a request for comment on the specific allegations Daniela made in her testimony.
Building a new life
It was February 2012 when Daniela walked out of the room. She said she was quickly ushered out of the community, escorted to the US-Mexico border by her father and another Nxivm member. She had less than $80.
She moved to what she determined through an internet search to be the “safest city” in Mexico and slowly began to rebuild her life.
She found a temporary job, a place to live and made contacts – and was able to get a copy of her birth certificate, a necessary piece of paper for her to be able to start a new life, get a bank account and a good job.
Daniela said she stayed in touch with Nxivm members after she left, even continuing to do work for the group, because they still held her identification papers. But once she was able to get her papers on her own, she started distancing herself from them.
“As I built a world, it was only after that I was able to look back at the world I was in and realized the monstrosity that it had been,” Daniela said.
She hadn’t spoken to her family in years by that point, but she testified she has since reconciled and reconnected with some of them – including her brother and younger sister.
As media coverage surrounding Nxivm grew in 2017, Daniela worked with her brother to get her younger sister out of the group and down to Mexico. But the sister eventually returned to work at a Nxivm company in Guadalajara, where she remains today, according to Daniela’s testimony.
Daniela’s interactions with her older sister and her father continue to be limited, but she eventually forgave her mother for her role in keeping her in the room. CNN is unable to reach out to Daniela’s family members for comment.
“A mother is a mother,” Daniela said. “She’s human, just like me.”