Editor’s Note: The following report contains sexually explicit and disturbing testimony.
Several women testified how they blindly obeyed their “masters,” screamed when they were branded and were pressured to have sex with Keith Raniere, the founder of a group called Nxivm.
Raniere ran an Albany, New York-based company offering pricey “self-help” classes to thousands of people across the United States, Canada and Mexico for two decades. An actress who testified in court said he was revered by his students and some saw him as the smartest men in the world.
But for the past six weeks, Raniere has stood trial in a New York federal court accused of creating an alleged sex cult disguised as a women’s empowerment group within his organization for his financial benefit and sexual pleasure.
He is facing multiple charges, including racketeering, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child and human trafficking. He pleaded not guilty to all charges and his defense attorney has argued his relationships with Nxivm followers were consensual. He has been in federal custody in Brooklyn since he was arrested in Mexico last year.
As Raniere’s trial enters its final stages, here’s a look at what we’ve learned about the case:
Prosecutors say dozens were lured into secret sex society
Raniere initially recruited eight women within Nxivm’s ranks to join a secret sex society called DOS, or “The Vow,” prosecutors said.
The women in DOS, like most Nxivm members, were originally drawn into the group because they wanted to learn how to be more successful. A former Nxivm member who was not part of DOS, Mark Vicente, said in court that people would pay for courses costing $7,500 for 16 days. One of those sessions, he said, cleared his feelings of claustrophobia while stuck in traffic jams.
“I had never seen anything that was that effective,” he said. “I was blown away.”
The women Raniere recruited for his “inner circle” saw him as their master and they eventually came to view themselves as “masters” as they recruited more women to be their “slaves,” a criminal complaint said.
Marc Agnifilo, Raniere’s attorney, previously told CNN that Raniere created DOS as a way for women to have “their own society … where men would play no role.” But prosecutors say Raniere sat at the top of the pyramid group.
Lauren Salzman, 42, who pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy in March, testified she was a master and had six slaves of her own. She was told that the group would teach women to be “master of your own life.”
While recruiting them, the masters would insist the recruits provide information about themselves as “collateral” to encourage the recruits to keep information about DOS a secret, according to an affidavit prepared by an FBI agent and filed with Raniere’s arrest warrant
Several women testified in court that they shared sexually explicit photos, granted access to their bank accounts and recorded videos with damaging stories that would hurt their families and those closest to them. Some of the women said the statements were not even truthful.
One woman, identified only as Sylvie, said she wrote a letter to her parents falsely confessing she was a prostitute. The contents of her letter were not true, but the threat of its release haunted her, she said.
Women were branded with Raniere’s initials
After being accepted into DOS, members would be branded near their bikini line with Raniere’s initials, prosecutors and victims said.
During the trial, prosecutors presented a series of recordings of conversations between “Smallville” star Allison Mack and Raniere in which they discuss a ceremony for the branding. Mack, a co-defendant in the case, pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering charges before the start of the trial.
“Do you think the person who’s being branded should be completely nude and sort of held to the table like a, sort of almost like a sacrifice,” Raniere said in the recording.
Salzman took the stand and spoke about having a ceremony for her six slaves. The first to be branded writhed in pain, she said.
“She was squealing and screaming, and it looked horrendous,” Salzman said. “It scared the other girls.”
Salzman also said she and other masters would paddle their “slaves” with leather belts. Raniere would call in to check how it was going, she testified.
“He called in and wanted to make sure we were flicking our wrists hard enough,” Salzman said.
Some people believed Raniere was a superior being
In Nxivm classes, students were told Raniere was one of the smartest men in the world and some even believed he could control the weather, one witness testified.
Prosecutors showed a biography that once appeared on a Nxivm website claiming Raniere attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when he was 16 and immediately started taking graduate-level courses.
A former Nxivm member who was identified only as Jay testified that Mack told her she had to seduce Raniere and let him take a naked picture of her. Mack told her it would “get rid of all your sexual abuse trauma,” Jay said.
“I was horrified and enraged with the fact that she would try to re-traumatize me and say that doing something sexual with someone that I obviously didn’t want to do that with would heal my sexual trauma. I was disgusted,” she said.
Another woman who testified in court said Raniere told her that women would see a blue light if they swallowed his semen.
3 sisters had abortions after sex with Raniere, woman says
A teenager from Mexico went from being a promising high school student in Mexico to being pulled into the self-help curriculum of Nxivm and eventually “groomed” for sex.
Daniela, who was identified in court only by her first name, testified that she moved to Albany to help the group’s mission and work for Raniere. She was instructed to hack into the computers of perceived Nxivm enemies – mostly former members of the group – and 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. Raniere was in his 40s at the time.
Daniela said she later found out Raniere was also having sex with both her sisters. All three sisters got pregnant by Raniere at different times and had abortions at his urging, Daniela said.
One of them was kept in captivity for nearly 2 years
Shortly after Daniela told Raniere she had feelings for another Nxivm member, she was confined to a room for about two years.
Her contact with Raniere was slowly cut off as her phone, computer and even her immigration and identification papers – her only way of getting on a plane or leaving the country – started being taken away from her.
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.
After Daniela entered a bedroom in her family’s home in 2010, she barely had any contact with the outside world.
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.
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 Raniere and other Nxivm members.