National

Sex cult leader, facing life sentence, regrets nothing

Several victims are expected to testify when Keith Raniere, the founder of Nxivm, is sentenced this week for sex trafficking, extortion, and other crimes.

In this courtroom sketch, Keith Raniere, second from right, attends a hearing Friday, April 13, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Elizabeth Williams via AP

NEW YORK — Keith Raniere, leader of a self-help organization called NXIVM, had been revered by throngs of loyal followers who promoted him as the smartest man in the world. They called him “Vanguard,” believing that his teachings would bring about peace and even influence elections.

Raniere, 60, is now sitting in jail, convicted at trial as a con man who was exploiting NXIVM to enrich himself financially and recruit sexual partners, leading to its current reputation as a “sex cult.”

He will return to court Tuesday for his sentencing, facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. His sentencing is expected to include hours of statements from victims.

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Still, Raniere carries no remorse and will not be seeking forgiveness, his lawyers said. He has accused the judge of corruption and demanded a new trial.

“He is not sorry for his conduct or his choices,” his lawyers wrote in a court filing last month, adding that he “intends to fight this case with all of his might, confident that he will one day be vindicated.”

Raniere’s sentencing in federal court in Brooklyn will be the culmination of a legal saga that brought down an organization whose expensive self-empowerment courses were taken by Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and top business school graduates. Many people joined NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um) hoping it would help them overcome their insecurities and give them a sense of purpose.

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But Raniere also created a secret women-only group within the company in 2015. Those women, who were called “slaves,” were branded with his initials near their pelvises and assigned to have sex with him. They adhered to strict diets, restricted to as low as 500 calories a day. They were required to hand over collateral, including photos of their genitals that they feared would be released if they disobeyed orders.

A wave of NXIVM members fled the organization after learning about the branding ceremony, leading to a criminal investigation and the arrests of NXIVM’s top leaders.

A jury convicted Raniere last summer after a six-week trial. Prosecutors charged him with racketeering, applying a statute that had been used to dismantle the major Mafia families in New York. The jury found him guilty of crimes that included child pornography, forced labor, sex trafficking, identity theft and obstruction of justice.

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In recent months, Raniere has spearheaded an aggressive campaign to overturn his conviction. He is trying to create a podcast about his case and set up a contest to find errors in his prosecution in exchange for a $25,000 cash prize, according to court filings.

He has complained that the judge overseeing the case is “crazy.” In a prison phone call in April, Raniere told one of his supporters that the judge “needs to know he’s being watched,” according to prosecutors.

On Friday, the judge denied for a second time Raniere’s bid for a new trial. His legal team, led by Marc A. Agnifilo, argued that two of his followers decided not to testify in his favor because of government intimidation, a claim the judge dismissed as “highly questionable.”

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Membership in NXIVM, whose courses were thousands of dollars apiece, was by invitation only. As the curriculum progressed, Raniere used psychological manipulation to indoctrinate his followers into total obedience, former members have said. Critics of Raniere faced retaliation and lawsuits, creating an internal culture with no tolerance for dissent.

The group was headquartered near Albany, New York, and had operations in Mexico and Canada. Its Mexico branch had been led by the son of a former Mexican president, attracting many influential Mexican families who remain supporters of Raniere. After the criminal investigation began, Raniere moved into a villa near Puerto Vallarta, where authorities arrested him in 2018.

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Prosecutors have said in court papers that Raniere deserves a life sentence, a punishment that is typically reserved for cases involving deaths or murders.

Raniere’s lawyers have argued that nobody was “shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, slapped or even yelled at.” This was not the typical organized crime case, and Raniere should get no more than 15 years in prison, they contended.

“No one has ever testified that he or she joined a drug gang or the Genovese Family or a cartel because they thought that by doing so, they could make the world better or bring a higher level of humanity to themselves and others,” his lawyers wrote.

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Still, federal prosecutors have said Raniere’s unwillingness to accept responsibility and his contempt for his victims demonstrated that a life sentence was the only way to stop him from hurting more people.

“The unprecedented magnitude, duration and scope of Raniere’s crimes demand the most serious penalty available,” the prosecutors wrote.

In a significant development, prosecutors revealed last week that a woman from Mexico, identified only as Camila, might speak publicly for the first time at his sentencing. Raniere was accused of sexually abusing Camila and taking nude photographs of her starting when she was 15.

Raniere also had a sexual relationship with Camila’s sister, Daniela, who testified at trial. Prosecutors presented evidence that Raniere had helped Daniela enter the United States illegally using a fake ID.

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After Daniela developed feelings for another man, Raniere threatened to deport her back to Mexico unless she confined herself to a room, according to trial testimony. She stayed in the room for almost two years, an experience that pushed her to the brink of suicide, she said.

Raniere was charged along with five other leaders of NXIVM, including Allison Mack, a former television actress who appeared on “Smallville.” Each of the five pleaded guilty before his trial.

One of them, Clare Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune, was recently sentenced to more than six years in prison for her role in bankrolling NXIVM, including funding lawsuits against Raniere’s enemies. The others do not have sentencing dates yet.

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More than 50 members of the NXIVM community wrote letters to the court praising Raniere. Their testimonials portrayed him as a Godlike figure who helped heal their physical injuries, increase their IQ scores and raise their salaries. Many of his supporters had careers at prominent finance, consulting and law firms.

Raniere’s supporters described befriending him at late-night volleyball games, a hub of NXIVM’s social life where members lingered on the sidelines, hoping for a chance to speak with him.

One woman, Linda Chung, said her training with Raniere had taught her to be skeptical of experts and was more valuable than all of her formal education at Dartmouth College, Cornell Law School and Columbia Business School.

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In another letter, the doctor inside NXIVM who branded the women defended the secret sorority, saying the brand was a way to “commemorate” Raniere’s contributions to the group.

“When it got hard, did I sometimes want out? Sure — but no different than when I wanted out in medical school or residency,” the doctor, identified only as Danielle, wrote.

Raniere never married and had long-term relationships simultaneously with multiple women. NXIVM’s curriculum taught that women were to be monogamous, while men were to be polygamous.

Raniere grew up in Suffern, New York, about 25 miles northwest of New York City. His father was an advertising executive who often traveled away from home, and his mother was a professional ballroom dancer, his lawyers said. His parents divorced when he was a child.

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When he was 13, his mother went through open-heart surgery. Raniere cared for her through high school, where he had no friends, his lawyers said. She died shortly after he began college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

In 1990, he started a company called Consumers’ Buyline, which offered discounts to members on groceries and other products. State authorities began investigating the company for fraud.

By 1997, the company was shut down after Raniere reached a $40,000 settlement with the New York Attorney General’s Office. As part of the agreement, Raniere was forbidden to operate another multilevel marketing scheme in New York.

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The next year, he started NXIVM.

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