Bright, privileged, talented, with the world at their feet.
And yet they fell to their knees in idolatrous thrall to a conman guru who demanded he be addressed as Vanguard and Grandmaster.
The lieutenant acolytes groomed and coerced a harem of sex slaves, including, allegedly, a 15-year-old girl, among a trio of sisters — one of whom he impregnated, one of whom was confined to a room for nearly two years, endlessly writing letters of apology for the crime of falling in love with another man. Because his anointed coterie of intimate partners could have sex only with him, even if they were married.
Heiresses and actresses, the granddaughter of a European royal, the son of a Mexican president, a Hollywood filmmaker — though males were outliers in the hierarchy of a cult community based in upstate New York, with tentacles that spread across the U.S. and into Central America.
A torrent of horrifying details were disclosed in a Brooklyn courtroom last week with the launch of a trial on a seven-count indictment of racketeering, sex trafficking and forced labour charges against Keith Raniere, the self-proclaimed “Divine” individual who compared himself to Einstein and Gandhi, claimed to be a mathematical genius with an IQ off the charts, concert-level pianist and judo champion, possessing powers to heal and affect the weather.
“The defendant claims to be a leader but he was a con man,’’ federal Assistant U.S. attorney Tanya Hajjar told the jury in her opening address. “He targeted people who were looking to improve their lives. He drew them in slowly with promises of success, of money, of better relationships, and once he gained their trust, he exploited it. The defendant said that he was a mentor but he was a predator.’’
From his bucolic compound outside Albany, shaggy-haired Raniere ruled atop a sexual pyramid scheme which promoted itself as a self-help and executive-success organization that charged up to $100,000 for self-improvement regimens. Billionaires and globe-trotting entrepreneurs were among the 16,000-or-so devotees who flocked to his est-like courses. Even the Dalai Lama was bamboozled into participating in one of their events.
But now 58-year-old Raniere stands — sits, at the defendant’s table — alone, abandoned by his closest associates and formerly passionate adherents. Five female co-defendants who’d been among the top echelon of the allegedly racketeering enterprise known as NXIVM (pronounced Nexe-um) have copped to various related charged, thereby avoiding trials, although they all signed cooperation agreements and may appear in as witnesses for the prosecution.
That cluster of former disciples includes Clare Bronfman, Seagram’s heiress, who was drawn to NXIVM at the urging of her younger sister, Sara. It’s been estimated that Clare Bronfman bankrolled Raniere and NXIVM to the tune of at least $65 million — possibly up to $120 million — of her personal inherited fortune (despite the protestations of her now-deceased father, Edgar Bronfman Sr., a fleeting NXIVM pupil). Clare Bronfman, who rose to an elite level within the enterprise, was for years one of its most aggressive defenders, the cash-cow behind lawsuits against NXIVM detractors.
In April, Bronfman pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the government five years ago about harbouring an illegal immigration who provided “labour and service” for Bronfman and NXIVM and allowing Raniere to have access to the credit card of his deceased girlfriend. She faces 27 months in prison and will have to pony up $6 million to the court as part of her plea. Bronfman will be sentenced in July.
NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman, a former psychiatric nurse, pleaded guilty to a single charge of racketeering conspiracy. Her daughter Lauren has admitted to keeping a woman as a slave in a locked room, threatening to deport her back to Mexico. Allison Mack, best-known for her role in the TV series “Smallville,” is reputed to have been Raniere’s right-hand accomplice, coercing recruits — other women — into providing her with embarrassing information and nude photos, material known within the group as “collateral,’’ for the purpose of blackmail if they didn’t acquiesce to Raniere’s demands.
Only Raniere has pleaded not guilty in a case cracked open by law enforcement following a New York Times investigation. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
The Saltzmans and Mack — but not Bronfman, who insisted she had no knowledge of it — belonged to an inner circle of Raniere apostles, a secret sorority called DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase Dominus Obsequious Sororium, that roughly translates as “master of the obedient female companions.” High-tiered members established master-slave relationships with targeted conscripts, many who’d joined NXIVM in the belief it was dedicated to female empowerment, instruction that would make them stronger, happier and more successful.
It did preach empowerment, via various levels of study, but was ultimately infused with misogyny, exploiting women’s low self-esteem, compelling them into demeaning acts of servitude whilst grooming them for Raniere’s bed. He had, court heart, a rotating harem of 15-20 females who were browbeaten into starvation diets because Raniere liked his women skinny, initiated in ceremonies that involved wearing dog-collars. Raniere maintained that he could give the women “a path to spirituality through sexuality.’’
Raniere’s defence lawyer asserts that all these relationships were voluntary and the sex consensual.
The first witness who took the stand last week — designated only as “Sylvie” to protect her identity — delivered two days of gruelling testimony, recounting her nearly 13 years in NXIVM. The daughter of well-off English parents, a promising equestrienne, Sylvie said she’d been lured into the organization by Bronfman, herself a top-ranked show-jumper with a stable of quality horses. Sylvie, now 32, was only a teenager and working as a groom for Bronfman at the time.
Sylvie advanced up the pyramid, conducting “module” classes for enlisted students, and eventually invited to join DOS. Her own “master” cultivated Sylvie, manipulating her into signing a letter that gave her “master” the power to decide whether Sylvie (who was married) could have children, and inducing another letter, addressed to her parents, in which she claimed to be a prostitute. This was the “collateral,” for blackmail purposes.
She was also scheduled for a “branding” ceremony — she balked; it never took place — in which Raniere’s initials were burned into women’s pelvic area.
The jury heard that Sylvie, as part of her DOS initiation, was ordered to “seduce” Raniere. She was made to send “Vanguard’’ nude photos of herself. She agreed but with the caveat that she be allowed to meet with Raniere in person.
“In the study, there was a big white bed that had white dirty sheets on it,’’ she testified. “He told me to get undressed and to lie back on the bed. So I laid back on the bed and he . . . (performed oral sex) on me.
“I felt like it was going on for a really long time.’’
She faked sounds of orgasm to make it end.
The prosecutor asked: “Did you want to do this?”
Sylvie: “No. I felt so disgusting and ashamed.’’ Adding: “I understood it was a command from my master.’’
She testified Raniere made her open her legs wide, snapping photos of her vagina.
Afterwards, said Sylvie, Raniere snuggled and kissed her, said she could “ask him for anything she wanted.’’ What Sylvie wanted was advice on her marriage. Raniere, she said, was not pleased when she defiantly pledged love for her husband.
“No, your ultimate commitment is to me. I am your grand master.’’
The trial, which is expected to last six weeks, continues.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno