Keith Raniere and NXIVM: Everything You Need to Know About His Crimes and the Trial That Brought Him Down
NXIVM co-founder Keith Raniere has been sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and other charges after using his self-help organization to recruit women into a sorority of sex slaves.
Keith Raniere ran NXIVM's Executive Success program for years, guaranteeing participants that they would learn how to topple any obstacles in their path on the road to finding their true north in business and in life.
Though the self-improvement courses attracted some big names in business and entertainment over the years, there was a far more disturbing operation taking place behind the scenes.
In June 2019, Raniere was found guilty of sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, racketeering and racketeering conspiracy for presiding over a trafficking ring in which women were recruited as "slaves" by other female members, or "masters," and manipulated into having sex with the NXIVM co-founder.
And today, in proceedings postponed multiple times, including earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for his crimes.
Raniere has insisted he's innocent, telling Dateline earlier this month in his first interview from jail that he was sorry for the hurt people had suffered, but that he had been the victim of an unfair trial.
"I apologize for my participation in all of this—this pain and suffering," he said. "I've clearly participated. I've been the leader of the community. And it has come to this. Even if it is by oppression, I am absolutely sorry and pained. This is a horrible situation."
He continued, "This is a horrible tragedy with many, many people being hurt. There is a horrible injustice here. And whether you think I'm the devil or not, the justice process has to be examined."
On Friday, the judge denied his latest request for a new trial.
Earlier last year, five women, including Smallville actress Allison Mack, pleaded guilty to lesser charges, leaving Raniere as the only one who went to trial following a months-long federal investigation into NXIVM and DOS—a secret sorority that included 15 to 20 women recruited primarily to be sex partners for Raniere, a commitment (for the women) that included a ceremony in which they were branded with a symbol incorporating Raniere and Mack's initials.
DOS was said to be an acronym for the Latin "Dominus Obsequious Sororium," which reportedly roughly translates into "Master of the Obedient Female Companions."
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"Over the last seven weeks, this trial has revealed that Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was in fact, a master manipulator, a con man and the crime boss of a cult-like organization involved in sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion, compelled abortions, branding, degradation and humiliation," said Richard P. Donoghue, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, shortly after the verdict was handed down.
"His crimes, and the crimes of his co-conspirators, ruined marriages, careers, fortunes and lives. The evidence proved that Raniere was truly a modern-day Svengali."
Neither Raniere nor Mack ended up taking the stand, but multiple women did—some identified only by their first names—to testify to the abuses perpetrated by Raniere and those he enlisted to carry out his sordid vision.
In a motion to have the charges dismissed that was filed in December 2018, Raniere's legal team argued that NXIVM was a "wonderful humanitarian organization" whose members have "sought to end the violence in Mexico, have introduced tools useful to people with difficult conditions, such as Tourette's syndrome, have pioneered multi-linguistic schools for young children, who would become proficient in multiple languages and later multi-cultural adults, and have developed approaches to help people lead happier, more productive, more enriched lives."
A gated villa in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was where FBI agents had tracked Raniere down to arrest him that March, following a months-long investigation into the allegations raised against him and NXIVM.
Prosecutors alleged, meanwhile, that NXIVM—a purported self-help organization based in Albany, N.Y., that since its establishment in the late 1990s had attracted more than 16,000 people, including actors and corporate leaders, to its Executive Success Programs and other seminars—was a pyramid scheme in which participants could only move up the ladder by paying more and recruiting more people. To even get the chance to meet Raniere, participants usually had to complete a 16-day course that cost $7,500.
Mack, who once called Raniere "a wonderful teacher and mentor" was also originally charged with sex trafficking before pleading guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy.
One former DOS member, Nicole, testified that she was ordered to address Mack as "Madame Mack," and was asked to sign a waiver releasing NXIVM from liability in the case of incidents such as "disfigurement" or "physical and psychological injuries." But Nicole didn't want to sign and, eventually, Mack seemed to forget about it.
Another woman, Sylvie, testified that she signed similar papers.
A third woman, Jay, testified that Mack would also refer to DOS as "The Agency," because "her slaves were all actresses and models and were beautiful, so it was as if she was running an agency."
Incidentally, multiple women testified that Raniere had erectile dysfunction issues.
Nicole said in court that she was first drawn to NXIVM's self-help program as an aspiring actress looking to jump-start her career after moving to New York in 2014. An ex-boyfriend had told her about all the rich and famous people, including several actors, associated with the organization.
From the beginning, Nicole said, she thought that the general fawning over Raniere—his annual birthday celebration was "V-Week," referring to his nickname "Vanguard"—was strange. After a week-long program, she was urged by her ex and Mack to sign up for more classes. She ended up teaching classes to supplement her income. When she told Mack that she was worried she was making the wrong choices, Mack told her about a society within NXIVM for women called "The Vow," Nicole recalled.
The Vow was DOS.
"[Mack] said that she couldn't let me out no matter how hard I cried because it would show me that if I cried hard enough, I could get out of anything," Nicole testified. She ended up remaining in DOS for over a year. When she finally got Raniere's attention after sending him multiple emails (at Mack's command, she said), Nicole said that Raniere took her to a cabin in the woods one day where he blindfolded her, had her lie on a table, tied her to the table, and had another woman perform oral sex on her. Nicole said she didn't realize another person was in the room till it was happening and Raniere started talking at the same time.
Prosecutors said the entire encounter was videotaped.
Nicole said she finally extricated herself from NXIVM in 2017. She never got her collateral back. "Once I'd gotten enough separation, there's not been one moment that I am not grateful that I am no longer in that situation," she said on the stand.
The defense didn't call any witnesses during the trial. Raniere's attorney Marc Agnifilo told the jury, "You may find him repulsive, disgusting and offensive. We don't convict people in this country for being repulsive or offensive. Unpopular ideas aren't criminal. Disgusting ideas aren't criminal."
Until his arrest, Raniere had been running NXIVM for years in plain sight, touting his programs as key stepping stones for people who wanted to harness their best selves and realize their true potential. Here's a primer of some of the key players and the roles they played in creating—and unraveling—this tangled web:
On June 19, 2019, the NXIVM co-founder was found guilty of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, racketeering conspiracy and exploitation of a child.
The charges against him alleged that Raniere, known as "Vanguard" within his company, maintained a secret sorority called DOS, for which Allison Mack, who had risen through the ranks of the NXIVM organization to become a "first-line master," recruited other women for the purpose of having sex with him. As part of their initiation, the women would turn over compromising photos or other items and information that could be used against them if they disobeyed, and were branded on their pelvis with an abstract symbol that incorporated Raniere and Mack's initials.
"If one woman is having an issue, it hurts Keith, and if he's hurting, you're hurting," a woman identified as a former member of DOS told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. "So if you do something he doesn't like, you get an army of women, sister wives, coming after you. You get ostracized. No one wants to socialize with you unless you get back in line."
Though Raniere's business dealings had attracted legal and journalistic scrutiny before, it wasn't until about a dozen people spoke out to the New York Times about the ritualistic branding and other alarming practices in 2017 that the FBI launched the investigation that turned into the current case against him.
In March 2018, FBI tracked Raniere down to a $10,000-a-week villa in a gated community near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he was staying with several women—including Mack—who ran after the Feds' car in protest as they drove Raniere away.
On Oct. 27, 2020, he was sentenced to 120 years in prison and fined $1.75 million.
The actress, who played reporter Chloe Sullivan on Smallville for 10 seasons, pleaded guilty in April 2019 to racketeering conspiracy and racketeering acts of state law extortion and forced labor. She was originally also charged, as Raniere was, with sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and forced labor conspiracy.
She first attended a NXIVM seminar in Vancouver with her Smallville co-star Kristin Kreuk in 2006, a program billed as a "women's movement" called Jness. Their high-profile presences had been planned for, because some of the organization's top people (those closest to Raniere) flew in for the occasion. The group put on a charm offensive for the newcomer and invited her to meet Raniere, who, they said, could help her acting career. Mack accepted, was flown to their Albany, N.Y., location via private jet, and stayed for weeks.
"A collective inspiring a community of strong, authentically empowered women to own themselves in a way that has never been seen or understood before?" Mack wrote in a since-deleted blog post. "It sounded like the perfect blend of what I was looking for! So I took the leap and enrolled in a weekend workshop and within the first few hours I knew I had found my people."
When she entered her guilty plea on April 18, 2019, Mack told the court, "I was lost. Through it all, I believed Keith Raniere's intentions were to help people. I was wrong." She admitted to selling DOS to potential recruits by describing it as a female-empowerment group, to making members hand over photos and information for blackmail purposes, and to obtaining "labor and services" from two women; she did not say that any women were coerced into having sex with Raniere.
A former roommate who lived with Mack after she got involved with NXIVM told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, "I don't think she was thinking she was actually trafficking girls. It doesn't mean she doesn't deserve punishment, but I think she had drunk enough Kool-Aid to really believe that these girls were going to save the world with his super-sperm."
Mack married Battlestar Galactica actress Nicki Clyne in 2017 and remains free on a $5 million bond while she awaits sentencing. She's facing up to 20 years in prison.
Mack's wife has defended NXIVM and says she herself was a member of DOS—and she objects to people labeling the group a "sex cult."
Clyne said on CBS This Morning in September, "We're not denying that certain things took place. There is evidence that certain things happened. How they happened, why they happened and why certain people chose them—that's a whole other conversation." She added, "I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything."
The actress also said, however, that she hadn't spoken to Mack for a year and a half, part of the terms of her wife's bail including not being allowed contact with anyone involved in NXIVM or the case against Raniere. "This has been the hardest, most humbling experience of my life," Clyne said.
Best known for her regular role as flight deck officer Cally Henderson on Battlestar Galactica, Clyne pretty much stopped acting for a decade after leaving the show for good in 2008. She picked up again in 2018 as part of the ensemble on the sci-fi webseries Personal Space, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
After meeting Raniere in 1997, the former psychiatric nurse co-founded NXIVM with him in Albany and was known in the organization as "Prefect."
Also still awaiting sentencing, Salzman pleaded guilty in March 2019 to a charge of racketeering criminal conspiracy after being accused of identity theft and falsifying records in relation to a lawsuit filed against the company.
"I want you to know I am pleading guilty because I am, in fact, guilty," she said in court at the time. "I accept that some of the things I did were not just wrong, but sometimes criminal. I justified them by saying that what we were doing was for the greater good."
In so doing, she also said, "I compromised my principles." She's facing 33 to 41 months in prison.
Nancy's daughter, she is said to have hosted DOS members at pre-branding ceremonies at her home before the women were allegedly blindfolded and driven to a different location for the actual procedure. Per the NY Times' 2017 report, Lauren would instruct the women to say, "Master, please brand me, it would be an honor."
Lauren Salzman pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy on March 25, 2019, at a hearing that wasn't on the court docket, the transcript sealed until portions could be redacted.
In cooperation with prosecutors, Lauren testified in federal court that May. She admitted to helping Raniere attempt to hide when the FBI raided the villa where he was staying in Mexico—where she had traveled with the intention of participating, along with other DOS members, in a "recommitment ceremony" to re-pledge their loyalty to him.
"Lauren was someone I really looked up to as a rock star within the company," actress Sarah Edmondson, a former member who went through the branding ritual, recalled to the Times.
She was also one of the top people dispatched to meet Mack in Vancouver in 2006. "By the end of the weekend, Lauren and Allison were like best friends," former NXIVM member Susan Dones recalled to The Hollywood Reporter in 2018.
Lauren remains under house arrest while awaiting sentencing. It's possible that the judge will take the fact that she was the only one of Raniere's co-defendants to testify against him in court into consideration.
The daughter of late business mogul Edgar Bronfman Sr. and heiress to the Seagrams liquor fortune was accused of financing what turned out to be illegal conduct after meeting Raniere in 2002 and becoming, first, a NXIVM acolyte, and ultimately a board member as well as Raniere's bankroller and legal advocate who would finance lawsuits on his behalf against perceived enemies.
In 2003, her father estimated to Forbes that Clare had loaned NXIVM $2 million, which she denied at the time. "I think it's a cult," said Bronfman Sr., who died in 2013.
On April 19, 2019, Clare pleaded guilty to conspiring to conceal and harbor an undocumented immigrant for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification, for helping Raniere use the credit card of someone who had died. Part of her sentence calls for her to forfeit $6 million.
"I am truly remorseful," Bronfman told U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis last year. "I endeavored to do good in the world and help people—however, I have made mistakes."
She was sentenced on Sept. 30, 2020, to six years and nine months in prison—far more than the 21 to 27 months said to be on the table. In handing down that much more prison time, Garaufis stated that he was "troubled by evidence suggesting that Ms. Bronfman repeatedly and consistently leveraged her wealth and social status as a means of intimidating, controlling, and punishing" people who had left NXIVM or were perceived to be its adversaries.
Her lawyer said they would appeal the sentence, calling it an "abomination."
Right after Clare Bronfman entered her plea, longtime NXIVM bookkeeper Russell pleaded guilty to one count of visa fraud for helping to falsify documents, according to the Albany Times Union. "I know what I did was wrong," Russell said. "I'm very sorry for the trouble I have caused. I have compromised my own principles, and I'm going to have to live with that for the rest of my life."
Bronfman and Russell were the last of Raniere's co-defendants to enter pleas, leaving him to stand trial alone. "We don't believe Ms. Russell and Ms. Bronfman should have been charged, and we are happy they're out of the case," his attorney Mark Agnifilo told the NY Times.
Facing up to 10 years in prison, Russell's sentencing was postponed indefinitely in January 2020, one of multiple postponements granted even before the COVID-19 pandemic delayed proceedings further.
Clare's older sister, here with mom Georgiana, has not been charged with any crime. Like her sister, however, she was a longtime NXIVM member and along with Clare is said to have given millions to the organization.
Mark Vicente, a once-devoted NXIVM member who was featured in HBO's recent docu-series about the organization, The Vow, testified that Sara was part of Raniere's "trusted group." He also said that Sara and Clare owned properties in Albany used by NXIVM—and they did. Sara is in line to receive a 20 percent share of their selling price, having agreed to divest herself of ownership in December 2019 after federal authorities seized the properties.
Vanity Fair reported in 2010 that in six years the Bronfman sisters had taken more than $150 million out of their trusts and bank accounts for NXIVM-related purposes, including $66 million to help bail Raniere out of personal financial trouble, $11 million for a 22-seater jet, and millions to aid NXIVM's legal battles when it would go after perceived enemies (or "suppressives") in court. They tried to conceal the massive amount they were spending from their father, the report continued.
"I think there are personal reasons regarding the conflict they have with their family that keep them affiliated with [NXIVM]," a friend of the sisters told the magazine. "On some level, I think they feel the affiliation is reinforcing their version of things, in opposition to the opinion of their family. I think all the legal, litigious craziness is all about them trying to win this battle with their father."
Clare and Sara Bronfman hired the Buffalo-area developer as a consultant and in 2011 accused him of defrauding them of $1 million.
The FBI had been investigating his business dealings for several years and he was indicted in New York in 2015 on charges including wire fraud and stealing from the Bronfman sisters. He has denied all of the charges, and a judge dismissed the ones pertaining to the sisters in May 2018, according to The Buffalo News. (A trial on fraud and obstruction charges has been postponed until at least June 2021 at the request of the defense.)
Meanwhile, Parlato has meticulously chronicled NXIVM's alleged crimes and the subsequent legal proceedings against Raniere, Clare Bronfman and others on his website, Frank Report. Per the NY Times, many NXIVM members learned about DOS for the first time from reading his site, particularly a post titled "Branded Slaves and Master Raniere," prompting more members to reach out to him.
"I am glad to have played a part [in the investigation of NXIVM] through my reporting," Parlato said in a statement in May 2018. "I have been credited by many organizations across the country with providing the information that led to the indictment against Raniere."
Raniere gave his first interview from jail to Parlato for Dateline in October 2020.
The Canadian actress was one of the first people to open up to the New York Times about her experiences, first in NXIVM and then with DOS, which included being branded after being told she would be getting a small tattoo.
"I wept the whole time," she told the paper about the branding, which she said occurred in March 2017. "I disassociated out of my body."
Edmondson helped establish NXIVM's chapter in Vancouver after joining in 2007, which in turn attracted other actresses, including Grace Park and Nicki Clyne, while they were on Battlestar Galactica, which, like Smallville, was filmed in the area. Edmondson had been recruited by director Mark Vicente, who also spoke to the Times after disentangling himself from the group. Like Vicente, Edmonson was prominently featured in HBO's The Vow.
She has said that Lauren Salzman first told her about DOS—after the actress had written a letter detailing past indiscretions and handed it over. Edmondson said Salzman described the secret society as a force for good, a way in which women could overcome their society-imposed overemotional natures. "She made it sound like a badass-bitch boot camp," the actress recalled.
In May 2017, she and her husband and fellow NXIVM member Anthony Ames told Lauren that they were leaving the program. Months later, NXIVM filed a criminal report against Edmondson and two other women from the Vancouver center, accusing them of mischief and other wrongdoing. No charges were ever filed.
The former Dynasty actress also raised awareness about NXIVM after daughter India Oxenberg joined the program—originally at the instigation of her mom, who thought it was just a self-help course—and was inducted into the "sorority" that turned out to be DOS.
"She said it was a character-building experience," Oxenberg told the Times, recalling how she became alarmed when India grew scarily thin and told her mom that she was skipping periods.
One of Raniere's alleged preferences detailed in the charges against him was for the women in his harem to remain skinny. A former member told THR that she had run into Mack in 2010 and immediately "knew she was involved romantically and sexually with Keith. She had a gray pallor that was common to Keith's women because they all start to get a little sickly. I know I did. They drop weight. Their heads get too big for their bodies so they become bobbleheads. It's scary-looking."
"I never gave up," Oxenberg, whose book Captive: A Mother's Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult detailed her experience, told E! News in August 2018. "I must be hard-wired as a mom, I'm not capable of giving up. Even in the hopeless moments I just kept persevering and trusting that it would turn around."
India told People recently that her mother's support has been key to her recovery. "She made a safe place for me to talk and she would listen when memories would come flooding back, and I remembered more and more about what happened," Catherine's daughter said. "Sometimes I would have panic attacks and my mom would just hold me and tell me I was safe."
In 2019, India joined two of her fellow former members—identified by prosecutors only by their first names, Nicole and Jay—in court to watch closing arguments. Jay had testified during the trial that she was one of India's "slaves," and the collateral she turned over included an old sex tape and the revelation that she had been molested by an uncle.
Recalling what it was like providing her own collateral, which included taking nude photos of herself and revealing secrets about her family, India told People in a recent interview, "In reality, it was like I handed over the keys to lock myself in prison."
India, who moved back to Los Angeles after Raniere was arrested in 2018, has since spoken out about her experience in the Starz docu-series Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult. She said that Mack limited her diet to 500 calories a day so that she would remain skinny, per Raniere's preference. "One of my first commands was to seduce Keith," India recalled. "Allison said it was to make me feel less vulnerable. And I wanted to believe her."
She participated in the series, she told People, because she "knew too much about what happened" and had "a moral obligation to make sure it didn't happen to anyone else."
India, who also gave a victim impact statement before Raniere's sentencing, added, "I want to help people and reclaim my voice and be me again and not a headline of 'cult girl.' I want people to know who I really am."
Following sentencing, FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement, "Raniere's reign of control over the women he scarred, both physically and emotionally, is the making of a horror story. It is inconceivable to think of the sexual exploitation, abuse, seclusion, and mind control his victims suffered—at his direction.
"Today the judge has given him 120 years to think about whether or not the torture he inflicted on others for more than a decade, and the distress he brought to their families, was worth it in the end.
(Originally published April 27, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)
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