Clare Bronfman, daughter of a billionaire Canadian father and a British mother, was making a name for herself as a showjumper in Europe in 2002.
Riding a 12-year-old gelding called Charlton, Bronfman – the heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune – won the Rome Grand Prix equestrian tournament, and later placed second in a show in Bremen.
Away from the arena, however, the English-boarding-school-educated American was being drawn into a secretive society in New York state, an involvement which this week saw Bronfman sentenced to almost seven years in prison for her role in what would become a sex cult.
Bronfman, 41, was the first to be sentenced in connection with a federal investigation in Nxivm, whose leader, Keith Raniere, was convicted in 2019 of racketeering, forced labour, sex trafficking and child abuse images charges.
Victims were groomed by Raniere and his lieutenants to become sex slaves, imprisoned and branded with Raniere’s initials. Among Raniere’s facilitators was the actor Allison Mack, who pleaded guilty to charges she manipulated women into becoming sex slaves for the Nxvim leader in 2019.
Behind the scenes Bronfman financed Raniere as women, and a 15-year-old girl, were lured into his cult. Bronfman spent more than $100m on Raniere and Nxvim, prosecutors said, buying property in New York and LA, as well as a 22-seat private jet.
But Bronfman’s fortune would also be spent on silencing Raniere’s victims.
She used her vast resources to dispatch armies of lawyers at Raniere’s former members and Nxvim members. During the sentencing hearing victims described Bronfman as “a predator” and a “dangerous megalomaniac”, and described how Bronfman had sued them relentlessly, leaving lives ruined.
After pleading guilty in 2019 to conspiring to conceal and harbor an undocumented immigrant for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification, Bronfman was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison on Wednesday, a judge telling the court she had “used her incredible wealth as a means of intimidation, threat and exacting revenge on individuals who challenged [Nxvim’s] dogmas”.
Bronfman’s lawyers had asked for leniency in her sentencing, arguing that she had no direct involvement in Raniere’s and Nxivm’s DOS subgroup, which was involved in the most disturbing sexual accusations.
Federal judge Nicholas G Garaufis accepted that there was no evidence Bronfman had been aware of DOS, but agreed with prosecutors who said Raniere could not have funded his sexual crimes without her largesse.
“I am troubled by evidence suggesting that Ms Bronfman repeatedly and consistently leveraged her wealth and social status as a means of intimidating, controlling, and punishing” opponents of Nxvim, Garaufis told the court in New York as he sentenced Bronfman.
“She used her incredible wealth as a means of intimidation, threat and exacting revenge on individuals who challenged its dogmas.”
Bronfman’s years-long association with Raniere began when she was introduced to Nxvim by her sister, Sara Bronfman, in 2002.
In a letter to Garaufis this summer Bronfman said she was suffering from anxiety and “patterns of self-loathing, insecurities, shame and fears” when she discovered Nxvim, which claimed to offer personal and professional development through a series of seminars.
Then 23, Bronfman had spent her childhood attending boarding school in England and visiting their Essex-born mother, Rita Webb, in Kenya. Webb, who is also known as Georgiana, married the actor Nigel Havers in 2007.
During her trial in New York Bronfman spoke in an English accent, although she left the UK in her mid-teens to reunite with her father, Edgar Bronfman Sr, who had a net worth of $2.5bn before he died in 2013.
Bronfman Sr was involved himself with Nxvim, reportedly taking a five-day course at the program in early 2003. According to Forbes magazine Bronfman Sr briefly became a Nxvim devotee, writing a glowing testimonial for the course before turning on the enterprise and branding it a “cult”.
Clare Bronfman never soured on Nxvim, or Raniere.
“Many people, including most of my own family, believe I should disavow Keith and Nxivm, and that I have not is hard for them to understand or accept,” Bronfman wrote in her letter to Garaufis.
“However, for me, NXIVM and Keith greatly changed my life for the better.”
Bronfman was ordered to forfeit $6m from her personal fortune of $200m as part of her sentence, and pay a $500,000 fine. Her lawyer called the prison sentence an “abomination” after the hearing, and said they planned to appeal.
In the meantime, as Bronfman begins her sentence, Raniere is being held at the Metropolitan detention center in Brooklyn, New York, while he awaits his fate.
Prosecutors have asked that he be sentenced to life in prison, but like Bronfman, many of his acolytes have stood by his side.
Reportedly their only impact was to have Raniere moved to a different cell where he could not view their performances.