The case established an unexpected link between an organization preaching self-empowerment and an internal, cult-like sub-group dedicated to serving the carnal – and now criminal – demands of its founder.
Raniere, who claimed to be one of the smartest people in the world and boasted a devoted following, was found guilty of all counts against him, including racketeering, forced labour, sex trafficking and child pornography charges. The jury reached their decision in just less than 5 hours of deliberations.
Throughout the seven-week trial, the 58-year-old former multivitamin salesman sat stony-faced and attentive as prosecutors presented lurid and often disturbing evidence that has shocked New York – and much of America – with testimony of how abuse and exploitation mingled with celebrity and a cult of personality at the self-help organization Nxivm.
But aside from entering a plea of not guilty, Raniere himself revealed nothing. The man known to his followers as “supreme master” or “Vanguard” did not take the stand.
Nor did he call any witnesses to rebut prosecutor’s narrative that he used Nxivm to recruit victims for a group known as DOS, or Dominus Obsequious Sororium (Latin for Lord of the Obedient Female Companions), which was committed to the enslavement and abuse of young women. Nor did he seek to challenge physical evidence against him, which included pornographic pictures allegedly taken for the purposes of blackmail and apparatus related to sexual domination.
Only in opening statements and closing arguments did Raniere present any explanation, offering through his defense counsel that whatever had taken place was consensual. On Monday, before Judge Nicholas Garaufis handed the case to the jury, Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, simply described DOS as a “social club”, arguing that his client’s followers acted of their own volition, making “adult choices”.
“He doesn’t need DOS to generate intimate partners,” Agnifilo said of his client. “One has nothing to so with the other. This is just his lifestyle.”
The jury rejected that explanation, siding with prosecutors who said Raniere used blackmail, forced starvation and other coercive techniques to force DOS women into becoming “first-line slaves”, Raniere faces a life sentence.
DOS, argued US attorney Moira Penza, was formed “to satisfy the defendant’s desire for sex, power and control”.
Raniere’s conviction stands as the first US cult prosecution since the conviction of fundamentalist sect leader Warren Jeffs, who was convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting two young girls to whom he was illegally married.
The Cult Education Institute estimates there may be thousands of cults in the US but prosecutions are rare because abusive behavior is not necessarily criminal and proving that cult followers are not acting of their own free is notoriously hard to prove.
With Nxivm, allegations of blackmail and the presence of a child victim pushed accusations of cult control into the criminal realm via human trafficking statutes. Prosecutors set out to prove Raniere’s business was an exercise in racketeering and not merely an exercise in mind-control and sexual domination.
The trial featured testimony from four women, Sylvie, Daniela, “J” and Nicole, whose full names were withheld because they were considered victims, as well as several former members whose identities were revealed. Among those was Lauren Salzman, daughter of Nxivm co-founder Nancy Salzman, who told jurors of how she became Raniere’s “slave” and recruited other slaves for herself.
Smallville actor Allison Mack, allegedly second in command of the group, admitted to state law extortion and forced labor in her role as recruiter for Nxivm. According to prosecutors, Mack starved women until they fit her co-defendant’s sexual ideal “under the guise of female empowerment”.
Others included “Nicole”, believed to be daughter of Dynasty actor Catherine Oxenberg, who spent a year on a 500-calorie-a-day diet to reach a target weight of 107lbs, a goal designed to ensure she remained obedient to the cult as well as please Raniere.
All four women testified about being members of DOS, while the court heard evidence of a fifth, Daniela, who was restricted to a room for a year after showing interest in a man other than Raniere.
Nxivm, which was founded in the late 90s and sought to recruit high-profile figures, including Sir Richard Branson, in the hope of winning endorsement for its executive training seminars, was headquartered in upstate New York close to the state capital, Albany.
The unassuming suburban locality proved a perfect foil for the brutal behavior within. Prosecutors said the group’s homes, one of which included a dungeon, functioned as the set of a “horror movie”.
During closing arguments, the prosecution pointed to a map marked with the houses where Nxivm members lived, then described what witnesses said had happened inside several homes.
In one, the jury heard, a naked woman was held down – “her arms above her head like a sacrifice, screaming” – while she was branded with Raniere’s initials. Another was tied to a wooden table, blindfolded, while 15-year-old “slave” Camila, one of eight “first-line masters”, performed oral sex on her as Raniere looked on.
But few of the 19,000 who signed up for Nxivm courses as a path to more fulfilling lives had any inkling of DOS’s bizarre inner workings. Nor was it dependent on Nxivm’s self-empowerment course revenues.
Clare Bronfman, a high-level member of the group charged as a co-conspirator, is the daughter of Edgar Bronfman Sr, the late patriarch of of the Canadian distillery fortune Seagrams.
While the heiress, whose fortune is estimated at $250m, was passed over as a sex slave, she bankrolled the group’s frequent lawsuits and could call on the family jet for business and holiday excursions. Her father, who had called out NXIVM as a cult, was branded an enemy of the organization.
Bronfman is facing a two-year prison sentence and a $6m fine for her involvement.
But, despite all the lurid and disturbing testimony, Raniere remains as opaque at the trial’s conclusion as he was at its outset. Described by Forbes in 2003 as “the world’s strangest executive coach”, the manner of Raniere’s hold over his followers persists as a mystery.
“People would talk about how he could affect weather, how he would affect technology,” testified Mark Vicente, a follower for more than 10 years until he resigned from the organization and contacted the FBI. “By the time you saw him, it was a little bit like you were seeing, you know, some kind of god.”
But Vicente came to see that wellness and self-improvement was a front. Nxivm existed to evaluate susceptible people, preferably wealthy or famous, who could be drawn into Raniere’s sexual or economic service.
“It’s a fraud. It’s a lie,” Vicente said of Nxivm in court last month. “It’s a well-intended veneer that covers horrible evil.”