Keith Raniere, a self-help guru and leader of upstate New York cult-like group NXIVM, was arrested in Mexico and taken to Texas on Monday.
He’s due to appear in court Tuesday in Fort Worth on charges filed by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Raniere was charged with sex trafficking. Authorities have long alleged he led the secretive clan of female followers — including some Hollywood celebrities — and brainwashed them into “sex slaves.” He then allegedly branded them with his initials in their pelvic regions and coerced them into having sex with him.
The NXIVM (pronounced as “nexium”) website describes the group as:
“A community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human. The NXIVM philosophy is expressed through a series of companies and initiatives, all of which were designed to broaden the way we currently think about problems, and to help create solutions for a kinder, more sustainable, ethical world. With unique tools that facilitate success, both internally and externally, NXIVM helps people realize the potential that exists within them.”
According to the filed complaint, Raniere (who was known in the group as “The Vanguard”) oversaw the functioning of NXIVM, which operated under an archaic system: women were told the best way to advance was to become a “slave” watched over by “masters.”
They were expected to have sex with their “master” and do any and all menial chores they were ordered to. They weren’t to tell anybody about the arrangement, and they risked public humiliation if they ever revealed details to any party.
Raniere, 57, posted an open letter to the NXIVM website, ruing “the picture being painted in the media” about his group and denying any accusations levied against him.
“Over the past months, there have been extensive independent investigations performed, by highly qualified individuals, and they have firmly concluded that there is no merit to the allegations that we are abusing, coercing or harming individuals,” it read in part. “These allegations are most disturbing to me as non-violence is one of my most important values.”
The complaint said that many victims participated in videotaped ceremonies where they were branded in their pelvic area with a symbol featuring Raniere’s initials.
“During the branding ceremonies, slaves were required to be fully naked, and the master would order one slave to film while the other held down the slave being branded,” the complaint says.
Investigators said Raniere preferred exceptionally thin women, so “slaves” had to stick to very low-calorie diets and document every food they ate. As punishment for not following orders, women were forced to attend classes where they were “forced to wear fake cow udders over their breasts while people called them derogatory names,” or threatened with being put in cages, court papers say.
Raniere left the U.S. in late 2017 after The New York Times published the accounts of numerous women who defected from NXIVM. Federal investigators began to interview people with supposed connections to the group after the NYT article, and court papers allege that Raniere did everything to cover his tracks, including using encrypted emails and getting rid of his phone.
He was found on Monday in a Puerto Vallarta luxury gated community living with several women. After authorities took him into custody on a U.S. warrant, investigators said the women got into a high-speed car chase. (No explanation or further information has been released about that.)
NXIVM’s Mexican affiliate is headed by Emiliano Salinas, a son of the country’s former president. Several women who were with the group in Mexico had travelled to Albany, where they were branded, two former NXIVM members told the Times.
Salinas has also denied affiliation with NXIVM.
Raniere and NXIVM have been the subject of criticism for years, dating back to at least 2012 when the Times Union of Albany published a series of articles examining the organization and allegations that it was like a cult.
Over the years, NXIVM has attracted a following that includes Emmy Award-winning Smallville actor Allison Mack. Authorities also say Raniere has been bankrolled by Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune.
Other rumoured celebrity members include former Battlestar Galactica star Nicki Clyne and Canadian actor Kristen Kreuk. Neither Clyne nor Kreuk has confirmed those rumours.
Bronfman gave millions of dollars covering expenses like private air travel costing US$65,000 per flight, court papers say. FBI agents raided the Halfmoon, N.Y., home of NXIVM co-founder and president Nancy Salzman on Tuesday as part of the ongoing investigation.
Based in Albany, the group was founded in 1998 as Executive Success Programs and claims to have worked with more than 16,000 people.
Raniere has not disclosed the name of his legal representative, nor has he publicly commented on his arrest. He is expected to be transferred to New York following his court appearance. Federal prosecutors have requested he be held without bail.
— With files from The Associated Press