A supposed self-help guru, Keith Raniere, groomed women for sex, subjecting them to “shame and humiliation” and threatening to expose their “deepest, darkest secrets” if they didn’t comply with his wishes, a federal prosecutor said on Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar presented opening statements at the sex-trafficking trial of Raniere, the former leader of an upstate New York group called NXIVM (pronounced “nexium”) that’s been likened to a cult.
The prosecutor alleged that Raniere had sex with a 15-year-old girl and took nude photos of her; she also described how some female followers were branded with Raniere’s initials.
Authorities have said the branding was done using a cautery pen without anesthesia by a doctor who is now under investigation by state health officials.
Eight Jane Does in that case have refused to answer questions, saying through their lawyers “the branding was a voluntary free expression of personal beliefs.”
But Raniere’s trial is expected to feature testimony from women who claim they were forced to have sex with Raniere. Five of Raniere’s co-defendants, including Smallville actor Allison Mack, have already pleaded guilty at the beginning of April.
Mack pleaded guilty to allegations that she manipulated women into becoming sex slaves for Raniere. She wept in the courtroom as she admitted her crimes and apologized to the women who prosecutors say were exploited. Mack, 36, is widely known as one of 58-year-old Raniere’s top confidantes.
“I believed Keith Raniere’s intentions were to help people and I was wrong,” Mack told a judge in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y.
After months of reflection since her arrest, “I know I can and will be a better person,” Mack said. Her sentencing is set for Sept. 11.
Raniere denies criminal wrongdoing; his lawyers say his relationships were consensual.
In court papers, defence lawyers have said the alleged victims were never abused. The women were instead described as “independent, smart, curious adults” in search of “happiness, fulfillment and meaning.”
But legions of NXIVM defectors and detractors have called the self-help rhetoric a brainwashing device that has destroyed lives.
Promotional material for the now-disbanded NXIVM once hailed Raniere as a “scientist, mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur, educator, inventor and author” who has “devoted his life to developing new tools for human empowerment, expression and ethics.”
“The defendant pretended to be a guru,” Hajjar said, “but he was a criminal.”
Prosecutors said Tuesday that Raniere’s victims included three Mexican sisters, one of whom was only 15. The government plans to introduce explicit photographs of the youngest sister seized from Raniere’s computer as evidence.
Another sister was confined to a room for two years, Najjar said.
If convicted, Raniere faces up to life in prison.
— With files from Chris Jancelewicz and Reuters