The former leader of a purported self-help group was convicted Wednesday of federal charges that centered on lurid details of what prosecutors called a secret society of “sex slaves” within a community of followers in upstate New York.
A jury in federal court in Brooklyn took less than five hours to find Keith Raniere, the leader of so-called “sex cult” NXIVM, guilty on all counts of sex trafficking and other charges accusing him of coercing women into unwanted sex using systematic shame and humiliation.
Raniere listened attentively, but showed no visible reaction as he learned the verdict.
Prosecutors had told jurors that someone known as “Vanguard” and revered as “the smartest man in the world” among some followers was actually a creepy con man who barely got passing grades in college.
The sorority, sometimes called “The Vow,” was created “to satisfy the defendant’s desire for sex, power and control,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza said in closing arguments.
Among the more damning allegations against Raniere were that he had some women branded with his initials and that he started having sex with one of his followers starting at age 15. Prosecutors said he took a series of nude photos of the teen that were shown at trial, one by one, to the eight women and four men who comprised the jury.
Raniere kept the child pornography stashed in his private study as “a trophy” of “his sexual conquest,” Penza said.
The defence argued Raniere was a genuine believer in unconventional means for self-improvement and that all his sexual encounters with female followers of his organization were consensual. His behaviour could be seen as “repulsive and offensive, but we don’t convict people in this country for being repulsive or offensive,” attorney Marc Agnifilo said in his closings.
Raniere, 58, was arrested at a Mexican hideout in 2018 following an investigation his Albany-area group, that once had an international following with a foothold in Hollywood but was called a cult by critics. His adherents included TV actor Allison Mack, best known for her role as a friend of a young Superman in the series Smallville, and Seagram’s liquor fortune heiress, Clare Bronfman.
Raniere’s organization began to crumble amid sensational reports about The Vow alleging its members were held down and branded in ceremonies at a “sorority house” for them that had a mock dungeon.
Mack and Bronfman, who were named as defendants with Raniere in a federal indictment, pleaded guilty before they could go to trial with him. They didn’t testify, leaving a cooperating member of his inner circle and three victims from the secret sorority as the key witnesses.
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The cooperator described how female “masters” forced “slaves” for Raniere to give up “collateral” — nude photos and other material that would ruin them if ever made public – to keep them in line.
One of the victims, whose names were withheld to protect her privacy, described being confined to a bedroom for more than 700 days on orders from Raniere as punishment for showing interest in another man. Another explained how Raniere lured her to a home when she was blind-folded and bound to a table so that another woman could perform a sex act on her; and the third recounted making up an excuse to leave the community so she could avoid completing an assignment from her “master” — Allison Mack — to “seduce” Raniere.
Agnifilo, the defence attorney, sought to point jurors to evidence of text and other messages between Raniere and the woman he said showed they had caring relationships that ended with “no hard feelings.” And since the group never released any of the slaves’ collateral, “Where’s the extortion?” he asked.
But with the victims’ stories of abuse at the hands of Raniere, Penza said, “A light has been shown into the darkness and the defendant’s crimes have been exposed.”
Raniere faces a possible life sentence. He will be officially sentenced on Sept. 25, 2019.
— With a file from Chris Jancelewicz