A woman who prosecutors say spent nearly two years confined in a room with only a mattress, pen, and paper began testifying on Thursday about the ways she was groomed into the personal and romantic life of NXIVM founder Keith Raniere. Identified in court as Daniela, the Mexican national described how and why she and her two sisters all had sexual relationships with the self-help guru in their teens and early 20s—the youngest allegedly having been photographed in sexually explicit poses when she was just 15 years old.
The account laid the foundation for some of the most aggressive allegations against Raniere, who faces trial on racketeering, forced labor, and sex trafficking charges. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Daniela told a Brooklyn courtroom that she was set to go to an international high school in Switzerland when she first took a NXIVM course in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2002. She testified that she was moved by the group's world-changing mission and purported scientific approach. Daniela was offered an opportunity to come to Albany and use her self-taught programming skills to help "save the world" from unspecified disaster, which Raniere claimed would take place within the next 10 to 15 years.
"It was a bit of a childish idea," she said of her decision to take a year off of school to leave her family and move to the United States to study NXIVM's self-help curriculum at the age of 16. Daniela recalled being flattered by the fact that Raniere already knew her name when she arrived.
In her new home, Daniela did data entry and odd jobs for the company, and was tutored by Raniere. But she said she became more dependent on him after confessing to stealing and returning money to NXIVM's admin office.
"I think he set it up," Daniela testified about the incident. While the inner circle of NXIVM berated her lack of ethics and "aggressively" pushed her to make amends even after returning the money, Raniere became a shoulder for her to cry on, she said.
"He made himself the hero of the story," she said. "I believe he was grooming me."
Prosecutors on the Raniere case have indicated they intend to introduce expert testimony on how perpetrators "often use 'grooming' techniques on adult and child victims to normalize sexual behaviors and make their victims more susceptible to assault." Former federal sex crime prosecutor Krishna Patel told VICE the first step in this kind of grooming is getting around parents. Patel, who now works on justice initiatives at Grace Farms Foundation, said predators can do this by ingratiating themselves and making themselves useful to the parent, and/or, as in this case, by physical separation. Though Daniela's parents took NXIVM courses in Mexico, it would be several years until they relocated to Albany permanently.
Daniela and Raniere's email exchanges became "flirty" around the time she was 17, she testified. In response to Daniela playfully using the word "baby" in an email, Raniere wrote "Aren't you too young to be doing this? Maybe no!!!!" according to evidence shown in court.
Raniere presented himself as a genius tutor and mentor who could help the witness deal with her parents' separation. He first kissed then-17-year-old Daniela during a conversation about her mother wanting to move out of the family home. Though she said she "felt nothing" about the kiss itself, she testified she later felt excited and flattered to be chosen by someone she, like many NXIVM followers, believed to be the smartest person on the planet.
Daniela's older sister Marianna eventually joined her in Albany in 2003, and was coached in tennis by Raniere and NXIVM insider Pamela Cafritz, she said. The witness testified that her sister was showered in expensive gear and free lessons, and began to spend more time with Cafritz and Raniere.
Leading up to her 18th birthday, Daniela testified, she had several conversations with Raniere about the fact she was too young for them to have sex. She said Raniere asked her many times what she wanted for her birthday, with the subtext that she might want him. Echoing previous testimony about his obsession with weight, Raniere advised Daniela that she should shed pounds before they had sex, she said.
About a week after her birthday, Daniela said that Raniere took her to an office complex room with a mattress on the floor, its sheets unwashed. She said Raniere asked her to undress and engaged in "oral sex" on her.
"Then he climbed on top of me for a little while," she said. "It was like a long hug."
Daniela testified about Raniere’s "mystical beliefs" when it came to sex. She learned that Raniere would apparently be hurt if any of the women he slept with had other relationships, and that he could "feel it" if they ever had sex with someone else. He also claimed he could help people grow spiritually by having sex with them, Daniela testified. He said he could "fix disintegrations" in people through sex.
The witness later discovered her sister was also in a sexual relationship with Raniere, something the guru caught them discussing. Daniela testified she was strongly discouraged from ever talking about it, even with her sibling. At one point, Daniela said, she was invited to have a nap with Raniere and her sister, which quickly turned sexual. The witness said Raniere was kissing her sister and touching her, and had pulled down his pants, which made her burst into tears.
"I started crying, she started crying, it was messed up," she said. "It felt dirty. Bad and wrong."
Raniere took Marianna away from the scene and left Daniela to cry, she said. The attempted threesome happened a day after NXIVM insiders had allegedly smuggled Daniela back into the United States with a fake ID, a scheme that would cement her undocumented status and later be used to threaten her, according to prosecutors.
"That was Christmas," she added.
Daniela described the crude, boundary-pushing ways Raniere interacted with the women in his inner circle, something Patel pointed to as a grooming technique she saw across many of the sex crime cases she worked on. Raniere would grab women's crotches in front of others, make jokes about their "camel toe" or the amount of hair around their vaginas, the witness said.
"The most important thing a predator does is completely destroy healthy boundaries," Patel explained. In living situations, men who groom young victims will introduce pornography, or walk around the house naked, to change the child's ideas of what's normal, she added.
"The problem is that for the adolescent brain, or even younger, it is so deeply influential," Patel said. "It's coming at the time you're supposed to be teaching healthy behavior—what we would consider healthy in this society. When you break that down for a child, and destroy that, that is very powerful and very effective, and it doesn't take very long, actually."
Daniela's testimony ended with her recounting the realization that her youngest sister Camila, who was 15 when she first moved to Albany, also got involved in a sexual relationship with Raniere. Her two siblings were staying in different NXIVM members' homes, furthering their isolation from each other.
"I think she was isolated for easy access," Daniela testified.
Next week, Daniela was expected to continue testifying about how members of her family were turned against her, and will describe spending as many as 23 months in a room without contact with the outside world.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.