For seven weeks, prosecutors have made the case that Keith Raniere, the leader of a self-help company, is actually a crime boss and sex trafficker. On Wednesday, jurors agreed by delivering a guilty verdict on all counts including sex trafficking, racketeering, exploitation of a child, extortion, wire fraud conspiracy, identity theft and other crimes.
He could face up to life in prison at a September sentencing hearing.
Former slaves of the self-help company founder quietly wept in the back row as the verdict was read to a packed Brooklyn courtroom. “He’s done, fucking asshole,” Catherine Oxenberg, mother of former “slave” India Oxenberg, told reporters outside the courtroom following the verdict.
Raniere founded the self-help group NXIVM in 1998 to sell “executive success" seminars to aspiring millionaires. Members would eventually include celebrities like Smallville’s Allison Mack and Battlestar Galactica’s Grace Park and Nicki Clyne. But from within the larger NXIVM group grew a sinister secret society called DOS which branded women and turned them into “slaves”—all the while holding them hostage by forcing them to hand over “collateral” such as nude images to keep them from speaking out.
Raniere was the leader of NXIVM but a number of people assisted him, included Mack, who pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy and Clare Bronfman, heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, who pleaded guilty to harbouring an illegal migrant for financial gain and fraudulent use of someone else’s identity. She agreed to pay a $6-million fine.
“I’m relieved,” said Sarah Edmondson, a former high-ranking member who became one of the first whistleblowers who exposed DOS and Raniere’s other abuses. “Today the world is a better place, and that’s what we set out to do 12 years ago when we joined.”
Outside the courthouse Wednesday, United States Attorney Richard P. Donoghue called Raniere a “modern-day Svengali” who ruined careers, families and lives. “Over the last seven weeks this trial has revealed that Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was in fact a massive manipulator, a con man, and a crime boss of a cult-like organization involved in sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion, compelled abortions, branding, degradation, and humiliation,” he said.
The seven-week trial kicked off with an admission from Raniere’s attorney that his client did in fact create a secret society called “DOS” that branded women and collected damaging “collateral”—usually nude images or videos—supposedly to prove women’s commitment to secrecy. “DOS was created by Keith Raniere,” defence lawyer Marc Agnifilo told jurors last month. “No doubt about it, it was created by Keith Raniere. He created DOS to be a sisterhood. He created it to be a women’s organization.”
Jurors heard from four women who were initiated into the secret group, including one woman who was blindfolded, tied to a table, and had oral sex performed on her by an unidentified person while Raniere watched and recorded. Another woman testified Allison Mack told her having sex with Raniere would help heal her traumatic childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle.
Early testimony from top-ranking “slave” Lauren Salzman revealed the so-called secret society was bigger and more disturbing than previously reported. Though media coverage had focused on naked photos submitted as “collateral” to prove members’ commitment to secrecy, Salzman testified that alleged blackmail material was far more life-destroying.
Salzman said the first thing she provided as collateral was a confession she had participated in a crime that implicated her mother, Nancy Salzman, as well as NXIVM founder Keith Raniere. She said a woman who was taking one of NXIVM’s self-help programs had a psychotic break during the course, and Salzman helped force-feed her Valium, and avoided taking her to a hospital under Raniere’s direction.
Salzman said she was told the collateral couldn't be used because it would hurt Raniere if it were ever released—instead, she told the court, she was instructed to hand over nude pictures. DOS members were later told to give new collateral every month, and Salzman recalled pledging everything of value in her life, including investments, two homes, two cars, and a commitment to resign from her high-ranking positions within NXIVM if she ever broke her vow to secrecy.
Another witness identified as Daniela described her confinement to a bedroom for nearly two years at the hands of Raniere who was jealous of Daniela’s feelings for another man. In evidence Raniere insisted she atone in outrageous and self-destructive ways for the "ethical breach" of being interested in a younger NXIVM member named Ben Myers.
"I was gone from the world and nobody noticed," Daniela testified. "I was just hoping, somebody come get me."
The trial ended with an FBI special agent introducing photos Raniere kept on a hard drive in a folder called “studies.” One of the folders contained naked photos of Daniela’s younger sister, taken when she was 15 years old in 2005. Jurors appeared visibly uncomfortable as the graphic photos were shown on one of the last days of the trial.
“A very sick man is going to jail,” Edmondson said of the conviction on child porn and child exploitation charges. “He won’t be able to abuse people any more.”
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