This story has been updated with new charges against Keith Raniere.
The second-highest ranking member of a self-help group accused of sex trafficking and racketeering has pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy. Nancy Salzman admitted to conspiring to commit identity theft and editing a video submitted as court evidence.
Salzman told a Brooklyn courtroom that some of the things she did as president of NXIVM were not only wrong, but criminal. “If I could go back and change things, I would. But I can’t,” she said. She could face years of prison time at a July sentencing hearing.
Salzman is the president and cofounder of NXIVM, a many-limbed multi-level marketing enterprise that mostly sold expensive week-long self-help workshops, sometimes to high-profile celebrities, billionaires and political moguls. While thousands have taken the introductory courses, an inner-circle of a few hundred coaches and long-term students has been called an extreme cult that controls members’ diet, sleep, media intake, personal relationships, immigration status, and major life decisions.
Salzman’s guilty plea is the first conviction in a high-profile criminal case that could break new legal ground on cults, pyramid schemes and consent. The most serious charges, sex trafficking and forced labour, are connected to a secret women-only empowerment group the feds say was created to groom sexual partners for NXIVM’s leader, Keith Raniere.
Members of this smaller hidden group pledged a lifelong “vow of obedience” to a “master” and submitted damaging information and nude photos as “collateral” to prove their commitment to secrecy. An initiation ceremony branded the women with a symbol that includes the initials of the group’s alleged creators, Raniere and Smallville actress Allison Mack. Prosecutors say Raniere’s role in creating the group and its alleged sexual purpose was hidden from the women who joined.
Raniere and Mack will face trafficking and other charges in court later this year, while billionaire heiress Clare Bronfman, bookkeeper Kathy Russell, and Salzman’s daughter Lauren will stand trial for racketeering charges related to money laundering, identity theft, extortion, wire fraud, obstruction of justice and other crimes.
Salzman’s plea suggests we’ll find out a whole lot more about NXIVM at trial, as she played a central role in the organization from the beginning. Over her 20 years with NXIVM, Salzman became a highly-revered figure who wore a special white sash, had her own VIP parking spot at the company’s main headquarters in Albany, New York, and was held up as an extraordinary teacher who her students called “Prefect.”
Salzman and Raniere shared an interest in life coaching and human potential, and launched their own “executive success” training company in 1998. The courses drew heavily from popular self-help trends of the 70s and 80s, including est leadership training and several practices of Scientology. Salzman also studied neuro-linguistic programming with one of the practice’s founders, Richard Bandler. Though there is no scientific evidence supporting the discipline, NLP practitioners have claimed to successfully treat things like phobias, mental disorders, allergies and other “psychosomatic illness."
Barbara Bouchey, a former NXIVM insider and girlfriend to Raniere, told VICE she believes Salzman earned her exalted position in the self-help organization. “Her ability to help move a room to evolve and grow and have awarenesses was unlike anything I’ve seen—she rightfully deserved praise."
But Salzman went to extreme lengths to seek out Raniere's approval, according to Bouchey. “That’s where it got odd,” she said of Salzman and Raniere’s relationship. “In some ways she seemed like a little girl with her father, always hungering for that pat on the back.”
Bouchey told VICE she’s “enormously relieved” to see Salzman cooperating with authorities. As someone who considered Salzman a close confidante for a decade before NXIVM began, she said she was saddened to see her friend become so entrenched as the inner circle of the organization took a darker turn. “It pains me that she didn’t have the strength to stand up to him, or to not go along with him. She somehow got bedazzled by him so much she didn’t stop.”
New documents filed in court this week suggest more former insiders are beginning to cooperate with the feds, which has resulted in more charges. A new superseding indictment unsealed late Wednesday added child exploitation and child pornography charges to the list of allegations against Raniere.
Prosecutors’ Tuesday filings first revealed the government's plans to present evidence of Raniere’s sexual relationships with underage girls. A memo alleges members of Keith’s inner circle “were aware of and facilitated Raniere’s sexual relationships with two underage victims.”
One 15-year-old alleged victim worked for Nancy Salzman and went on to become a “first-line ‘slave’ in DOS,” according to the court files. Trial evidence will also include “dated images” of a child victim taken and owned by Raniere, which prosecutors called “child pornography.”
The new filings also reference alleged schemes to intimidate perceived enemies with both civil and criminal challenges, and to stop women who were allegedly branded, blackmailed and enslaved from speaking out. The government says it will present evidence of political campaign contributions made allegedly in exchange for criminal charges against enemies “for crimes they did not commit or on the basis of false or misleading information.”
The trial is scheduled to begin April 29.
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