After more than 14 years of defending himself in lawsuits brought forward by a self-help company accused of sex trafficking and racketeering, cult deprogrammer Rick Alan Ross saw NXIVM founder Keith Raniere sitting at the defendant’s side of a criminal courtroom for the first time Wednesday.
Ross is the founder of the Cult Education Institute, an organization that aims to help families reconnect with members who have become involved in what he calls authoritarian groups. Ross says he’s worked on more than 500 cult interventions since he started the institute three decades ago, including several students of NXIVM, a self-help company Raniere founded in 1998. In the 15 years since Ross first learned about NXIVM, the company has sued him in two states and allegedly hired private investigators to track him, and pose as potential clients. On Wednesday he testified about the legal battles and spying at the group leader’s “sex cult” trial.
Ross testified the bizarre saga stems from a series of cult interventions he was hired to facilitate in 2002. He said Morris and Rochelle Sutton, wealthy owners of a children’s clothing company in New Jersey, hired him to investigate their family members’ involvement in NXIVM, which marketed itself as executive success coaching at the time.
Ross said he hadn’t heard of NXIVM before the Sutton family asked for his help. After meeting with their daughter Stephanie Franco and son Michael Sutton, Ross said he immediately had concerns about the group’s philosophy and structure, which he thought was “eerily similar” to Scientology.
“My feeling was that this was a destructive program, that it was hurting people and it had the potential to hurt more people,” Ross testified.
In his conversations with the Sutton family, Ross said Franco expressed her own concerns about NXIVM and agreed to leave, while her brother Michael decided to stay. Ross said he recommended that the Suttons hire mental health experts to review Franco’s course material as a way to help her brother judge things for himself.
The Suttons took this advice, and had Franco’s notes examined by a forensic psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist, Ross testified. When those findings were published on Ross’s website, Ross said they all became embroiled in legal conflict and surveillance instigated by NXIVM, which lasted until the case was finally dismissed by a federal judge in December 2017.
Other experts who reviewed NXIVM’s material were quick to point out manipulation and thought reform tactics. John Hochman of the University of California reviewed the 16-day course, identifying elements he thought were coercive and cult-like. In his review Hochman pointed to the long hours, secrecy, inability to seek feedback from friends and family, paramilitary rituals and regalia, daily contact with superiors, and unsubstantiated extravagant claims as points of concern.
Psychologist Paul Martin—no relation to the former Canadian prime minister—also audited one of the introductory “intensives”: “This appears nothing short of a religion, a system that has answers to the problems of life,” he wrote in a highly critical report. Martin went on to compare NXIVM material to Robert Jay Lifton’s seminal work on thought reform. All three expert reviews are still available online, despite more than a decade of challenges from NXIVM.
NXIVM alleged the former student who passed on her notes, Stephanie Franco, the doctors who examined the course material, and Ross all violated a non-disclosure agreement signed by all students. The $20-million suit claimed the company suffered irreparable harm because of the breach. Ross was accused of defamation and violating trade secret and copyright laws, but he refused to take the information off his website.
Ross testified that NXIVM also hired a private investigation firm to pose as a family seeking an intervention. “It was all fake, the mother was acting,” he said on the witness stand.
“I had no idea to what extent I was being surveilled,” Ross said in March 2019, days after NXIVM president Nancy Salzman admitted guilt in her effort to doctor videos submitted as evidence in their civil trial against Ross.
Ross said he received the news he was being surveilled in a phone call with Metroland reporter Chet Hardin.
“Did you know they have all your banking info and phone records?” Hardin asked, according to Ross. Hardin confirmed the phone call to VICE, but declined an interview.
“He started reciting portions of a bank statement,” Ross said. “To this day I do not know how they got my records.”
Ross said he learned the company paid to have his garbage searched. Ross said he lived on the 22nd floor of a New Jersey high rise at the time, and he recalled that a building attendant told him about a problem with the garbage chute.
“One of the building attendants said to me, ‘Would you please put your garbage bags outside your door? I’ll take care of it.’ I didn’t think anything of it, I just thought that’s nice, I don’t have to go to the garbage chute,” he told VICE. Ross said he believed the attendant was actually someone hired to go through his trash in search of personal information.
Emails viewed in court show that NXIVM wanted to bring forth more than just civil suits against enemies like Ross. Clare Bronfman, who pleaded guilty to identity fraud and illegally harbouring a migrant for financial gain earlier this year, sent emails asking a family friend to help get Ross and his associates indicted.
“The ‘Ross camp’ needs to be fearful, back down and look to fix the damage they have done; the thought of criminal charges may help inspire this,” Bronfman wrote in an email to one of Edgar Bronfman’s personal and professional associates in 2008, weeks before a mediation date with Ross and the other defendants.
No criminal charges were ever brought against Ross, but the civil case was repeatedly pushed back in part because of NXIVM’s frequent lawyer changes. A lawyer who represented Stephanie Franco in the litigation testified Tuesday that NXIVM retained at least 10 different law firms.
“That’s a very unusual scenario,” Ross told VICE of the never-ending case. “The way that was done was changing legal teams repeatedly; NXIVM changed legal representation a half dozen or more times. They pleaded with the court that they needed to extend everything, to bring the next team up to speed.”
Ross testified that the case was eventually thrown out by the US Supreme Court, which upheld a precedent-setting Second Circuit decision that said public interest trumped confidentiality agreements. Ross said he would not have financially survived his battle with NXIVM were it not for a team of pro-bono lawyers.
“My legal team once told me, if I had to pay for the legal representation I received, it would have been $2 million,” Ross told VICE. “You can see what his strategy was—to break you through litigation.”
Follow Sarah on Twitter.