As leader of a global self-help empire, Keith Raniere was not accustomed to being challenged. For more than 20 years Raniere was surrounded by influential people who believed he was the smartest man on earth, and who moved mountains (or private jets) to carry out his self-proclaimed mission of educating the world about power, ethics, and personal responsibility.
That was before prosecutors accused Raniere of sex trafficking, forced labour conspiracy, extortion, racketeering, child exploitation, and other crimes in the wake of an FBI investigation into the company he founded, NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um). After more than a year in a Brooklyn jail awaiting a high-profile trial set to begin Tuesday, Raniere will undoubtedly face the biggest challenge of his lifetime.
Since explosive branding and blackmail allegations first came to light in 2017, much of Raniere’s once-loyal following has turned against him. Though six high-ranking NXIVM members were originally named in an indictment last year, five co-defendants have since pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges, leaving Raniere to stand trial by himself.
But at least part of Raniere’s world influence remains intact. Some 16,000 people have taken NXIVM’s personal growth classes, and many former students still defend the life-changing insights they took from those sessions.
“I definitely felt like a veil of fog had been lifted,” actress Sarah Edmondson said of NXIVM’s courses and coaching in 2017. “I had more clarity, I was making better decisions, I understood people better. I thought this was the key to success and happiness.”
In addition to 16-hour day “intensives” that prodded students’ deepest insecurities, NXIVM offered alternative talk therapies that claimed to address depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s and other disorders. “Exploration of meaning” sessions combined elements of hypnosis, cognitive behavioural therapy, and Scientology’s Dianetics (L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial manual on mental health) to guide students to personal epiphanies. As students became more involved in the organization, these sessions were encouraged in making all major life decisions.
Edmondson went on to become a top recruiter for the company, and opened a self-help centre in Vancouver in 2009. Under her leadership the Vancouver chapter brought in a handful of actresses from big-network TV shows, including Allison Mack from the teen superhero series Smallville. Edmondson was rewarded with special status in the company for her efforts, which was marked with a green sash she wore in class. She often told friends and strangers that NXIVM was the reason she found success in her career and relationships.
But Edmondson had her rose-tinted view of NXIVM turned upside down when her best friend Lauren Salzman invited her to a secret society called DOS in 2017. To learn about the women’s empowerment group, Salzman said Edmondson would need to turn over “collateral” by writing down a damaging secret about herself or her family.
Edmondson went along with it, and soon found herself ensnared in a scheme she says she wanted nothing to do with. DOS was a hierarchical network of “masters” and “slaves” within NXIVM that assigned unpaid labour and enforced a near-starvation diet, she told VICE. An initiation ceremony branded a jagged symbol into the skin below her hip, and Edmondson was required to participate in “readiness” drills that woke her up at odd hours of the night.
“Masters” in the group allegedly tested women’s loyalty through assignments that at times included having sex with Raniere. If women did not complete the assignments, they believed collateral, including explicit photos and videos, would be released. Prosecutors allege Raniere was the “grand master” presiding over the whole scheme, a fact that was hidden from most members who joined.
The case has moved through the court system at a time when there’s increased scrutiny on how sexual crimes are argued and prosecuted. The original New York Times story that sparked an FBI investigation into NXIVM was published only one week after sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein made international headlines, launching the #MeToo movement.
One of the prosecution’s expert witnesses, a psychiatrist, is expected to testify about why assault victims often take long periods of time to report their abusers, especially when they are codependent figures in the victim’s life. The government has also requested witnesses testify under pseudonyms to minimize public humiliation—a move contested by Raniere’s lawyers, who say their client would be unfairly characterized as dangerous as a result.
Though five people have already pleaded guilty in the case, none of the convictions have included the sex trafficking claim at the centre of Raniere’s case.
Still looming over the trial are thorny questions about cults, manipulation, and consent. While court documents filed by prosecutors do not use the word cult, they do describe many cult functions, from demanding absolute commitment, to inducing shame and guilt, to separating members from friends and family. At least one expert is expected to speak to “severe restriction of social, perceptual and occupational stimulation.”
Prosecutors have amassed more than 13 terabytes of evidence, and recent court filings suggests they’re drawing from a witness pool of 125 people. Defence filings suggest the jury is likely to hear conflicting accounts of alleged trafficking and child exploitation victims who still support Raniere, NXIVM and even DOS.
Also at issue is Raniere’s alleged history of sexual relationships with underage women and girls, first reported by the Albany Times Union in 2012. Though counts of child exploitation and creating and possessing naked photos of a 15-year-old have been dismissed because the alleged acts happened in a different district of New York, a jury will still hear about it as proof of a racketeering conspiracy.
Racketeering laws were first introduced to fight New York’s notorious crime families in the 1960s and 70s. Racketeering law allows for groups of crimes to be charged all at once, but it also means a jury will have to agree on which acts fall into a conspiratorial pattern.
The NXIVM “sex cult” case has already created a fair bit of courtroom drama. A teary-eyed Allison Mack admitted to extortion and forced labour as part of a racketeering conspiracy last month, and that was only 12 days after heiress Clare Bronfman fainted in court when it was revealed celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti secretly represented her.
Nancy Salzman, president and co-founder of the company, admitted to doctoring trial evidence and stealing someone’s identity as part of a racketeering conspiracy in March 2019. Her daughter Lauren Salzman, who was part of the secret women’s group at the centre of the sex trafficking allegations, admitted she participated in forced labour and extortion. She told a Brooklyn courtroom she held credit card authorizations and naked photos as “collateral” and confined one woman in a room for nearly two years under threat of deportation.
Finally, heiress Clare Bronfman pleaded guilty to identity theft and harbouring a migrant for financial gain, and bookkeeper Kathy Russell pleaded to visa fraud over Easter weekend. Each of these developments have sent shockwaves through the once tight-knit NXIVM community, but the biggest drama has yet to unfold, as the leader who started it all stands trial.
Court filings reveal Raniere’s lawyers have no plans to put the defendant on the witness stand. But if he did, one former NXIVM member thinks it would go poorly for him.
Barbara Bouchey, an ex-girlfriend and former board member of NXIVM, says she tried to hold Raniere accountable for unfair business practices and inappropriate sexual relationships back in 2009. “I saw him for the first time in such a flustered state,” Bouchey told VICE of the confrontation. “He was scattered, fearful, swearing, angry, his face red, veins pulsating.”
A decade later, Bouchey is set to watch Raniere face vastly more serious allegations, knowing what happened when followers once questioned his authority.
“I suspect no one had ever put him on the hot seat like that, and probably not since,” she told VICE. “I believe Keith is not going to handle the trial well at all.”
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