This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
A woman accused of recruiting her best friend into a secret woman-branding “slave” group has pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering, and one count of racketeering conspiracy.
Lauren Salzman is a high-ranking member of NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um), a self-help group whose leader Keith Raniere is facing trial for child exploitation, sex trafficking, forced labour, racketeering and other crimes.
Salzman is the second person to be convicted in the high-profile “sex cult” case, which has also charged Smallville actress Allison Mack with sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and forced labour. Lauren Salzman’s mother Nancy Salzman, the president and co-founder of NXIVM, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy earlier this month.
NXIVM began in 1998 offering expensive “executive success” seminars in upstate New York, drawing cult accusations as early as 2003. The courses prod participants’ insecurities and claim to break down “self-limiting beliefs” that keep people from achieving their dreams.
Over two decades the multi-level marketing company expanded to many international destinations including Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles, London, Miami, and Mexico City. Along the way its members launched dozens of offshoot courses and recruitment efforts incorporating yoga, fitness, parenting, acting, singing, advocacy, and media criticism. Recruitment was rewarded with special status in the organization, marked with coloured sashes.
In 2017, former NXIVM insider Sarah Edmondson told VICE about a secretive offshoot called DOS that purported to be about empowering women. Eastern District of New York prosecutors allege this secret group branded women and used blackmail to ensure their participation as “slaves” for the “master” who recruited them.
Women who were initiated into the group were required to stick to extreme low-calorie diets and participate in “readiness” drills that interrupted their sleep. “Masters” in the group allegedly tested women’s loyalty through assignments that could include having sex with Keith Raniere. If women did not complete the assignments, they believed damaging information or photos of their naked bodies would be released.
Court documents allege Lauren Salzman was a “first-line master” in the secret women’s group, and was herself a “slave” to Raniere. She and Mack both pledged a lifelong “vow of obedience” to the alleged cult leader, according to a former member.
Lauren Salzman is the first member of the secret “slave” group to plead guilty, but the exact criminal acts she’s admitted to were sealed Monday. A racketeering conviction requires the accused participate in at least two indictable acts as part of a criminal enterprise, which in Salzman’s case could be extortion or forced labour and/or something called “document servitude.” She will be sentenced in September.
US prosecutors announced in court earlier this month that they’re in plea negotiations with other defendants, which may explain why Salzman’s plea was sealed. In a letter to the judge Thursday lead prosecutor Moira Kim Penza confirmed Salzman’s plea and asked that a redacted version of it be made available to the public.
“The government respectfully submits that the proposed limited redactions are necessary,” Penza wrote.
So far Salzman’s plea hasn’t captured the headlines that heiress Clare Bronfman made by fainting in court Wednesday. Bronfman is also charged with racketeering and racketeering conspiracy related to her alleged involvement in money laundering, wire fraud, visa fraud, and identity theft.
The heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune has retained an expensive legal team and set up a trust to pay for some of the other defendants’ legal fees. On Wednesday afternoon Bronfman was asked if she had retained famed Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti—who’s currently facing his own extortion charges—to represent Bronfman in the NXIVM case.
The judge questioned why Avenatti and Bronfman’s main lawyer Mark Geragos met with a federal prosecutor to negotiate on the NXIVM file. He also cast doubt on Bronfman’s account that she found Geragos by internet search, as there happens to be a family connection between Raniere and Bronfman’s legal teams.
Faced with tough questions about her legal representation, Bronfman passed out in court, and an ambulance was called.
“As your honour is aware, Ms. Bronfman is not feeling well,” one of Bronfman’s lawyers told the judge after the episode. “She is going to the hospital… I believe she blacked out.”
The judge proceeded to scold Bronfman’s lawyers for deflecting his questions. “I want answers. I want to know why I wasn’t told last week that Mr. Avenatti had been retained,” he said. “I want to know that because I should have been told who the lawyers are.”
New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum promptly called for this confusing news-cycle crossover to end. “Please cancel this show, it is no longer coherent even to fans,” she tweeted.
In a Thursday letter to the judge, one of Bronfman's lawyers confirmed Avenatti did work for her "for a matter of days" and "for a limited purpose."
The courtroom drama was one of the more surprising developments in the case since Raniere was arrested in Mexico one year ago this week. The case has certainly not been short on shocking revelations, with new child porn and child exploitation charges against Raniere added for the first time two weeks ago.
With a month left before the April 29 trial is slated to begin, we may see a few more surprises yet.
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An earlier version of this story misstated that Teny Geragos is Clare Bronfman's main lawyer.