One Woman’s Harrowing Journey from Aspiring Olympian to NXIVM Sex 'Slave'
At a trial centering on the group some critics call a "sex cult," prosecutors set out to paint a picture of a disturbing mob-like enterprise led by Keith Raniere.
Keith Raniere, center, is seated between his attorneys during the first day of his sex trafficking trial, Tuesday, May 7, 2019. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The first witness to take the stand at the sex trafficking and racketeering trial against Keith Raniere, founder of embattled self-help company NXIVM, described her 13-year transformation from an aspiring Olympian seeking a trainer to a "slave" who obeyed escalating sexual assignments from a "master" with the power to destroy her life.
The woman, identified as "Sylvie," told a Brooklyn courtroom Tuesday she was first hired by Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman when she was 18 years old, at a time when she dreamed of a professional equestrian career. Bronfman, who was a competitive horse jumper training for the Olympics under Raniere’s coaching at the time, allowed the teenager to sleep on the floor of one of her bedrooms at her upstate New York farm, where Sylvie worked in the stables.
Over several hours of testimony this week, Sylvie, now 32, recounted her involvement in many concentric circles of NXIVM, which Raniere—who has pleaded not guilty—founded in 1998. The most hair-raising details centered on her induction into a secret (now-notorious) branding society called DOS, as well as many of the group’s more subtle, long-term escalation tactics.
As Sylvie’s testimony continued into Wednesday, the court heard about a range of increasingly dangerous and incriminating activities, from food restriction to immigration schemes to arranged marriages. But while the proceedings, which VICE will be covering in the coming days, pointed to some of the patterns used by cults, prosecutors are not tasked with proving the group is one, and actually avoided that kind of language in their initial questions. Instead, they seemed determined to paint a picture of an almost mafia-like criminal outfit, albeit with a postmodern twist.
Long before Sylvie found out her first DOS assignment was to “seduce Keith,” she was a British transplant on a tourist visa who felt “freaked out” at her first five-day NXIVM seminar, she recalled.
In court, she read lines from a 12-point mission statement that was recited in unison at every one of the company's self-help sessions, which included the line “there are no ultimate victims, therefore I will choose not to be a victim.” Sylvie added that students huddled in a circle, wrapped arms around each other, and chanted, "We are committed to our success!" at the beginning of class.
Meanwhile, Sylvie said, she was giving Bronfman daily reports on her weight, and at one point weighed as little as 89 or 90 pounds. Detailed reports on her food intake, exercise, and mental state would become a regular part of her athletic training within NXIVM, even as her horse show dreams began to fade. After her mentor Bronfman decided to quit horse jumping and focus on NXIVM full-time, Sylvie said, she switched to training as a competitive long-distance runner.
Sylvie also became a coach inside NXIVM and grew invested in her mentor Bronfman’s advancement in the company, which meant recruiting more students. At one point, Sylvie said, she was encouraged not to go home to visit her parents in the UK because she would be affected by her parents' "programming" and "indoctrination."
Sylvie also described participating in several sketchy immigration schemes. Bronfman proposed that she apply for an investor visa despite her lack of funds or experience investing, she said. According to Sylvie, Bronfman said she could make it look like Sylvie was invested in a NXIVM-offshoot organization called Ethletics. The plan allegedly involved pretending to sell a horse in exchange for Bronfman money. The idea was abandoned after a lawyer said there wasn’t enough evidence to support an investor visa application. She eventually married an American, but was advised by Raniere to stay celibate for the first two years, she said. (Bronfman has since pleaded guilty to harboring a migrant for financial gain and identity fraud in connection with NXIVM.)
After more than a decade of growing deeply entangled in NXIVM, Sylvie claimed she was asked to give collateral for a “special project” in 2015. After some instruction and negotiation, she agreed to provide full-frontal nudes and letters falsely confessing she was a prostitute in envelopes addressed to her family. Her "master," Monica, assured Sylvie her collateral was safe and nobody was ever going to look at it.
Monica then told Sylvie her first assignment was to seduce Raniere. "I didn’t want to do it anyway. It was like, 'Oh god, what does that mean?'" she said.
Sylvie told jurors she sent Raniere a WhatsApp message commenting that he looked hot in glasses, to which Raniere replied, "You’re gonna have to do better than that."
Sylvie said she didn’t think she had a choice, as her collateral might be released. Raniere prompted her to be more vulnerable with him, and suggested sending pictures. The photo exchange became more explicit, Sylvie said, until she was sending close-up pics of her vagina.
This went on for months, until Sylvie said her dad discovered the pics in a folder of their shared iCloud account. Sylvie was "absolutely horrified" and stopped sending photos immediately, she said.
The witness began to cry as she recalled that Monica was not happy with this decision, telling Sylvie she shouldn't have stopped sending photos without permission from Raniere. Sylvie added that she asked her master for permission to stop, and was told her next seduction assignment would be in person. On Wednesday, she said she was instructed to meet Raniere and ask him to take her picture, which she did.
Sylvie went on to describe how Raniere took her to his study, where she saw a big bed with white sheets. "I think I got the words out, 'Would you take my picture,'" she said. He replied that she should undress and lie down on the bed.
The witness described following the orders. She said Raniere went down on her for some time, which she did not want, though she described making noises she thought Raniere would want to hear in hopes he might stop. Sylvie said she later felt disgusted and ashamed.
Raniere told Sylvie she was now "part of the inner circle" and that he was her "grandmaster," she said.
Sylvie was likely just one of several DOS "slaves" expected to appear in court during the trial. In opening arguments, prosecutors offered an overview of a plan to prove Raniere was a "predator" and a "con man."
"This was organized crime and Keith Raniere was the crime boss," federal prosecutor Tanya Hajjar told the court.
In one of the trial's first disturbing moments, Hajjar showed the face of a 15-year-old identified only as Camilla, reclining on a pillow. Hajjar said Raniere, who was 45 at the time, began having sex with the girl in 2005, and took close-up photos of her "private parts." Hajjar said Raniere also had sex with Camilla’s two sisters, one of whom was allegedly confined to a room for 23 months.
For his part, Raniere’s defense attorney, Marc Agnifilo, characterized these arguments as "conclusions," "slogans," and "names of crimes." He talked about the "good intentions" behind practices like requiring people to hand over damaging information and photos as "collateral," and extreme levels of self-denial. At the end of the first day of arguments, Agnifilo went so far as to call for a mistrial, arguing the use of first names only was unfairly implying the guilt of his client in front of the jury.
Judge Nicholas Garaufis fired back that he heard no objections during the day’s proceedings, and ruled against a mistrial Wednesday morning.
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