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Nxivm: Sex cult leader Raniere found guilty in New York

Nxivm: Sex cult leader Raniere found guilty in New York

Postby smix » Thu Jun 20, 2019 10:07 am

Nxivm: Sex cult leader Raniere found guilty in New York
BBC News

URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48699099
Category: Legal
Published: June 19, 2019

Description: Keith Raniere, a self-help guru accused of leading a sex cult that enslaved women, has been found guilty of all charges against him. Raniere, 58, was convicted by a jury after a six-week trial in Brooklyn, New York. He allegedly oversaw a "slave and master" system in his group, called Nxivm. He was convicted of all counts against him, including racketeering, sex trafficking and child pornography. Mr Raniere, who pleaded not guilty to all charges, could face life in prison. During the trial, the court heard how female recruits in the group were branded with his initials and coerced into having sex with Raniere. Raniere maintained that Nxivm (pronounced nexium) was a self-improvement organisation, but investigators said it was a sex-trafficking operation disguised as a mentoring group. Recruits were told it was an all-female group and were asked to hand over compromising materials that were later used to blackmail them, prosecutors said. Raniere was arrested by the FBI in Mexico last year. His defence team said the alleged sexual relationships were consensual. When the verdict was read outside court, former members of Nxivm gave the prosecution team a round of applause.

What did we learn in court?
According to Nxivm's tagline, Raniere and his organisation were "working to build a better world". But witnesses called to testify at his trial painted a starkly different picture of the man. Raniere, the court heard, ran a secret society within Nxivm called DOS. As the "grandmaster" of DOS, he was a "predator" who exploited and blackmailed women, including a 15-year-old girl, prosecutors alleged. Raniere forced his "slaves" to give him nude photos of themselves and other compromising materials, telling them they would be made public if they disobeyed him, the court heard. Every August, Nxivm members - called "Nixians" - would dole out $2,000 (£1,575) or more to gather in Silver Bay, New York to celebrate Raniere's birthday week, according to court documents. A former member testified that the week included "tribute ceremonies" to Raniere, who was referred to as "The Vanguard" by his followers. Another former member of the alleged sex cult, identified by prosecutors as Daniela, testified she was "groomed" for weeks before she turned 18 for Raniere to take her virginity. The same women was allegedly confined to a bedroom for two years - all because she gained weight and asked to see a man other than Raniere. In her closing arguments, prosecutor Moira Penza said Raniere was a "crime boss with no limits" who "tapped into a never-ending flow of women and money". In his defence, his lawyer Marc Agnifilo told the court that no women were ever forced to do anything against their will. "You may find him repulsive, disgusting and offensive. We don't convict people in this country for being repulsive or offensive," Agnifilo said. "Unpopular ideas aren't criminal. Disgusting ideas aren't criminal." A jury of eight men and four women dismissed his arguments, convicting Raniere for the catalogue of abuse, forced starvation and sexual exploitation he subjected his victims to.
The women of Nxivm
Raniere was at the top of this structure as the only man, but had a number of female deputies. Female recruits were allegedly branded with Raniere's initials and expected to have sex with him, as part of the system. Five female members of Nxivm - including a liquor heiress and an actress - have pleaded guilty to a series of charges for their involvement. The most high profile of these was former Smallville star Allison Mack. In April she pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges, despite previously denying the accusations. Mack admitted to recruiting women by telling them they were joining a female mentorship group. She is now scheduled to be sentenced in September and will face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each of the two charges. Clare Bronfman, the heir to the Seagram alcohol fortune, in April pleaded guilty to conspiracy to conceal and harbour illegal immigrants for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification. She was accused of pumping more than $100m (£77m) into Nxivm. In March, the co-founder of the group, Nancy Salzman, pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering. She is due to be sentenced in July. Lauren Salzman, the daughter of Nancy, and Nxivm employee, Kathy Russell, also pleaded guilty over their involvement.
How did Nxivm describe itself?
On its website Nxivm describes itself as a "community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human". Based in Albany, New York, the group was founded as Executive Success Programs in 1998. Billed as a personal development company, it claims to have worked with more than 16,000 people. Members of the group are reported to include wealthy socialites and Hollywood actresses. According to the group's website, it has suspended enrolment and events because of the "extraordinary circumstances facing the company at this time".

Keith Raniere's Nxivm sex cult trial: What we learned
BBC News

URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48401061
Category: Legal
Published: June 19, 2019

Description: Nxivm leader Keith Raniere has been found guilty on seven counts of racketeering, sex trafficking, conspiracy, wire fraud and other crimes. Following a seven-week trial, jurors took less than five hours to deliberate Raniere's case. He could see life in prison for these charges. Raniere, prosecutors say, billed himself as the "smartest, most ethical person in the world", comparing himself to Einstein and Gandhi as he brainwashed and blackmailed women in a secret society within his self-improvement organisation. Prosecutors illustrated how Raniere ran a sex cult pyramid scheme, recruiting women as slaves and forcing them to have sex with him. The cult membership reportedly included Hollywood actresses, heiresses and even the son of a former Mexican president - some of whom testified against Raniere. Raniere himself never took the stand. He was the only member of Nxivm's leadership to face trial as others took plea deals. His sentencing has been scheduled for September. The Albany-based group Nxivm (pronounced nexium) described itself as a "community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people". It says it has worked with more than 16,000 individuals and operates centres across the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America. According to its tagline, Raniere and his organisation were "working to build a better world".

Here are some of the most shocking details to emerge from testimonies in the high-profile trial against the 58-year-old "self-help" guru.
$2,000 fee to celebrate leader's 'birthday week'
Every August, Nxivm members - called "Nixians" - would dole out $2,000 (£1,575) or more to gather in Silver Bay, New York to celebrate Raniere's birthday week, according to court documents. A former member testified that the week included "tribute ceremonies" to Raniere, who was referred to as "The Vanguard" by his followers. The celebration, known as "Vanguard Week", reportedly drew members from across the US and Canada. "There was always sort of entertainment or different kind of tribute ceremonies to Keith from the different centres, or there would be like performances of singers. But it was kind of all centred around the idea of a tribute to Keith and celebrating Keith's work," the witness said in court, according to the Times Union. "Sort of like summer camp for adults." The event, centred around Raniere's birthday on 26 August, mirrored an organisation dedicated entirely to its leader and the satisfaction of his various demands. FBI special agent Michael Lever said in an affidavit that Raniere had a rotation of 15 to 20 women with whom he maintained sexual relationships. According to authorities, these women were not allowed to have sexual relations with anyone but Raniere, or reveal the contents of their relationship to anyone else. Some of the Nxivm curriculum, strictly adhered to by its members, included teachings about the need for men to have multiple sexual partners and the need for women to be monogamous.
'Grooming' a young girl to take her virginity
A former member of the alleged sex cult, identified by prosecutors as Daniela, testified she was "groomed" for weeks before she turned 18 for Raniere to take her virginity. When she was 16, Daniela and her family moved to the US from Mexico after hearing about Raniere and Nxivm. The family of six shared a two-bedroom condo in Albany, New York and began the group's self-help curriculum. "I had never been kissed and I didn't have any prior sexual contact," Daniela said in court, according to the Daily Beast. "I didn't see Keith that way but I could see in subtle ways that he was flirting with me. Now, I believe he was grooming me." After introducing herself to Raniere during his Vanguard Week celebrations, she said, their relationship "escalated in a sexual way". Raniere started to openly talk about how they were going to consummate their relationship after she turned 18, but said she would first have to lose weight to suit Raniere's preferences. "He said he could not share his sexual energy with somebody overweight," Daniela reportedly said in court. Soon after she turned 18, Daniela said Raniere called her to tell her it was "time". He later escorted the teen to an office building storage room to have sex with her, the Daily Beast reported. Eventually, Daniela said, she was asked to perform oral sex on Raniere on a regular basis, often more than once a day. One of Daniela's sisters is the victim in the allegations of child pornography against the cult leader. The two were allegedly forced to have group sex with Raniere on multiple occasions. "We cried the whole time," Daniela said in court. Daniela also testified that she and both her sisters were impregnated by Raniere. All three were allegedly forced to have abortions, and Raniere paid for the procedure. After her abortion, Daniela says Raniere told her the procedure would be an opportunity for weight loss. Raniere claimed that "Olympic athletes get abortions as part of training," Daniela said in court.
Solitary confinement for two years over weight gain
Lauren Salzman, 42, testified that the same young woman, identified as Daniela, was confined to a bedroom for two years - all because she gained weight and asked to see a man other than Raniere. Ms Salzman said the group leader made it seem a solution to solve Daniela's "problem behaviour". "Keith told me that she was stealing and that she said she was going to lose weight and instead she gained 40 pounds," she testified, the Daily Beast reported. Ms Salzman said she felt she had to "take on [Daniela's] project" to show she could be "a good mother". Daniela was told she would be sent back to Mexico if she did not satisfy Raniere and Ms Salzman. Despite being in the same house as her family, she was unable to see them during her confinement. "We were incredibly abusive to Daniela. Everything she did we shot down. Nothing she could do was the right thing," Ms Salzman said. "Of all the things that I did in this case and all the crimes that I admitted to, this was the worst thing I did." Eventually, Daniela chose to return to Mexico, even if it meant never seeing her family again, just to escape the solitary confinement.
A punishing 'slave and master' system
According to court documents, a secret society called "DOS" or the "Vow" existed within Nxivm. Constructed like a pyramid scheme, levels of "slaves" were managed by "masters". Unbeknownst to almost all members of the Vow, Raniere - the only male member of the group - was the sole occupant of the highest tier, serving as the "highest master." Slaves were expected to recruit slaves of their own, who all ultimately worked to service Raniere. Masters sold DOS to prospective slaves as a special offshoot of Nxivm, according to Mr Lever in his affidavit. To join, women were compelled to give "collateral" to their masters - material or information that would be "ruinous" to the woman to provided it, if exposed. The collateral included sexually explicit photographs and videos containing damaging information to the prospective slave, her family or friends. "DOS slaves understood that if they left DOS, spoke publicly about DOS, or repeatedly failed DOS obligations or assignments, their collateral could be released," Mr Lever said. The "assignments" ranged from simple errands for their masters - bringing them coffee and cleaning their houses - to preparing the women for a sexual relationship with Raniere. This preparation often included extreme dieting, Mr Lever said, to satisfy's Raniere's preference for "exceptionally thin" women. These women were forced to adhere to extremely restrictive diets and document every food they ate. But these extreme standards did not apply to Nxivm's leader. Though he allegedly inflicted near-starvation diets inflicted on his followers, Raniere binged on junk food, a former member told The New York Post. While he demanded the women around him remain excruciatingly thin, the Vanguard reportedly ate "pizza around the clock" and "cakes galore", pigging out on potato chips and hot sauce flown in from his devotees around the world. The women, particularly those who strayed from their master's directions or threatened the group's secrecy, were allegedly tracked and monitored. At trial, Nxivm co-founder Nancy Salzman, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy said she hacked the emails of Nxivm's critics and obtained passwords and usernames of people suspected of leaking information about the group.
Branding women with leader's initials
Members of the group were allegedly branded with Raniere's initials using a cauterising pen, often on their pelvic areas, in ceremonies which were filmed by members. According to court documents, Nxivm slaves were forced to undergo branding "ceremonies", a process that would take up to thirty minutes. The women were forced to stand fully naked while a master ordered another member to film. Some of the victims were told that the brand stood for the four elements - air, earth and water - with the cauterising pen representing fire. But prosecutors allege the shape is composed of Raniere's initials. In a recording played in court, Raniere can be heard discussing the branding procedure. "Do you think the person who's being branded should be completely nude and sort of held to the table like a, sort of almost like a sacrifice?" Raniere said, according to CNN. At trial, one of Raniere's lawyers Mark Agnifilo warned jurors they may be shown video of this process, and claimed that the women's participation in the group was voluntary. "See if the women seemed forced or if they are doing it because they want to do it," Mr Agnifilo said, according to the New York Times.
Leader arrested just before group sex 'recommitment ceremony'
Ms Salzman testified in Brooklyn federal court that Raniere was with a group of high-tier slaves at his Mexican home, preparing for a "recommitment ceremony" when authorities burst in to arrest him. The former lieutenant of Raniere said she barricaded herself in a master suite at his Mexico compound in Puerto Vallarta when agents arrived, the Daily Beast reported. "My main concern was to protect Keith. It was almost automatic," Ms Salzman said, who had reportedly been in a decade-long relationship with Raniere and hoped he would have a child with her. "I chose love over everything, just like we were taught by Keith." Ms Salzman said she and Smallville actress Allison Mack were among seven "first line slaves" - some of the first to be recruited into DOS - who had agreed to participate in a recommitment ceremony in order to pledge their continued dedication to Nxivm and Raniere. The ceremony was to include "group oral sex" as a way to do "something special" for Raniere, according to the Daily Beast. Shortly before the ceremony began, Mexican agents had surrounded the property to arrest Raniere. Ms Salzman, the daughter of Nxivm co-founder Nancy Salzman, told the court that it was then she realised that Keith was "a coward", and not the protector he claimed to be. "It never crossed my mind that I would choose Keith and Keith would choose Keith," Ms Salzman said.
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Nxivm’s Keith Raniere Convicted in Trial Exposing Sex Cult’s Inner Workings

Postby smix » Thu Jun 20, 2019 12:21 pm

Nxivm’s Keith Raniere Convicted in Trial Exposing Sex Cult’s Inner Workings
The New York Times

URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/nyre ... niere.html
Category: Legal
Published: June 19, 2019

Description: Mr. Raniere set up a harem of sexual “slaves” who were branded with his initials and kept in line by blackmail.


He was a con man who stole money and created a harem of sexual “slaves,” branded with his initials and kept in line with blackmail, prosecutors said. But he claimed he was only helping his followers reach personal fulfillment by breaking down emotional barriers. On Wednesday, jurors in Federal District Court in Brooklyn sided with prosecutors. They found Keith Raniere, the leader of the cultlike group near Albany known as Nxivm, guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking, ending a six-week trial that exposed the sordid inner workings of the organization. Mr. Raniere attracted high-profile followers, among them the “Smallville” actress Allison Mack and Clare Bronfman, a heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune, who helped finance its activities. The jury deliberated less than half a day before finding Mr. Raniere, 58, guilty of all seven counts against him. The defendant, wearing a maroon sweater with dark brown elbow patches, was impassive as the verdict was read. He faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced on Sept. 25. In the gallery, several former Nxivm members and their supporters listened and craned their necks to peer at Mr. Raniere as the verdict was read. Catherine Oxenberg, an actress whose daughter India had been in the group, leaned forward and hugged herself. Minutes later, Ms. Oxenberg thanked federal investigators. “They saved my daughter, they saved so many other women,” she said. Outside the courthouse, elated ex-Nxivm members celebrated and cheered Richard P. Donoghue, the United States attorney in Brooklyn, as he addressed reporters. “Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was in fact a master manipulator,” Mr. Donoghue said. “His crimes, and the crimes of his co-conspirators, ruined marriages, careers, fortunes and lives.” One of Mr. Raniere’s lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, said he planned to appeal the verdict. “It was very obvious the jury had strong negative feelings about Keith and about certain aspects of his lifestyle,” Mr. Agnifilo said, adding, “Not everything that’s offensive translates to a crime.” Much of the trial focused on a secret sorority within Nxivm called The Vow or D.O.S., in which women were branded, asked to adhere to starvation diets and assigned to have sex with Mr. Raniere. As proof of their commitment to his teachings, the women handed over nude photographs and signed letters containing embarrassing secrets, which were then used to compel them to follow orders, prosecutors said. “With his inner circle, he was the ruler in his universe,” a prosecutor, Moira Penza, told jurors during her closing statement. “A crime boss with no limits and no checks on his power.” Mr. Agnifilo countered by telling jurors that although Mr. Raniere was involved in sexual activities that might seem “repulsive, disgusting and offensive,” that did not make him a criminal. “You might find a lot of things about him distasteful,” Mr. Agnifilo said. “But most of them aren’t part of the charges.” Mr. Raniere was convicted of a raft of crimes including, racketeering, sex trafficking, conspiracy, forced labor, identity theft, sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child pornography. Five women with senior roles in the group, including Ms. Mack and Ms. Bronfman, pleaded guilty to various crimes before trial. Beyond exploiting women for sex, prosecutors said, Mr. Raniere charged more than $100,000 to the credit card of a senior Nxivm member after her death and wrote checks totaling more than $300,000 on her bank account, Ms. Penza said. The trial was conducted under the sort of security that is usually associated with terrorists and drug lords. The jurors, whose names were withheld, were brought to and from court in vans driven by United States marshals. Many of the witnesses were identified only by their first name. The evidence included seized documents, email messages, audio recordings and testimony from more than a dozen people, including women who had been former “slaves.” The proceedings offered a chilling and sometimes surreal glimpse of daily life inside the highly secretive group, where Mr. Raniere was revered and appeared to exercise broad power. Nxivm members thronged to late-night volleyball games in which he was a participant, eager to catch a glimpse of him and pay their respects. His birthday, in late August, was marked by several days of celebration called V-Week at a rustic retreat near Lake George in upstate New York. High-ranking members of Mr. Raniere’s organization hacked into computer accounts and paid private investigators in an effort to obtain personal information on perceived enemies including Senator Chuck Schumer and the liquor magnate Edgar Bronfman Sr., whose two daughters became members of Nxivm, evidence showed. Sometimes, witnesses said, Mr. Raniere retaliated against people who displeased him. One woman, identified in court only as Daniela, testified that all six members of her family moved to New York State from Mexico to become part of the group. Before long, she said, Mr. Raniere started sexual relationships with her, her older sister, Marianna, and her underage sister, Camila. But when she told Mr. Raniere that she was attracted to another man, he directed that she be confined inside a room for nearly two years, convincing her family that she needed to be punished because she was “prideful.” In the end, her father and another Nxivm member drove her to the Mexican border. Mr. Raniere co-founded Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) with Nancy Salzman in the 1990s as a self-help organization, offering courses with names like Rules and Rituals, Civilization and Human Pain. More than 16,000 eventually took the group’s classes in the United States, Canada and Mexico. In many of the courses, men were presented as resolute “protectors” while women were described as self-absorbed and narcissistic. Witnesses described Mr. Raniere’s views of women as deeply misogynistic. Although he had simultaneous sexual relationships with up to a dozen women within Nxivm, those women were told they could only have sex with him. He demanded that some women stare themselves to attain the physique he found most appealing and sometimes grunted like a pig when women went to eat, according to testimony. “I really felt like I started to hate the fact that I was a woman,” said one witness, identified as Sylvie, who joined Nxivm when she was a teenager and became a member of D.O.S. In 2015, Mr. Raniere created D.O.S. — an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions” — as part of what prosecutors said was a scheme to provide him with a flow of submissive women. He recruited eight women as “first-line masters,” including Ms. Mack, the actress, and considered them his “slaves,” witnesses said. Each of the eight then recruited her own slaves and those, in turn, recruited others. The first-line members held frequent meetings inside a “sorority house,” disrobing to take naked group pictures, according to testimony. There were plans to build a “dungeon” that would include a cage in which someone who was willing to “surrender,” in the interest of personal growth, might be locked for hours or days or longer. In one recorded conversation with Ms. Mack, Mr. Raniere meticulously planned branding ceremonies to resemble a “sacrifice,” asking at one point, “Do you think the person who is being branded should be completely nude?” One former member of the secret sorority, Lauren Salzman, described the excruciating experience of being branded. As part of the ritual, she was asked to kneel and say, “Master, please brand me. It would be an honor, an honor I want to wear the rest of my life.” Then she said she was held down while another woman used a cauterizing pen to etch Mr. Raniere’s initials near her pelvis. “It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced,” she said. Ms. Salzman said the women in D.O.S. were subjected to sadistic punishments, including being whipped with a leather strap or being asked to stand barefoot in the snow. Another former D.O.S. member, identified only as Nicole, described how Mr. Raniere took her to a house, told her to disrobe, blindfolded her then tied her down to a table. He then walked around the table asking her questions about her sexual history while another person performed oral sex on her, she said. When news reports about women in D.O.S. being branded appeared in late 2017, Mr. Raniere went to Mexico himself, stopped using his phone and switched email accounts, prosecutors said. Ms. Salzman said he then summoned his first-line masters to a gated community near Puerto Vallarta for a “recommitment ceremony” that she believed was to include group sex. Instead, the Mexican police knocked on the door in March 2018 with a warrant for Mr. Raniere because he had been charged with sex trafficking in the United States. Ms. Salzman was with Mr. Raniere in a bedroom. She said he hid in a closet and sent her to negotiate with officers through a closed door. The police kicked the door down and entered with drawn guns. More than a year later, on the witness stand, Ms. Salzman recalled that she was puzzled by Mr. Raniere’s decision to hide since it contradicted his teachings about the roles of men and women. “I could not make sense of how that could even be in any universe where he was who I believed he was,” she said.

Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded
The New York Times

URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/nyre ... lbany.html
Category: Lifestyle
Published: October 17, 2017

Description: ALBANY — Last March, five women gathered in a home near here to enter a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women. To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter — or “master,” as she was called — naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed. The women, in their 30s and 40s, belonged to a self-help organization called Nxivm, which is based in Albany and has chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico. Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next. Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their “master,” a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.” A female doctor proceeded to use a cauterizing device to sear a two-inch-square symbol below each woman’s hip, a procedure that took 20 to 30 minutes. For hours, muffled screams and the smell of burning tissue filled the room. “I wept the whole time,” Ms. Edmondson recalled. “I disassociated out of my body.” Since the late 1990s, an estimated 16,000 people have enrolled in courses offered by Nxivm (pronounced Nex-e-um), which it says are designed to bring about greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers. Most participants take some workshops, like the group’s “Executive Success Programs,” and resume their lives. But other people have become drawn more deeply into Nxivm, giving up careers, friends and families to become followers of its leader, Keith Raniere, who is known within the group as “Vanguard.” Both Nxivm and Mr. Raniere, 57, have long attracted controversy. Former members have depicted him as a man who manipulated his adherents, had sex with them and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing. Now, as talk about the secret sisterhood and branding has circulated within Nxivm, scores of members are leaving. Interviews with a dozen of them portray a group spinning more deeply into disturbing practices. Many members said they feared that confessions about indiscretions would be used to blackmail them. Mark Vicente, a filmmaker and former top Nxivm official, said that after hearing about the secret society, he confronted Mr. Raniere. “I said, ‘Whatever you are doing, you are heading for a blowup,’” Mr. Vicente said. Several former members have asked state authorities to investigate the group’s practices, but officials have declined to pursue action. In July, Ms. Edmondson filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Health against Danielle Roberts, a licensed osteopath and follower of Mr. Raniere, who performed the branding, according to Ms. Edmondson and another woman. In a letter, the agency said it would not look into Dr. Roberts because she was not acting as Ms. Edmondson’s doctor when the branding is said to have happened. Separately, a state police investigator told Ms. Edmondson and two other women that officials would not pursue their criminal complaint against Nxivm because their actions had been consensual, a text message shows. State medical regulators also declined to act on a complaint filed against another Nxivm-affilated physician, Brandon Porter. Dr. Porter, as part of an “experiment,” showed women graphically violent film clips while a brain-wave machine and video camera recorded their reactions, according to two women who took part. The women said they were not warned that some of the clips were violent, including footage of four women being murdered and dismembered. “Please look into this ASAP,” a former Nxivm member, Jennifer Kobelt, stated in her complaint. “This man needs to be stopped.” In September, regulators told Ms. Kobelt they concluded that the allegations against Dr. Porter did not meet the agency’s definition of “medical misconduct,” their letter shows. Mr. Raniere and other top Nxivm officials, including Lauren Salzman, did not respond to repeated emails, letters or text messages seeking comment. Dr. Roberts and Dr. Porter also did not respond to inquiries. Former members said that, inside Nxivm, they are being portrayed as defectors who want to destroy the group. It is not clear how many women were branded or which Nxivm officials were aware of the practice. A copy of a text message Mr. Raniere sent to a female follower indicates that he knew women were being branded and that the symbol’s design incorporated his initials. “Not initially intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute,” Mr. Raniere wrote, (“if it were abraham lincolns or bill gates initials no one would care.)”
Joining the Sisterhood
Ms. Edmondson, who lives in Vancouver and helped start Nxivm’s chapter there, was thrilled when Lauren Salzman arrived in January to teach workshops. The women, both in their early 40s, were close and Ms. Edmondson regarded Ms. Salzman as a confidante and mentor. “Lauren was someone I really looked up to as a rock star within the company,” said Ms. Edmondson, an actress who joined Nxivm about a decade ago. During her visit, Ms. Salzman said she had something “really amazing” she wanted to share. “It is kind of strange and top secret and in order for me to tell you about it you need to give me something as collateral to make sure you don’t speak about it,” Ms. Edmondson recalled her saying. The proposition seemed like a test of trust. After Ms. Edmondson wrote a letter detailing past indiscretions, Ms. Salzman told her about the secret sorority. She said it had been formed as a force for good, one that could grow into a network that could influence events like elections. To become effective, members had to overcome weaknesses that Mr. Raniere taught were common to women — an overemotional nature, a failure to keep promises and an embrace of the role of victim, according to Ms. Edmondson and other members. Submission and obedience would be used as tools to achieve those goals, several women said. The sisterhood would comprise circles, each led by a “master” who would recruit six “slaves,” according to two women. In time, they would recruit slaves of their own. “She made it sound like a bad-ass bitch boot camp,” Ms. Edmondson said. Ms. Edmondson and others said that during training, the women were required to send their master texts that read “Morning M” and “Night M.” During drills, a master texted her slaves “?” and they had 60 seconds to reply “Ready M.” Trainees who failed had to pay penalties, including fasting, or could face physical punishments, two women said. In March, Ms. Edmondson arrived for an initiation ceremony at Ms. Salzman’s home in Clifton Park, N.Y., a town about 20 miles north of Albany where Mr. Raniere and some followers live. After undressing, she was led to a candlelit ceremony, where she removed a blindfold and saw Ms. Salzman’s other slaves for the first time. The women were then driven to a nearby house, where the branding took place. In the spring, the sorority grew as women joined different circles. Slaves added compromising collateral every month to Dropbox accounts, and a Google Document was used to list a timetable for recruiting new slaves, several women said. Around the same time, an actress, Catherine Oxenberg, said she learned her daughter had been initiated into the sorority. “I felt sick to my stomach,” said Ms. Oxenberg, who starred in the 1980s television series “Dynasty.” Ms. Oxenberg had become increasingly concerned about her 26-year-old daughter, India, who looked emaciated from dieting. She told her mother that she had not had a menstrual period for a year and that her hair was falling out. Ms. Oxenberg said she invited her daughter home in late May to try to get her away from the group. When Ms. Oxenberg confronted her about the sorority, her daughter defended its practices. “She said it was a character-building experience,” Ms. Oxenberg said.
‘Humans Can Be Noble’
By the time the secret group was taking shape, Mark Vicente, the filmmaker, had been a faithful follower of Mr. Raniere for more than a decade. Mr. Vicente said he had been contacted by Ms. Salzman’s mother, Nancy, a co-founder of Nxivm who is known as “Prefect,” after the 2004 release of a documentary he co-directed that explored spirituality and physics. Soon, Mr. Vicente was taking courses that he said helped him expose his fears and learn strategies that made him feel more resolute. He also made a documentary called “Encender el Corazón,” or “Ignite the Heart,” which lionized Mr. Raniere’s work in Mexico. “Keith Raniere is an activist, scientist, philosopher and, above all, humanitarian,” Mr. Vicente says in the film. Mr. Raniere has used those words to describe himself. On his website, he said he spoke in full sentences by age 1, mastered high school mathematics by 12 and taught himself to play “concert level” piano. At 16, he entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Before Nxivm, he helped run a company called Consumers’ Buyline Inc., which offered discounts to members on groceries and other products. In the mid-1990s, several state attorneys general investigated it as a suspected pyramid scheme; Mr. Raniere and his associates agreed to shut it down. Through Nxivm, Mr. Raniere transformed himself into a New Age teacher with long hair and a guru-like manner of speaking. “Humans can be noble,” he says on his website. “The question is: will we put forth what is necessary?” By many accounts, Mr. Raniere sleeps during the day and goes out at night to play volleyball or take female followers for long walks. Several women described him as warm, funny and eager to talk about subjects that interested them. Others saw a different side. Nxivm sued several former members, accusing them of stealing its trade secrets, among other things. Mr. Vicente said he was aware of the negative publicity, including a 2012 series by The Albany Times-Union that described alleged abuses inside Nxivm. Mr. Vicente’s views began to change this year after his wife was ostracized when she left Nxivm and he heard rumors about the secret sorority. Mr. Vicente said he got evasive answers when he asked Mr. Raniere about the group. Mr. Raniere acknowledged giving “five women permission to do something,” but did not elaborate, other than to say he would investigate, Mr. Vicente said. Mr. Vicente said he suspected Mr. Raniere was lying to him and might have done so before. Suddenly, self-awareness techniques he had learned felt like tools that had been used to control him. “No one goes in looking to have their personality stripped away,” he said. “You just don’t realize what is happening.”
Followers Start to Flee
In May, Sarah Edmondson began to recoil from her embrace of the secret society. Her husband, Anthony Ames, who was also a Nxivm member, learned about her branding and the couple both wanted out. Before quitting, Mr. Ames went to Nxivm’s offices in Albany to collect money he said the group owed him. He had his cellphone in his pocket and turned on its recorder. On the recording, Mr. Ames tells another member that Ms. Edmondson was branded and that other women told him about handing over collateral. “This is criminal,” Mr. Ames says. The voice of a woman — who Mr. Ames said is Lauren Salzman — is heard trying to calm him. “I don’t think you are open to having a conversation,” she said. “You are absolutely right, I’m not open to having a conversation,” he replied. “My wife got branded.” A few days later, many of Mr. Raniere’s followers learned of the secret society from a website run by a Buffalo-area businessman, Frank R. Parlato Jr. Mr. Parlato had been locked in a long legal battle with two sisters, Sara and Clare Bronfman, who are members of Nxivm and the daughters of Edgar Bronfman, the deceased chairman of Seagram Company. In 2011, the Bronfman sisters sued Mr. Parlato, whom they had hired as a consultant, alleging he had defrauded them of $1 million. Four years later, in 2015, the Justice Department indicted him on charges of fraud and other crimes arising from alleged activities, including defrauding the Bronfmans. Mr. Parlato has denied the claims and the case is pending. Mr. Parlato started a website, The Frank Report, which he uses to lambaste prosecutors, Mr. Raniere and the Bronfmans. In early June, Mr. Parlato published the first in a torrent of salacious posts under the headline, “Branded Slaves and Master Raniere.” A Nxivm follower, Soukaina Mehdaoui, said she reached out to Mr. Raniere after reading the post. Ms. Mehdaoui, 25, was a newcomer to Nxivm, but the two had grown close. She said Mr. Raniere told her the secret sorority began after three women offered damaging collateral to seal lifetime vows of obedience to him. While Ms. Mehdaoui had joined the sorority, the women in her circle were not branded. She was appalled. “There are things I didn’t know that I didn’t sign up for, and I’m not even hearing about it from you,” she texted Mr. Raniere. Mr. Raniere texted back about his initials and the brand. By then, panic was spreading inside Nxivm. Slaves were ordered to delete encrypted messages between them and erase Google documents, two women said. To those considering breaking away, it was not clear whom they could trust and who were Nxivm loyalists. Late one night, Ms. Mehdaoui met secretly with another Nxivm member. They took out their cellphones to show they were not recording the conversation. Both decided to leave Nxivm, despite concerns that the group would retaliate by releasing their “collateral” or suing them. Ms. Mehdaoui said that when she went to say goodbye to Mr. Raniere, he urged her to stay. “Do you think, I’m bad, I don’t agree with abuses,” she recalled him saying. He said the group “gives women tools to be powerful, to regain their power for the sake of building love.” Nxivm recently filed criminal complaints with the Vancouver police against Ms. Edmondson and two other women accusing them of mischief and other crimes in connection with the firm’s now-closed center there, according to Ms. Edmondson. The women have denied the allegations. A spokesman for the Vancouver police declined to comment. Ms. Edmondson and other former followers of Mr. Raniere said they were focusing on recovering. “There is no playbook for leaving a cult,” she said.
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