Nxivm Cult: Leader Keith Raniere Sentenced to 120 Years

ImageKeith Raniere, 60, was found guilty last year of sex trafficking, racketeering, fraud and other crimes.
Credit…HBO

Keith Raniere promised a path to happiness, seducing wealthy people who felt they lacked a higher purpose in life. His company, Nxivm, offered self-improvement workshops that became popular in Hollywood and business circles.

But beneath the surface, Mr. Raniere was a puppet master controlling a cultlike criminal enterprise, prosecutors revealed at his trial. Some women in Nxivm were sexually abused by Mr. Raniere, and even branded with his initials in a secret ceremony.

On Tuesday, Mr. Raniere, 60, was sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and other crimes, effectively a life sentence.

The sentencing capped a stunning downfall for a man who was once idolized by his followers, but has since been exposed as a fraudster who exploited Nxivm’s adherents for money, sex and power.

Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of Federal District Court in Brooklyn determined the punishment after hearing hours of wrenching testimony from 15 victims, many of whom described how Mr. Raniere had left them traumatized and struggling to make themselves whole again.

The first to speak was a witness identified only as Camila, who in a trembling voice recalled that Mr. Raniere started sexually abusing her when she was 15 and he was 45. She had previously declined to testify at Mr. Raniere’s trial on the advice of a lawyer who was recommended to her by Mr. Raniere’s counsel.

During their 12-year relationship, Camila said, Mr. Raniere expected her to be available for sex at all hours. He ordered her to weigh less than 100 pounds and directed her to get an abortion. She said she attempted suicide once.

“I want to move on, but he has damaged me in so many ways,” said Camila, who added that she was still having trouble figuring out the line between an abusive and a normal relationship.

Camila’s mother, brother and a sister also spoke on Tuesday, telling the judge that Mr. Raniere destroyed their once close-knit family. The father and oldest daughter in the family — who had a child with Mr. Raniere — are still supporters of him. Mr. Raniere had a sexual relationship with all three sisters in the family.

In a speech before the court, Mr. Raniere, wearing blue prisoner clothes, maintained his innocence and said some of the victims were lying. He said he was “deeply sorry,” arguing that he did not mean to cause so much pain and anger.

“Where I am is caused by me,” Mr. Raniere said. “This is all my doing.”

As Mr. Raniere waffled between apologizing and blaming the women, one of his victims and ex-girlfriends, Toni Natalie, buried her head in her hands.

After the victims’ statements, Mr. Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, argued that his client never intended to hurt any women, saying he was in love with them and simply had trouble dealing with breakups. In a stunning moment, Judge Garaufis interrupted Mr. Agnifilo in the middle of his speech, yelling, “No!”

During a back-and-forth in which the two men shouted through face masks, Judge Garaufis spoke forcefully about how intent did not matter when a 45-year-old man sexually abuses a child.

“It’s an insult to the intelligence of anyone who listens,” the judge said.

Mr. Agnifilo did seem to acknowledge tensions with his client, saying that he had refused to file a motion claiming evidence tampering by the government even though Mr. Raniere asked him to. In recent months, Mr. Raniere has spearheaded a campaign to overturn his conviction, directing his supporters to create a podcast about his case and set up a contest to find errors in his prosecution in exchange for a $25,000 cash prize.

Another victim, India Oxenberg, told the court that Mr. Raniere tried to poison her relationship with her mother, the actress Catherine Oxenberg, whose efforts to extricate her daughter from the organization were part of a recent HBO documentary series about Nxivm called “The Vow.”

India Oxenberg said Mr. Raniere expected her to wait naked for him, like a piece of meat. She became so thin under his manipulation that she stopped getting her period, she said.

“You are a sexual predator, and you raped me,” India Oxenberg said. “When you touched me, I recoiled.”

Former Nxivm members said Mr. Raniere and his inner circle preyed on insecure people who hoped that immersing themselves in expensive self-help classes would unlock the key to fulfillment. Even highly educated people became trapped inside Mr. Raniere’s system, which he sold as the only way to overcome their fears, shaming anyone who tried to quit.

At Mr. Raniere’s trial, prosecutors lifted the veil on a sordid side to Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um). A primary focus was a secretive women-only group inside the organization. During a videotaped initiation ceremony, the women lay naked on a table, saying, “Master, please brand me,” as a cauterizing pen seared their skin without anesthesia.

Some of those women testified that they thought they were joining a women’s empowerment group, only to discover that they were directed to have sex with Mr. Raniere.

The women, referred to as “slaves,” needed permission to eat and were regularly required to hand over collateral like sexually explicit videos, which they constantly feared would be released. Prosecutors called it extortion.

On Tuesday, a former “slave” identified only as Nicole told the judge that the collateral was the only thing stopping her from spitting in Mr. Raniere’s face during her time in the group, which she described as the most degrading experience of her life.

“I had never agreed to give up the right to my body,” she said.

A jury convicted Mr. Raniere in June 2019 after a six-week trial. Prosecutors charged him with racketeering, applying a statute that had been used to dismantle the Mafia families in New York. Besides sex trafficking, the jury found him guilty of crimes that included child pornography, forced labor, identity theft and obstruction of justice.

To this day, Mr. Raniere has many supporters who believe he was wrongfully convicted and insist that every activity in Nxivm was among consenting adults. Dozens wrote letters to the court urging leniency.

His supporters flocked to Brooklyn on Tuesday, waiting hours in line to enter the courthouse. There was a tense atmosphere before the sentencing; Mr. Raniere’s loyalists would approach victims or other lawyers involved in the case, who tried to dodge them.

Nxivm was funded in large part by an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, Clare Bronfman, who spent more than $100 million of her inheritance to sue Mr. Raniere’s enemies and support the organization. She even bought an island in Fiji that Nxivm’s leaders used as a retreat.

One of Nxivm’s top recruiters was Allison Mack, the former television actress known for her role on “Smallville,” whose glowing testimonials helped bring Hollywood celebrities into the organization. The Dalai Lama once spoke at a Nxivm event.

Mr. Raniere was charged along with five women in his inner circle, including Ms. Bronfman and Ms. Mack. Each of them pleaded guilty ahead of his trial.

Ms. Bronfman was sentenced last month to more than six years in prison for her role in Nxivm. The others do not have sentencing dates yet.

The group’s sales pitch claimed that Mr. Raniere was a genius with one of the highest I.Q. scores in the world.

In reality, prosecutors have said, he graduated with a 2.26 grade point average from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., after failing some of the math and science classes that he later bragged about taking.

Many Nxivm members never had a sexual relationship with Mr. Raniere, but they did face pressure to pay for more and more classes, sometimes taking on debt to do so. One couple estimated they spent $300,000 on Nxivm courses and were forced to declare bankruptcy, prosecutors have said.

Since Mr. Raniere co-founded Nxivm in 1998, around 18,000 people have taken its courses in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

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