Heiress Behind NXIVM Sex Cult Unmasked in Court: ‘Let Her Watch Netflix’
On Tuesday, Clare Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, came before a judge in Brooklyn. She’s facing multiple charges related to her involvement in NXIVM.
BROOKLYN, New York — The other shoe has finally dropped for Clare Bronfman, the heiress behind alleged cult leader Keith Raniere. Bronfman, who’s an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, was long ago outed as a major bankroller of Raniere, the empowerment guru turned master manipulator who’s been charged with sex trafficking conspiracy, sex trafficking, and conspiracy to commit forced labor.
On Tuesday, Clare Bronfman was taken into custody in New York City. A superseding indictment charged Bronfman alongside several other top NXIVM members: Kathy Russell, Lauren Salzman, and Nancy Salzman. The six defendants stand accused of running an organized criminal enterprise. Crimes alleged within the indictment include identity theft, harboring of aliens for financial gain, extortion, forced labor, sex trafficking, money laundering, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice. It describes Bronfman as “a member of the Enterprise and a high-ranking member of Nxivm” who served as an executive board member from approximately 2009 to 2018.
The indictment describes the “principal purpose” of the Enterprise as obtaining financial and personal benefits for the members “by promoting the defendant Keith Raniere, also known as ‘Vanguard,’ and by recruiting new members into the Pyramid Organizations.”
It further accuses the defendants of “promoting, enhancing, and protecting the Enterprise by committing, attempting and conspiring to commit crimes… demanding absolute commitment to Raniere, including by exalting Raniere’s teachings and ideology, and not tolerating dissent,” as well as “recruiting and grooming sexual partners for Raniere” and “using harassment, coercion and abusive litigation to intimidate and attack perceived enemies and critics of Raniere.”
Months ago, Raniere and his second-in-command, Smallville actress Allison Mack, were arrested for their respective roles in DOS, an offshoot of Executive Success Programs (aka NXIVM). The secret sorority, which was billed as an exclusive opportunity for female acolytes, operated on a system of “slaves” and “masters.” According to court documents, masters recruited slaves and initiated them, in part, by demanding collateral—“naked photographs, assets, criminal confessions, and other damaging information.”
Legal documents submitted on the subject of Mack’s bail further allege, “DOS masters, including defendant, groomed DOS slaves for sex with Raniere by requiring DOS slaves to adhere to extremely restrictive diets and not remove their pubic hair (in accordance with Raniere’s sexual preferences) and by requiring them to remain celibate and not to masturbate. DOS masters, including the defendant, who directed their slaves to have sex with Raniere, received financial benefits in the form of continued status and participation in DOS, as well as financial opportunities from Raniere.”
But while Raniere and Mack are currently facing sentences of 15 years to life if convicted, the still-emerging details of their case appear to implicate other core NXIVM members. A May court filing repeatedly refers to an “heiress” who fled the country with Raniere—“a member of Nxivm’s Executive Board” who the documents accuse of orchestrating a series of cease-and-desist letters to reveal DOS victims. As recently as late May, Bronfman was still listed as an “executive board member” on the Executive Success Programs website. “Additionally,” the filing continues, “the Heiress has made multiple attempts to have criminal charges brought against a former DOS slave who has discussed her experience in the media.”
Bronfman’s role as alleged cult benefactress—lending her wealth and influence to NXIVM, and even covering Raniere’s personal debts—has been well documented for years. In 2010, Vanity Fair published an eye-opening piece entitled “The Heiresses and the Cult,” which detailed Bronfman and her sister Sara’s journey from aimless heiresses to dedicated and powerful acolytes. The article raised questions about NXIVM’s tactics and true nature: “What seems clear, from court documents and interviews with ex–nxivm members—and those who have come into conflict with the group and its mysterious guru—is that Sara and Clare Bronfman could be in serious trouble.”
In a late-afternoon arraignment on Tuesday at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse, Bronfman entered the room in a T-shirt and flip-flops. She proceeded to speak only rarely during a lively discussion between the prosecution, defense, and U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis over Bronfman’s various assets and the conditions of her release. Having confirmed that she had reviewed the indictment with her client, Bronfman’s lawyer Susan Necheles entered a plea of not guilty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza summarized the government’s position—namely, that the defendant presented a significant flight risk as well as risk of obstruction. In court documents detailing the government’s stance with respect to bail, the prosecution claimed that “evidence obtained during the investigation has demonstrated that Bronfman went to significant lengths to compile information and threaten litigation against those she considered to be an enemy or critic of Raniere.” Penza proposed home detention and a substantial bond; Necheles pushed back against the flight risk argument, insisting that Bronfman’s legal team had been in constant contact with the prosecution and that Bronfman, having been made aware that she was a target in the case, moved from Albany to New York City in order to be available for future proceedings.
The defense emphasized that the charges against Bronfman did not include violent crimes—“there is no sex trafficking, no forced labor charged against the defendant.” Necheles continued, “there are no allegations that Clare Bronfman had anything to do with DOS.” The indictment specifically names Bronfman in counts of racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit identity theft, encouraging and inducing illegal entry, and money laundering. According to the prosecution, “Bronfman encouraged and induced the illegal entry of an alien for Bronfman’s financial gain” and “engaged in the monthly practice of facilitating Raniere’s use of a dead person’s credit card account,” among other allegations. Necheles categorized the charges as “not the kind of charges which would normally call for a large bail package or home detention.”
“Even wealthy people are entitled to get bail,” Necheles proclaimed, arguing that her client shouldn’t be denied release just because she’s a multi-millionaire.
A large portion of the proceedings was dedicated to dissecting Bronfman’s assets. Her wealth includes two trusts in her name that hold approximately $100 million in assets, as well as roughly $98 million outside of trusts—a total of approximately $200 million. Judge Garaufis expressed concern over the defendant’s ability to flee to a country where she could not be extradited, remarking, “You don’t need a passport to get on a plane at Teterboro.” The defense’s rebuttal, that Clare Bronfman does not personally own a plane, did not appear to convince the judge; neither did the defense’s invocation of the relatively short maximum sentence—five years—that Bronfman would face if convicted. Judge Garaufis countered that a wealthy person “might find a five-year sentence to be a substantial incentive to flee.”
While Necheles proceeded to point to the bails that had been set earlier that day for Bronfman’s co-defendants—$25,000 and $5 million, respectively—Judge Garaufis stated that the defendant’s significant wealth put her in “a different category.” The defense’s initial proposal of a $25 million bond, secured by various properties as well as $2 million in cash, co-signed by Bronfman’s sister and brother-in-law, was deemed “woefully insufficient” by the prosecution. Penza questioned the accuracy of the list of Bronfman’s assets that had been provided, which detailed over $70 million in real estate assets, including a $47 million Fiji property, saying that, “the government is asking for more information.” Penza also accused the defense’s statements of “minimizing” Bronfman’s conduct and “her role in operating this enterprise.”
The back and forth continued, with Necheles insisting that “a 25 million bail bond fully secured” is “enormous” for a possible five-year sentence.
Judge Garaufis explained that he had no desire to keep the defendant in jail, but expressed that he would “much rather have the assets of the trust” made available to secure the bond. The defense explained that the trustees, Goldman Sachs, did not want to “deal” with this, saying at one point that “Goldman Sachs will not assist a fugitive.”
Ultimately, Judge Garaufis outlined the terms of Bronfman’s release to home detention: a $100 million bond, secured by $50 million in assets, and two sureties not affiliated with NXIVM. He proposed a Friday meeting at which the sureties would be present and the assets detailed and made available, adding, “some of it has to be in cash.” Until Friday, Bronfman will be released to house arrest and electronic monitoring, and is to have no contact with current or former NXIVM members. When the defense attempted to argue that that would include some of her closest friends, Judge Garaufis offered, “let her watch Netflix between now and Friday.”
Clare Bronfman then approached to sign the significant bond. Tomorrow, she will be back in court for a status conference on the case, appearing alongside a growing list of co-defendants.