A former member of the alleged sex cult NXIVM testified on Thursday that its founder, Keith Raniere, groomed her for weeks before her 18th birthday to take her virginity.
Raniere, 58, is accused of secretly running a sex-cult pyramid scheme that enslaved and manipulated women while publicly promoting NXIVM as a self-help group. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking, racketeering conspiracy, child exploitation, and child pornography.
“I had never been kissed and I didn’t have any prior sexual contact,” the Mexican woman, identified by prosecutors only as Daniela, told jurors in Brooklyn federal court. “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.”
A woman identified by prosecutors only as Daniela testified in Brooklyn federal court that she moved from Mexico to the U.S. around 2002 when she was 16 to take up an offer from top NXIVM lieutenant Lauren Salzman to work at the group’s compound in Albany, New York.
“I heard about NXIVM for the first time in the second semester of high school. My parents were were always doing self-help programs and they dragged me to a few of those,” Daniela said, who was wearing a grey blazer and a blue blouse. “While my parents were taking it, they kept talking about how the program wasn’t self-help but scientific and Raniere was the smartest man in the world.”
When she arrived, Daniela said, NXIVM’s administrative office tasked her with imputing data and was disgruntled that she was not “changing the world” like she was promised. Her dissatisfaction prompted her to approach Raniere at a community event, whom she had met once prior during his week-long birthday celebration.
Daniel said Raniere told her that “she was [a] genius” and promised “he could teach her” if she stayed on the compound. Daniela, who had dreams of becoming a scientist, believed Raniere was “a rockstar and the smartest man in the world.”
Raniere’s interest quickly turned from mentor to suitor, she said, ramping up in the weeks before her 18th birthday.
In one exchange in a room beside NXIVM co-founder’s Nancy Salzman’s office, Raniere sat Daniela on “big purple couch with the door closed” to discuss her parent’s impending divorce.
“In the middle of the conversation, he leaned over and kissed me,” she said, adding that the kiss lasted several seconds. “I did not expect it in general and I was talking about my parents divorce. It was unwanted. It was long. I didn’t know what to do and I froze.”
After the kiss, she said their relationship “escalated in a sexual way.” Raniere started to openly talk to Daniela about how they were going to consummate their relationship on her 18th birthday, but that she would have to lose 20 pounds and groom herself to 42-year-old Raniere’s preferences first. Similar orders from Raniere to his sexual partners within NXIVM has been discussed throughout the trial.
“Keith told me that before I needed to lose weight before he would have sex with me,” Daniela said, noting that she was having trouble losing weight so she started to take laxatives. “He said he could not share his sexual energy with somebody overweight.”
The night of her 18th birthday, Daniela said she was “disappointed” when Raniere did not have sex with her because she had not lost enough weight.
“I felt rejected but after a couple of days he called me on the phone and said it was time,” Daniela said.
Raniere led her into an office building storage room piled with boxes and “tiles of dirty carpet.”
“On the floor was a mattress. It was dirty and the sheets were used,” Daniela said. “He asked me to take my clothes off and I did, but he didn’t remove his clothes. Instead, he started doing oral sex.”
Raniere then got up and “took his own clothes off” and “he climbed on top of me for a little while and it was like a big hug,” she said.
After he finished having sex with her, Daniela said Raniere called her to ask “why [she] didn’t ask for protection.” Daniela said she asked Raniere why she would need protection if he “didn’t penetrate” her.
Raniere told her that he had, according to Daniela, but maybe she didn’t feel it “because she didn’t want to feel it” and “blocked it out.”
“To this day, I maintain that we did not have sex that first time despite Keith’s insistence that we did have sex,” Daniela said, adding that Raniere had trouble with erectile dysfunction in the past. “It is still a point of debate.”
The pair didn’t have intercourse again for another six months, Daniela said, but she would often be forced to give Raniere oral sex in the downstairs living room of his Albany home, while he sat on a rocking chair.
One of her reservations she had over sleeping with Raniere again, she said, was knowing that her older sister, Mariana, was having a relationship with him.
“Sex meant access when it came to Keith,” Daniela said, adding that knowing Mariana was also sleeping with Raniere “was weird, horrifying even.”
“But Mariana told me she was in love with him. I told her that I also wanted to be with Keith,” she added. Despite their reservations, Raniere tried to force the sisters to have group sex on multiple occasions, Daniela said on Thursday.
“We cried the whole time,” she said.
Daniela’s sexual relationship eventually disintegrated with Raniere, while his relationship with her sister escalated. Eventually, Daniela started to deny Raniere’s sexual advances (including a request for a “naked nap”) and in 2010 asked Raniere if she could “see another man.”
Allegedly disgruntled by her request for another partner, Daniela said Raniere accused her of stealing food from her family and money from NXIVM. Salzman said she was told to oversee Daniela’s solitary confinement in her family’s two-bedroom condo. She testified on Tuesday that Raniere told her if Daniela didn’t agree to take the punishment, she would be deported back to Mexico.
“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,” Saltzman said on Tuesday. “What can I say? I kept her in a room for two years and I didn’t go visit her. And when I did, I wasn’t even kind.”
As previously reported by The Daily Beast, Daniela decided to go back to Mexico in 2012, two years after Raniere banished her to the room. According to Salzman, Daniela said she would rather be without her family and NXIVM than stay in isolation any longer.
Salzman testified that Daniela’s father and a fellow NXIVM member drove her to the Mexican border without her documents to find a job, very little money, and strict orders to continue to follow Raniere’s edicts.
Mariana, would eventually have a child with Raniere, and their youngest sister, Camila, is the alleged victim of Raniere’s child-pornography charges, prosecutors said at the start of the trial.
On Thursday, Daniela revealed that when she found out Camila was allegedly sleeping with Raniere in 2006, she was “horrified” but did nothing to stop the relationship.
“I feel a lot of shame about this. I was also feeling kind of jealous like ‘Oh he made me wait until after my 18th birthday,’” Daniela said, adding that Raniere said she was not emotionally mature, like her 15-year-old sister.