NXIVM leader Keith Raniere was convicted Wednesday of using the self-help group he founded as a sex cult for his personal pleasure.
Raniere sat emotionless in a Brooklyn federal courtroom as he heard jurors found him guilty on all counts following just four hours of deliberation. The verdict came after six weeks of relentlessly lurid testimony, where jurors heard Raniere, 58, created a criminal enterprise over the past two decades that allowed him to have sex with underaged girls, forced women he impregnated to have abortions, and commanded his “slaves” illegally monitor on his enemies.
Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter India was in NXIVM, reacted bluntly to the verdict: “He's done. Fucking asshole.”
Barbara Bouchey, a former NXIVM member and ex-girlfriend of Raniere, cried outside of the courtroom when she heard the verdict—and was comforted by Raniere’s attorney, Mark Agnifilo.
“Congratulations,” he told her. “I hope this helps.”
Raniere faces 20 years to life in prison and plans to appeal.
“I think he’s not surprised, but he maintains that he didn’t mean to do anything wrong,” Agnifilo said.
Raniere was charged in 2018 with five other women: co-founder Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren, a top lieutenant; Smallville actress and alleged second-in-command Allison Mack; Clare Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram’s fortune and NXIVM’s largest donor; and the group’s bookkeeper Kathy Russell. While all five pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, Salzman was the only one to testify against Raniere.
Since 1998, NXIVM amassed an estimated 17,000 members with $5,000 workshops that promised the skills to promote a path to “greater self-fulfillment.” Prosecutors say it was an illegal pyramid scheme, sucking in new recruits who were made to recruit others. In 2017, authorities opened an investigation into the organization after a New York Times exposé alleged female NXIVM members were being branded and used as Raniere’s playthings.
Less than a year later, Raniere was arrested in Mexico and extradited to the U.S. on charges including sex trafficking, racketeering conspiracy, child exploitation, and child pornography.
Prosecutors allege Raniere, who was hailed by his followers as “the smartest man in the world,” manipulated women for his own sexual gratification under the guise of NXIVM’s mission.
“The strict but carefully constructed image the defendant’s inner circle made for him—a humanitarian, leader, mentor and guru. You saw him for what he was: a con man, a predator and a crime boss,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza said during closing arguments. “[Raniere] tapped into a never-ending flow of women and money. A crime boss with no limits and no checks on his power.”
Penza began to cry as the verdict was read in court.
Raniere did not testify during the trial and his defense did not call any witnesses on his behalf. Agnifilo argued that while the evidence against his client was “repulsive, disgusting and offensive,” it didn’t prove he committed crimes.
“We don’t convict people in this country for being repulsive and offensive,” Agnifilo said on Tuesday. “Disgusting lifestyles aren’t criminal. He’s not mighty. He’s not great. He’s not godlike. He’s none of those things. He sits there and creates curriculum.”
Throughout the trial, several women testified about NXIVM’s purported women’s empowerment group, DOS. The women allege it was actually a master-slave program where they were forced to have sex with Raniere, blindly obey their “masters,” and brand themselves with his initials near their crotch with a cautery pen—without anesthesia.
Among the written DOS instructions created by Raniere, Lauren Salzman testified, slaves were told to “be a hungry dog for your master.”
Agnifilo argued DOS was a “social group” that Raniere felt women needed for self-empowerment and had nothing to do with NXIVM.
“He doesn’t need DOS to generate intimate partners,” Agnifilo said Tuesday. “DOS isn’t for everybody. It’s strong medicine. That doesn’t make it a crime, it’s just pretty out there.”
Three former “slaves,” however, testified to the systematic abuse and manipulation by Raniere and their female “masters” during their time in DOS, which encouraged personal growth through submission to Raniere.
To ensure this control, the prosecution alleged, DOS slaves would be forced into a vow of obedience to Raniere, secured by “collateral” in the form of blackmail material, such as a naked photo or access to their financial assets.
Nicole, a 31-year-old actress from California, testified she was recruited into DOS by Mack after admitted she was feeling “suicidal” after moving to New York City.
A few months into the program, which Nicole testified was “stressful,” Raniere blindfolded and bound her to a table where she was sexually assaulted by another slave after being asked if she “trusted him.” During the assault, Nicole said, Raniere walked around the table, making “demeaning” comments about her.
“He told me to get on the table, and he tied my legs and wrists,” Nicole told the jurors. “Then somebody started going down on me. I was trying to process what was happening and then Keith started talking and I was so confused. Then I realized somebody was in the room.”
Sylvie, another slave, also said Raniere sexually assaulted her after she was ordered her “to seduce him.” If she didn’t comply, Sylvie said, her master threatened to release her “collateral,” which was a handwritten letter addressed to her parents falsely claiming she was a prostitute.
Prosecutors argued Raniere’s ability to sexually assault NXIVM members relied on the loyalty of his inner circle “to approach, recruit and groom other women as his sex partners.”
Salzman testified last month that she enslaved women at Raniere’s behest. Salzman, who had a relationship with Raniere for over two decades, said she was one of the seven “first-line slaves” to Raniere in DOS. She said she was often forced to subject women to forced labor, and unusual punishment for not following his edits.
During her emotional testimony, Salzman admitted to forcing a former NXIVM member into solitary confinement in her parents’ Albany condo for over two years after she disobeyed Raniere’s alleged command that NXIVM women can only have sex with him.
“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,” Salzman said. “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.”
The woman, identified by prosecutors only as Daniela, was told if she didn’t stay inside the unlocked bedroom, she would be deported back to Mexico. In 2012, Daniela testified she decided to leave the U.S., telling Salzman she would rather be without NXIVM and her family than stay in isolation any longer.
“I think there would be entire days when I would just sit against the wall,” Daniela said.
Agnifilo, however, argued on Monday his client was not responsible for Daniela’s confinement since it was allegedly agreed upon by her family, who supposedly told Raniere about their frustrations with their middle daughter.
Prosecutors also accused Raniere of harboring sexually explicit photos of Daniela’s 15-year-old sister, Camila, with whom he allegedly had a sexual relationship for over eight years—beginning when she was a minor. Daniela testified she was “horrified” when she found out about the relationship in 2006 but did nothing to stop it and even accompanied her younger sister to have an abortion at Raniere’s request when she was 18.
Throughout the trial, jurors saw sexually explicit messages between Raniere and Camila, which included multiple conversations about the pair’s affinity for BDSM.
Raniere will return to court for sentencing on September 25.
Agnifilo said Raniere maintains his innocence and plans to appeal.
“It’s a very sad day for him,” he said.
Correction: Roger Stone and Richard Branson were not members of NXIVM. The group paid Stone for consulting, an FBI agent testified, and tried unsuccessfully to recruit Branson. We regret the error.