For two decades, self-help guru Keith Raniere led an ultra-secretive organization in upstate New York that preached personal growth through sacrifice. But according to prosecutors in Brooklyn federal court on Monday, he was a “crime boss” who used “abuse and control” to groom women for his own sexual gratification.
“The strict but carefully constructed image [Raniere'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 in her closing statements in Brooklyn federal court on Monday. “[Raniere] tapped into a never-ending flow of women and money. A crime boss with no limits and no checks on his power.”
Prosecutors allege Raniere, 58, ran a secret sex-cult pyramid scheme that branded and enslaved women while publicly promoting NXIVM as a self-help group. Raniere has pleaded not guilty to seven charges, including sex trafficking, racketeering conspiracy, child exploitation, and child pornography. If convicted, Raniere would face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Raniere—dressed in a maroon sweater and white button-down shirt—was flanked by lawyers on Monday, abandoned by his co-defendants and former roommates in the Albany, New York compound. He was initially charged along with four other women in his inner circle, including Smallville actress Allison Mack, who have since pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy.
“The closed doors of these cookie-cutter houses [in the NXIVM compound] had seem straight out of a horror movie, but for the defendant’s victims, it was all too real,” Penza said. “Keith Raniere was the center of the enterprise. Everything revolved around him.”
Over six weeks of testimony, several women testified how Raniere allegedly subjugated and manipulated them under the guise of NXIVM. Lauren Salzman, a former lieutenant and the only co-defendant to take the stand, testified last month that she enslaved women at Raniere’s behest.
“[Raniere] relied on his female sex partner to approach, recruit and groom other women as his sex partners,” Penza said on Monday.
Salzman, who also had a relationship with Raniere for over two decades, testified she was one of the seven “first-line slaves” to Raniere in the supposed women’s empowerment group DOS.
The secret sorority known as DOS, which prosecutors called on Monday a “humiliating act of possession,” allegedly forced “slaves” to have sex with Raniere and brand themselves with his initials near their crotch with a cautery pen—without anesthesia. Raniere’s attorney Marc Agnifilo argued on Monday DOS was a “social group” that Raniere felt women needed for self-empowerment and had nothing to do with NXIVM. Raniere, his lawyer said, did not need DOS “to generate intimate partners.”
“[Raniere] created DOS not to empower women, but to benefit and satisfy himself so that he could have DOS slaves do work for him and have sex with him,” Penza countered, adding that Raniere used “tactics that destroyed their victims’ sense of self” by turning “victims into victimizers.”
“Can there really be any doubt that DOS was anything other than a way for the defendant to get what he wanted from the women, including sex?” Penza added.
Three of Raniere’s alleged “slaves” sat in the courtroom for closing arguments, including India Oxenberg and her mother, Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg. The other two DOS “slaves,” only identified by prosecutors as Nicole and Jay, testified they were manipulated by other women to join the group, but were threatened when they tried to leave.
“I don’t think there’s anything to suggest he created DOS to have sex with people,” Agnifilo said. “DOS isn’t for everybody. It’s strong medicine.”
“That doesn’t make it a crime, it’s just pretty out there,” he added.
In his closing statements on Monday, Agnifilo also argued that all the charges against Raniere allege that he acted within a “criminal enterprise” and that he “did not do anything alone” and so he should not held responsible for the group’s actions.
“It’s not about Keith Raniere alone, it’s about an enterprise,” Angifilo said, adding to the jury "Don't just accept it. You're on a jury to really be critical thinkers."
Prosecutors also argued a former NXIVM member, who was confined to a room in her parent’s two-bedroom Albany condo for over two years, was forced to “sexually perform on Raniere’s demand” after he helped her cross the border in 2004.
After disobeying Raniere’s alleged edict that NXIVM women can only have sex with him, Daniela was kept as a prisoner in a room with only a mattress on the floor as punishment. While there were no locks on the doors, Daniela was told if she didn’t stay in the room, she would be deported back to Mexico. As previously reported by The Daily Beast, Daniela decided to go back to Mexico in 2012, telling Salzman she would rather be without her family and NXIVM than stay in isolation any longer.
“Finally, on the 705th day, having stored up enough cleaning supplies to kill herself, Daniela decided she was going to live,” Penza said.
Agnifilo, however, argued his client was not responsible for Daniela’s 100-week confinement, in which she would write letters to Raniere asking for forgiveness. Rather, he claimed, the confinement was agreed upon by her parents, who often wrote about their ongoing frustrations with their middle daughter.
“Keith is not charged with somehow keeping Daniela in a room,” Agnifilo said. “There is enough evidence to prove her father was frustrated with Daniela’s behavior. Please remember her father was involved every step of the way.
Salzman previously testified it was Daniela’s father and fellow NXIVM members who ultimately drove her to the Mexican border without her documents to find a job, little money, and strict orders to continue to follow Raniere’s edicts.
“Daniela was asking her father for her documents when she returned to Mexico,” Agnifilo said. “Not Keith.”
Raniere is also accused of harboring several explicit photos of a 15-year-old girl, Daniela’s sister Camila, with whom he allegedly had a sexual relationship for over eight years while she was a minor. Daniela previously testified that when she found out Camila was sleeping with Raniere in 2006, she was “horrified” but did nothing to stop the relationship. Throughout the trial, jurors saw sexually explicit messages between Raniere and Camila, which included multiple conversations about the pair’s affinity for BDSM.
“The defendant began having sex with Camila when she was 15 years old and he was 45,” Penza said. “The evidence is overwhelming that [Camila] was under 18 when the naked pictures were taken.”
Agnifilo defended the photos, saying the crux of NXIVM “was the importance of vulnerability” and Raniere was just helping the teenager “become stronger.”
“Keith Raniere is not charged in any way, shape, or form with having sex with Camila,” he told the jury, emphasizing the photos were taken with 'consent'.
The prosecution, however, argued Raniere was able to “abuse and control” the members in the NXIVM through “collateral,” or their “deepest, darkest secrets” that could then be used as blackmail if they were to go against the society or Raniere. The collateral usually included sexually explicit photos or access to their financial assets, allowing Raniere to direct others to do his bidding.
“The defendant can’t hide anymore. A light has been shone in the darkness and his crimes have been exposed,” Penza said, adding that Raniere had to be held accountable for “the first time. “Trust the evidence, trust your judgement and find the defendant guilty on all counts.”