For over two decades, self-help guru Keith Raniere was revered by his followers as the “most ethical person in the world.” But in federal court on Tuesday, prosecutors told a jury he was really a conman who used “shame and humiliation” to turn women and underage girls into sexual playthings.
Raniere once led the ultra-secretive organization NXIVM in Albany, New York, preaching personal growth. Prosecutors allege NXIVM was actually a front for a cult-like pyramid scheme he used to groom women for sex. Raniere faces several charges, including sex trafficking, racketeering conspiracy, child exploitation, and child pornography.
“He claimed to be a leader, but he was a conman. He claimed to be a mentor, but he just exploited it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar told the jury, saying Raniere often compared himself to Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.
“NXIVM was a crime organization and Keith Raniere was a crime boss,” Hajjar said.
Raniere, who pleaded not guilty to all the charges, was alone in court—dressed in a white button-down shirt and brown sweater—flanked by lawyers but abandoned by the women he allegedly subjugated and abused under the guise of NXIVM and by his co-defendants, who were once loyal followers.
“Keith Raniere is the only one to stand, jury,” Judge Nicholas Garaufis said told the jury prior to opening statements. “But please do not speculate as to why this is.”
He was initially charged with five other women from his inner circle, including Smallville actress Allison Mack, who have since pleaded guilty. As part of their plea deal, the five agreed to testify against him, prosecutors said.
“The defendant pretended to be a guru,” Hajjar said. “But he was a criminal.”
Raniere’s attorney, Marc Agnifilo, told reporters outside the courtroom Tuesday that the evidence will show that his client acted in “good faith” and did everything he thought was beneficial toward the NXIVM family.
"I think he’s had good faith for everything that he did. And that’s basically the ground I’m going to defend. There are controversial elements to the case. There are difficult elements to the case," he said.
Prosecutors detailed some of these difficult elements on Tuesday, explaining to the Brooklyn jurors that they will hear testimony from several women who say they were sexually abused by Raniere.
He used “shame and humiliation as ways to bring people down,” Hajjar said.
One witness set to testify was identified by prosecutors as Daniela, a Mexican woman who lived in the Albany compound with her parents and three sisters when she was a teenager after Raniere offered to “mentor and tutor them.” After disobeying Raniere’s alleged edict that NXIVM women can only have sex with him, Daniela said, she was kept as a prisoner in a room with only a mattress on the floor as punishment for over two years.
“The door was unlocked, but Daniela felt she couldn't leave,” Hajjar said. “She wrote letters almost every day to Raniere for two years, apologizing for her actions and begging to leave.”
Prosecutors also revealed they plan to show several explicit photos of a 15-year-old girl, Daniela’s sister Camilla, in Raniere’s bed to prove he exploited underage women under the guise of self-help.
Agnifilo defended the photos, saying the crux of NXIVM “was the importance of vulnerability and how vulnerability is not a bad thing.”
“The pictures were about vulnerability,” he told the jury, emphasizing they were taken with consent. “They show vulnerability is not weak, vulnerability is strong.”
In 2018, authorities opened an investigation into the organization after former members accused Mack of inducting women into a secret sect of NXIVM called DOS, which is loosely translated to “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions.” In the sect, “slaves” would allegedly be forced to have sex with Raniere, or “The Vanguard,” and brand themselves with his initials near their crotch with a cautery pen—without anesthesia.
“He created DOS to be a women’s organization. It is a secret society of women,” Agnifilo said. “From the beginning of this country, men have been in a secret society. Keith Raniere thought women needed a secret society of their own.”
To gain entry, prosecutors alleged, DOS “slaves” were required to submit “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 included sexually explicit photos, access to their financial assets, or letters making damaging statements against friends and family.
“Collateral backs up your worth,” Agnifilo said, arguing that despite the various legal proceedings, “none of the collateral was never released. Never.”
Since his arrest, former followers have started to come out against Raniere, detailing how he would order women to maintain near-starvation diets to achieve a body type he found “desirable,” and would punish those who disobeyed his edicts.
“Women believed they were joining a women’s empowerment group,” Hajjar said. “This organization had nothing to do with empowering women, and everything to do with imprisoning them.”
Prosecutors allege NXIVM, which had amassed an estimated 17,000 followers in North America since 1998, offered workshops at $5,000 a pop that promised the skills to promote a path to “greater self-fulfillment.”
The group, founded by Raniere and his partner, Nancy Salzman, attracted wealthy supporters including Mack and Clare Bronfman, the youngest heir of the Seagram Liquor company. Participants moved up the ladder by paying and recruiting more members. To meet Raniere, considered the prophet behind the teachings, a member would have to complete a 16-day, $7,500 intensive course.
All three women, and Salzman’s daughter Lauren, were initially charged in the case but in the last six weeks have all pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy.
Mack’s attorney was in court Tuesday, but declined to comment on the opening of the trial, which is expected to last six weeks. If convicted, Raniere would face a maximum sentence of life in prison.