The trial of Nxivm leader Keith Raniere has begun.
Mr Raniere, prosecutors say, billed himself as the “smartest, most ethical person in the world”, comparing himself to Einstein and Gandhi as he brainwashed and blackmailed women in his secret society. He now stands accused of running a sex cult pyramid scheme, recruiting women as slaves and forcing them to have sex with him.
The cult membership reportedly included Hollywood actresses, heiresses and even the son of a former Mexican president – some of whom will testify against Mr Raniere.
The Albany-based group Nxivm (pronounced nexium) describes itself as a “community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people”. It says it has worked with more than 16,000 individuals and operates centres across the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America.
According to its tagline, Mr Raniere and his organisation were “working to build a better world”.
Here are some of the most shocking details to emerge from testimonies in the high-profile trial against the 58-year-old “self-help” guru.
$2,000 fee to celebrate leader’s ‘birthday week’
Every August, Nxivm members – called “Nixians” – would dole out $2,000 (£1,575) or more to gather in Silver Bay, New York to celebrate the birthday week of Mr Raniere, according to court documents.
A former member testified that the week included “tribute ceremonies” to Mr Raniere, referred to as “The Vanguard” by his followers.
The celebration, known as “Vanguard Week”, reportedly drew members from across the US and Canada.
“There was always sort of entertainment or different kind of tribute ceremonies to Keith from the different centres, or there would be like performances of singers. But it was kind of all centred around the idea of a tribute to Keith and celebrating Keith’s work,” the witness said in court, according to the Times Union.
“Sort of like summer camp for adults.”
The event, centred around Mr Raniere’s birthday on 26 August, mirrored an organisation dedicated entirely to its leader and the satisfaction of his various demands.
FBI special agent Michael Lever said in an affidavit that Mr Raniere had a rotation of 15 to 20 women with whom he maintained sexual relationships.
According to authorities, these women were not allowed to have sexual relations with anyone but Raniere, or reveal the contents of their relationship to anyone else.
Some of the Nxivm curriculum, strictly adhered to by its members, included teachings about the need for men to have multiple sexual partners and the need for women to be monogamous.
‘Grooming’ a young girl to take her virginity
A former member of the alleged sex cult, identified by prosecutors as Daniela, testified she was “groomed” for weeks before she turned 18 for Mr Raniere to take her virginity.
When she was 16, Daniela and her family moved to the US from Mexico after hearing about Raniere and Nxivm. The family of six shared a two-bedroom condo in Albany, New York and began the group’s self-help curriculum.
“I had never been kissed and I didn’t have any prior sexual contact,” Daniela said in court, according to the Daily Beast.
“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.”
After introducing herself to Raniere during his Vanguard Week celebrations, she said, their relationship “escalated in a sexual way”.
Raniere started to openly talk about how they were going to consummate their relationship after she turned 18, but said she would first have to lose weight to suit Mr Raniere’s preferences.
“He said he could not share his sexual energy with somebody overweight,” Daniela reportedly said in court.
Soon after she turned 18, Daniela said Mr Raniere called her to tell her it was “time”. He later escorted the teen to an office building storage room to have sex with her, the Daily Beast reported.
Eventually, Daniela said, she was asked to perform oral sex on Mr Raniere on a regular basis, often more than once a day.
One of Daniela’s sisters had a child with Mr Raniere, and another is the victim in the allegations of child pornography against the cult leader. The two were allegedly forced to have group sex with Mr Raniere on multiple occasions.
“We cried the whole time,” Daniela said in court.
Solitary confinement for two years over weight gain
Lauren Salzman, 42, testified that the same young woman, identified as Daniela, was confined to a bedroom for two years – all because she gained weight and asked to see a man other than Mr Raniere.
Ms Salzman said the group leader made it seem a solution to solve Daniela’s “problem behaviour”.
“Keith told me that she was stealing and that she said she was going to lose weight and instead she gained 40 pounds,” she testified, the Daily Beast reported. Ms Salzman said she felt she had to “take on [Daniela’s] project” to show she could be “a good mother”.
Daniela was told she would be sent back to Mexico if she did not satisfy Mr Raniere and Ms Salzman. Despite being in the same house as her family, she was unable to see them during her confinement.
“We were incredibly abusive to Daniela. Everything she did we shot down. Nothing she could do was the right thing,” Ms Salzman said.
“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.”
Eventually, Daniela chose to return to Mexico, even if it meant never seeing her family again, just to escape the solitary confinement.
A punishing ‘slave and master’ system
According to court documents, a secret society called “DOS” or the “Vow” existed within Nxivm.
Constructed like a pyramid scheme, levels of “slaves” were managed by “masters”. Unbeknownst to almost all members of the Vow, Mr Raniere – the only male member of the group – was the sole occupant of the highest tier, serving as the “highest master.”
Slaves were expected to recruit slaves of their own, who all ultimately worked to service Mr Raniere.
Masters sold DOS to prospective slaves as a special offshoot of Nxivm, according to Mr Lever in his affidavit.
To join, women were compelled to give “collateral” to their masters – material or information that would be “ruinous” to the woman to provided it, if exposed.
The collateral included sexually explicit photographs and videos containing damaging information to the prospective slave, her family or friends.
“DOS slaves understood that if they left DOS, spoke publicly about DOS, or repeatedly failed DOS obligations or assignments, their collateral could be released,” Mr Lever said.
The “assignments” ranged from simple errands for their masters – bringing them coffee and cleaning their houses – to preparing the women for a sexual relationship with Mr Raniere.
This preparation often included extreme dieting, Mr Lever said, to satisfy’s Mr Raniere’s preference for “exceptionally thin” women. These women were forced to adhere to extremely restrictive diets and document every food they ate.
Branding women with leader’s initials
Members of the group were allegedly branded with Mr Raniere’s initials using a cauterising pen, often on their pelvic areas, in ceremonies which were filmed by members.
According to court documents, Nxivm slaves were forced to undergo branding “ceremonies”, a process that would take up to thirty minutes. The women were forced to stand fully naked while a master ordered another member to film.
Some of the victims were told that the brand stood for the four elements – air, earth and water – with the cauterising pen representing fire.
But prosecutors allege the shape is a composed of Mr Raniere’s initials.
At trial, one of Mr Raniere’s lawyers Mark Agnifilo warned jurors they may be shown video of this process, and claimed that the women’s participation in the group was voluntary.
“See if the women seemed forced or if they are doing it because they want to do it,” Mr Agnifilo said, according to the New York Times.
Leader arrested just before group sex ‘recommitment ceremony’
Ms Salzman testified in Brooklyn federal court that Mr Raniere was with a group of high-tier slaves at his Mexican home, preparing for a “recommitment ceremony” when authorities burst in to arrest him.
The former lieutenant of Mr Raniere said she barricaded herself in a master suite at his Mexico compound in Puerto Vallarta when agents arrived, the Daily Beast reported.
“My main concern was to protect Keith. It was almost automatic,” Ms Salzman said, who had reportedly been in a decade-long relationship with Raniere and hoped he would have a child with her. “I chose love over everything, just like we were taught by Keith.”
Ms Salzman said she and Smallville actress Allison Mack were among seven “first line slaves” – some of the first to be recruited into DOS – who had agreed to participate in a recommitment ceremony in order to pledge their continued dedication to Nxivm and Mr Raniere.
The ceremony was to include “group oral sex” as a way to do “something special” for Mr Raniere, according to the Daily Beast.
Shortly before the ceremony began, Mexican agents had surrounded the property to arrest Mr Raniere.
Ms Salzman, the daughter of Nxivm co-founder Nancy Salzman, told the court that it was then she realised that Keith was “a coward”, and not the protector he claimed to be.
“It never crossed my mind that I would choose Keith and Keith would choose Keith,” Ms Salzman said.