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How the Nxivm sex cult leader was brought down by his former 'slaves'

Harriet Alexander
Keith Raniere faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced later this year - You Tube

A little over a year ago India Oxenberg’s world was falling apart.

The man she worshipped had, in March 2018, just been arrested at the £8,000-a-week villa where he was staying, in the Mexican resort of Puerto Vallarta. When Keith Raniere was driven away in a police car a group of women, among them reportedly Miss Oxenberg herself, ran after the car, determined to protect their guru until the very end.

On Monday Miss Oxenberg, the 27-year-old daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, a Yugoslavian princess and a distant relative of Princes William and Harry, strode into court. Smiling and happy on her first public appearance in a year, she was there with her mother to watch the closing statements in Raniere’s trial – and hoping that the man she once idolised be put behind bars.

A court room sketch of Nxivm leader Keith Raniere Credit: Reuters

On Wednesday Raniere was found guilty of all counts by a jury in New York. During his six-week trial prosecutor Moira Kim Penza had characterised him as “a con man, a predator and a crime boss”; someone from whom Miss Oxenberg was fortunate to escape.

In the words of his defence lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, he was simply a man dedicated to helping others, who cannot be held responsible for the devotion his followers felt.

Raniere, 58, faces charges including sex trafficking and child pornography for allegedly using his self-help group, Nxivm, to hide a secretive sorority known as DOS – a Latin phrase, Dominus Obsequious Sororium, meaning “lord over the obedient female companions”.

Each master was supposed to bring in slaves, and then, to become masters, those slaves would recruit slaves of their own; an estimated 150 women ultimately joined. Members of the DOS were, prosecutors say, forced to have sex with him, follow dangerously restrictive diets and obey his every command.

The FBI accused Raniere of “a disgusting abuse of power in his efforts to denigrate and manipulate women he considered his sex slaves ... within this unorthodox pyramid scheme.”

A jury took less than five hours to find him guilty of all charges and the bespectacled and unremarkable Raniere faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced later this year.

As the verdict was read out Raniere remained calm, whispering to his lawyer. Several of the Nxivm defectors, however, were crying and trembling.  

“It is all nonsense,” said his defence lawyer Marc Agnifilio. “These are choices that adult, smart, educated women are making. I don’t buy brainwashing.

“Keith is about human connection. This is more of a cuddle cult than it is a sex cult.”

Yet over the past six weeks the jury has heard from five women and one man who told how they became “victims” of Raniere and his accomplices.

Five other women pleaded guilty before the trial began – among them Smallville actress Allison Mack – and will be sentenced later this year. Mack could face 40 years in prison for her role as a senior leader in the DOS, working to recruit other troubled, frequently slim and wealthy, women.

Smallville actress Allison Mack in 2012 Credit: Reuters

Raniere began the organisation in the late 1990s, setting up in Albany, capital of New York state, what he describes as a self-help organisation.

About 17,000 people passed through Nxivm’s doors, though the number of those who have committed for life was far smaller, perhaps in the hundreds. By comparison about 25,000 individuals in the United States are self-identified Scientologists. Scientology was frequently referenced as a point of comparison during the trial.

The group was pitched as an empowerment group, touting theories about femininity, victimhood, money and ethics - much of it influenced by Ayn Rand, one of Raniere’s favourite authors. Senior leaders were not only rich but emotionally disciplined, self-controlled, attractive, physically fit and slender - or, in the word most members themselves preferred, “badass.”

All pledged loyalty to Raniere, a man who was portrayed within the group as “some kind of god” who would unlock a more fulfilling life for his followers. Raniere himself promoted the idea of his being someone special – a child prodigy, who spoke in full sentences at a year old, read by the age of two and taught himself to play concert-level piano at 12.

During the trial, the jury heard how it was said some believed he could affect the weather. If he released a new curriculum, for instance, that might create a big storm; technology was also said to act “funny” around him due to his “energy”.

Claire Bronfman leaves a hearing in New York Credit: Reuters

Among the high-ranking devotees was British-American one-time professional showjumper Clare Bronfman, millionaire heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune. Bronfman, one of the five to plead guilty before trial, has paid $14 million (£11m) in Raniere’s legal costs, it emerged during the trial.

Another Briton was the first of the six victims to testify – Sylvie, who joined the group at age 18. The group, she was told, would “help me be the person that I’ve always wanted to be”, and would “fix” her.

To join she gave in to the demand for “collateral” – material to be held in trust, and forfeited if they broke the group’s vow of silence. Some handed over deeds to their homes, or wrote down stories of childhood abuse, which may or may not be true. Often, as in Sylvie’s case, it was explicit photographs of herself, which she handed over to a senior DOS member. Sylvie said she was told that providing “collateral” was meant to show dedication.

In reality, she said, the fear of its dissemination made her feel she could not refuse orders from her master, Monica Duran, including one that led her to a bedroom where Raniere performed oral sex on her.

“It just felt like in a whole different realm of darkness,” she said. “It was nothing like what I expected in the conversation with Monica about me becoming a better person.”

An actress from California named Nicole said she joined DOS at the invitation of Mack, whom she looked upon as a mentor.

“I was already stuck,” Nicole testified. “I wanted to believe her.”

Raniere was fascinated with Scientology and left a marketing career to initially focus on the self-improvement business

Another witness, a 29-year-old Californian model identified as “J,” testified that her DOS collateral included an account of being sexually molested when she was 12. Mack later told her that fulfilling an assignment to “seduce” Raniere would help heal the trauma from that incident, “J” said.

“My understanding now is that I was being groomed to be part of his harem,” she testified, adding that she fled and did not carry out the assignment.

Lauren Salzman, 42, whose mother Nancy co-founded the organisation and is one of the five to have pled guilty earlier this year, claimed on the stand that women were whipped with leather straps if they did not obey Raniere. She also alleged that the victims were forced to hold painful poses for long periods of time and stand barefoot in the snow.

Mark Vicente, the only male victim to testify, described how Raniere’s philosophy worked. He said that some upper-level courses were aimed at changing students’ “programming,” likening the process to hacking a computer. The courses eroded people’s “instinctual” sense of ethics, he said.

“It in essence played with our moral compass,” he said.

The sixth victim, Daniela, moved to New York state with her parents, who were both Nxivm devotees. She testified that Raniere began a sexual relationship with her and with her younger sister when both were teenagers. He became enraged, Daniela said, when she told him she was attracted to another man and directed that she be confined to a room until she repented.

She remained in the room for nearly two years until her father and a senior Nxivm member freed her and drove her to the Mexican border.

“Raniere set up a criminal organisation with a never-ending flow of women and money,” said Ms Penza, prosecuting.

Attorneys representing Nxivm leader Keith Raniere, Marc Agnifilo (l) and Paul DerOhannesia speak after a hearing Credit: Reuters

Yet Raniere’s lawyers fought back, led by Mr Agnifilo, a high-profile pugilist said to charge as much as $2,500 per hour.

Mr Agnifilo represented former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011 when he was accused of assaulting a New York hotel chambermaid – the charges were dropped – and defended Roger Ng, the Goldman Sachs financier swept up in the huge fraud around the Malaysian state-owned development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.

He also previously represented Martin Shkreli, the convicted securities fraudster who became an international pariah for hiking the price of a potentially life-saving drug by more than 5,000 percent.

“So this is probably my 10th client who is the smartest man in the world,” he said, before the trial.

Raniere himself maintained an elusive profile, becoming even more secretive when the exposes began being published in 2010. In October 2017 a New York Times story caught the attention of the state police, whose investigation led to Raniere’s arrest in Mexico five months later.

Keith Raniere sits between his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian and Marc Agnifilo in court Credit: Elizabeth Williams/AP

In an attempt to explain his organisation, he granted an interview to the New York Times, published shortly after his arrest.

“I think in many of those circumstances, I’m investing,” he said, when asked about his methods.

“And when they accuse me of taking from them, I say, ‘You know, honestly, I’m investing, so if anything, maybe I don’t get a return on my investment, but I made that choice.’ ”

On Monday, in court, Miss Oxenberg was sitting alongside Nicole and Daniela, listening to the summing up of a case against a man who certainly changed their lives.

India's mother Catherine Oxenberg said she felt responsible for getting her out Credit: AP

It was Miss Oxenberg’s mother who initially took her to a meeting for a Nxivm motivational course back in 2011, after her daughter wanted to try her hand at being an entrepreneur.

“I brought her in. And that's why I feel responsible for getting her out,” she said, speaking last autumn to promote her book about the saga.

“At first I felt horrendous guilt that I had participated in bringing my daughter into an organisation that was this deviant and dangerous.

“I did my darnedest to try to get her involved in other things, to try and redirect her interests, to try and get her other jobs. But nothing worked.

“I couldn't believe the hold that they had over her.”