NEW YORK—Opening arguments in the high-profile trial of Keith Raniere, the leader of the purported self-help organization NXIVM, began on May 7, as the prosecution divulged that Raniere’s “most trusted associates” will testify in what is expected to be a six-week-long court case detailing a master-slave society within the group.
Raniere, who was formerly known as the “Vanguard” by his group’s devotees in the United States and Mexico, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for seven criminal counts, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and racketeering.
The courtroom at the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn was so full on the first day of the trial that reporters were directed to an overflow courtroom to watch the proceedings live on video.
Although the prosecution didn’t explicitly state that Raniere’s co-defendants—who have all since pleaded guilty—would testify against their alleged former master, NXIVM’s ex-publicist and whistleblower Frank Parlato told The Epoch Times in an interview outside the courthouse that former “Smallville” actress Allison Mack and Lauren Salzman, the daughter of the group’s president, may testify. He noted a “50/50” chance that Nancy Salzman would testify as well.
In the prosecution’s opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar painted a picture of a “predator” Raniere, now 58 years old, who targeted young women and groomed them, while pretending to be a “guru,” comparing himself to Albert Einstein. She said it was so he could have sex with the women and control them.
“Keith Raniere claimed to be a leader,” Hajjar told the jury of eight men and four women. “But he was a con man. … This was organized crime. Keith Raniere was an organized crime boss.”
Hajjar said Raniere exploited the trust of his devoted followers to fulfill his own fantasies involving “sex, power, and control.”
“The defendant said he was a mentor, but he was a predator,” she added, while telling the court about how Raniere, under the guise of tutoring children, had brought a Mexican family with three girls and a boy to live in upstate New York, where NXIVM’s headquarters was located.
“Instead, he had sex with all three daughters and, in order to do it, he turned family against family, sister against sister,” she said.
Raniere nicknamed the youngest daughter he slept with “Virgin Camila.” She was 15 years old at the time and is expected to testify later against the former leader, prosecutors revealed for the first time.
Another sister is also expected to testify about how Raniere locked her in a room for nearly two years with nothing but a mattress and “pen and paper,” as punishment for falling in love with another man. She was then sent back to Mexico without her documentation papers because Raniere couldn’t forgive her, despite countless apology letters.
Meanwhile, the defense urged the jury in its opening statement, which was longer than the prosecution’s, to focus on the motivations and not the specific actions of Raniere, arguing that it was all consensual and that people needed to take more personal responsibility for their actions.
“You’ve heard a lot of slogans. … This case is not about labels,” Raniere’s lead attorney, Marc Agnifilo, told the jury. “I’m going to defend his intentions. I’m going to defend his good faith.”
Agnifilo also denied that Raniere had enslaved the sister in the locked room, arguing that she was free to leave at any time. He also claimed that she was punished not for loving another man but for sneaking money from NXIVM.
Agnifilo said, in reference to the claims that Raniere had sexual relationships with a number of women as part of a secret society dubbed DOS, “I think that’s morally wrong … but that’s not a charge.” DOS reportedly was created from within NXIVM in 2015.
Agnifilo attempted to portray NXIVM as a positive group that had “17,000” people who took their self-improvement courses. “The issue is the intention: What’s behind the control?” he asked, in response to accusations that Raniere had used blackmail and collateral tactics to keep members silent.
Another bizarre moment in the trial came during the defense’s remarks, when Agnifilo quoted a speech by Winston Churchill after the battle of Dunkirk, when the prime minister said Britain was committed to defending “our island home.”
“My island home is that man’s good faith. My island home is that man’s intentions,” Agnifilo said in reference to Raniere. “And at the end of [the trial], the flag of freedom will be flying over my island home.”
Raniere has pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking and other charges. His lawyers have opposed what they call “unusual and dubious” protections that would violate his constitutional right to confront his accusers.
“It was not unexpected,” Parlato said in reaction to the first day of the trial. “What I did find extremely interesting is that the prosecution is leading and signaling strongly that sex trafficking is the way that they are going to go.”
First Witness Testifies
The first witness, a British national identified by her first name only, Sylvie, testified on May 7. She described her years with NXIVM after being recruited by Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram beverage company.
In her testimony, Sylvie said she was a professional horse jumper whose first “self-improvement” classes, paid for by Bronfman, cost around $3,500. She first met Bronfman in Europe at an event when she was 18, and later moved to New York, hoping to boost her career.
Although Sylvie never saw Raniere run or participate in any physical training, he was “presented as able to … teach anyone in anything.” Both Raniere and Bronfman coached Sylvie to improve her physical fitness for sports competitions, such as triathlons. She said she was forced to report to both of them every day about her training. She was expected to train six hours each day, despite feeling very ill at times. She only went to the hospital after developing a fistula.
“We can see in this testimony of Sylvie that it was Clare and Keith that were overtraining her, not being concerned with her well-being, pushing her to take more and more classes at $5,000 or $8,000 a throw,” Parlato said during the interview.
Parlato, who knew Sylvie from the time he worked as a publicist for NXIVM, described her as an “intelligent woman” who was “not tremendously confident.” He said she was very much “manipulated by Clare.”
“I believe that Clare had sexual designs for Sylvie some years ago. She wanted to manipulate her and keep her in the United States,” he said. “I think part of what they were talking about the six hours of training per day was in part a way of keeping her under control.”
Sylvie was first recruited into DOS in 2015 by a woman she identified as Monica Duran. “I was like, oh, God, this is not what I want to do,” Sylvie said when she was tasked with seducing Raniere as part of her first assignment. “But my understanding was this was an assignment from my master and I didn’t have a choice.”
Prosecutors say Raniere was the “highest master” of DOS and forced other members—all women—to have sex with him.
According to court documents, the secret society allegedly operated as a pyramid scheme, with levels of “slaves” headed by “masters”; slaves were then expected to recruit their own slaves, thus becoming masters themselves. Many of the DOS members were branded with a cauterizing pen during a process that took “20 to 30 minutes.”
Sylvie said that during one encounter with Raniere, he joked about marrying her so she could get a visa. “I knew that people had done it,” she said, referring to other NXIVM members who had gotten married for green-card purposes.
The society allegedly recruited members on the condition that they would give up personal, often embarrassing, information about themselves, including compromising images or videos, as “collateral.” Once inside, members were regularly required to provide additional collateral to ensure that they kept the group’s activities secret.
Sylvie also described how she was forced to send Raniere naked photos of herself. She started to cry on the stand as she testified about trying to get Raniere’s permission to stop sending the photos. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis brought a box of tissues over to her.
“He said I could stop sending the photos,” Sylvie said, after which she said Raniere added, “The next thing would be in person.”