A courtroom sketch of Keith Raniere. (Elizabeth Williams/AP/Shutterstock)
After weeks of testimony from former Nxivm members and self-described sex “slaves,” a jury found alleged cult leader Keith Raniere guilty on all counts, including racketeering and sex trafficking, on Wednesday.
U.S. Attorney William Donoghue said after the verdict, “This trial has revealed that Raniere who portrayed himself as a savant and genius was in fact a master manipulator, a conman and the crime boss of a cult-like organization involved in sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion, compelled abortions, branding, degradation, and humiliation. His crimes, and the crimes of his co-conspirators, ruined marriages, careers, fortunes and lives.”
“The evidence proved that Raniere was truly a modern-day Svengali,” Donoghue continued.
In their closing arguments Monday, prosecutors reportedly compared Raniere’s fake self-improvement group to a “horror movie,” one in which women were brainwashed, habitually abused, subjected to physical torture, blackmailed into Raniere’s service, and, in some cases, held against their will on Nxivm property. Prosecutor Moira Penza described Raniere as “a con man, a predator, a crime boss,” one who exploited his position and “tapped into a never-ending flow of women and money,” in her final statement to the jury.
Although he never took the stand, Raniere has maintained his innocence since his arrest last May, his lawyer—Marc Agnifilo—describing Nxivm as “a wonderful humanitarian organization” ahead of the trial. In his closing arguments, Agnifilo reportedly attributed the alleged abuses as “adult choices” made by women who willingly joined the group.
Prosecutors contended that Nxivm leaders lured women into their fold on the premise of helping them expand their professional horizons, pocketing their money while recruiting select members into a secret sorority called DOS. These women became “slaves” whose “masters” rigidly controlled their diets, communications, and relationships. Many were branded with a symbol resembling Raniere’s initials, in a ceremony allegedly engineered by Raniere to emphasize their total submission to him. Raniere reportedly forced them into sex, tortured them as punishment for disobedience, and manipulated them into furnishing incriminating “collateral”—naked photos, damning and often fabricated admissions designed to alienate them from their families—he used to ensure their loyalty. Prosecutors also accused Raniere of grooming underage girls for sexual relationships.
Raniere was arrested in Mexico in March 2018 and subsequently faced a slate of charges related to his role as Nxivm’s self-appointed “Vanguard,” including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, conspiracy to commit identity theft, fraud, and extortion. (Child pornography charges followed in March.) His top lieutenants were arrested last July, and this past spring, pleaded guilty one by one for their parts in an organization that has been described as a pyramid scheme: Smallville’s Allison Mack, allegedly Raniere’s right hand, pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy; co-founder Nancy Salzman copped to one count of racketeering; the group’s financier, Seagram’s heir Clare Bronfman, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to conceal and harbor an undocumented immigrant for financial gain, and one count of fraudulent use of identification; and Lauren Salzman, Nancy’s daughter, also entered a guilty plea, admitting to holding a woman in a room for two years.
Of Raniere’s cohort, Lauren Salzman was the only one to testify at trial, painting a lurid picture of the cult’s inner workings. Raniere locked disobedient women in a cage in a basement dungeon, she told the court, recalling how the painful brand functioned as an instrument of control.
Over the course of six weeks, the court also heard from witnesses who testified to undertaking hacking campaigns to spy on Raniere’s perceived enemies; to years of coerced sex with Raniere and between members; to obligatory abortions; to beatings; and more. Jurors heard audio of Raniere explaining that the DOS branding ritual should appear “sacrificial,” but also consensual. Prosecutors also accused Raniere of hoarding child pornography in his study, each of the photos “a trophy” of “his sexual conquest.”
Raniere now faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for racketeering, wire fraud, forced labor conspiracy, sex trafficking, and more. The Associated Press reports that he “showed no visible reaction as he learned the verdict.”
This story is breaking and has been updated.