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"Sex, power and control": Jury to deliberate fate of alleged NXIVM sex cult leader Keith Raniere

Inside the bizarre Nxivm sex cult

After weeks of relentlessly lurid testimony, jurors on Wednesday will begin deliberating the sex trafficking case against Keith Raniere, the former spiritual leader of the purported self-improvement group NXIVM. Prosecutors and defense lawyers gave closing arguments in a Brooklyn federal court this week following a trial that has given a disturbing inside look inside Raniere's group, which has been called a cult and a pyramid scheme.

Since early May, jurors have been hearing testimony from what prosecutors say are former "sex slaves" who spoke about the torment of being branded with Raniere's initials — their "supreme master," often referred to as "Vanguard." The women said they were duped into a joining a secretive NXIVM sub-sect known as DOS under the pretenses that it was a women's empowerment group. But, they said they were forced by other women who were their "masters" to turn over "collateral," including nude photographs, and groomed for sex with Raniere.  

Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza recounted testimony that Raniere had some of his brainwashed female followers starved, forced one to have sex with another woman and confined a third to a room for nearly two years for defying his orders. The jury has also seen alleged child pornography involving a teenage girl prosecutors say Raniere coerced into sex.   

Penza on Monday called Raniere a "con man" and a "crime boss" who used the organization to "tap into a never-ending flow of women and money." DOS, she said, was formed "to satisfy the defendant's desire for sex, power and control."

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Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM. NXIVM

But attorneys for Raniere, 58, say he had no criminal intent and that his sexual encounters with female followers were consensual. 

Raniere's lawyer Marc Agnifilo said Raniere had a "disgusting lifestyle," reports the New York Daily News, but that the government has not proven its case that he is guilty of sex trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy. Agnifilo argued that the so-called collateral wasn't meaningful because it was never released. 

Raniere stood trial alone after five former members of his inner circle negotiated plea deals, including TV actress Allison Mack and Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman. Last year, after a New York Times exposé on the group and reports that investigators were interviewing some women who had defected from DOS, Raniere fled to Mexico. He was found staying with Mack and other women in a luxury villa and taken into custody on a U.S. warrant. 

Mack was initially indicted on sex trafficking charges for allegedly recruiting women into DOS, but pleaded guilty to racketeering in April, admitting she collected "collateral" from two women at Raniere's direction and threatened to make it public if they didn't perform "so-called acts of love."

Bronfman, who bankrolled Raniere and his program of intense self-improvement classes, admitted she harbored someone who was living in the U.S. illegally for unpaid "labor and services" and that she committed credit card fraud on behalf of Raniere. Both Bronfman and Mack, who await sentencing, said they wanted to help people through NXIVM and apologized for their actions.
 
If convicted, Raniere faces life in prison. A judge finished instructing jurors Tuesday evening, reports CBS Albany affiliate WRGB-TV's J.T. Fetch, and the panel is expected to begin weighing Raniere's fate Wednesday morning.
 
Here are some takeaways from the trial as it heads into deliberations:

"Absolute obedience"

Some of the most damning allegations against Raniere center on a Mexican teen whose family joined a NXIVM community based near Albany.

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Keith Raniere, center, pictured in a June 18, 2019, sketch Elizabeth Williams via AP

Prosecutors say Raniere groomed her for sex, starting at age 15. They introduced a series of text messages between Raniere and the now-adult woman — whose name and those of other alleged victims were withheld to protect their privacy — to show he abused and manipulated her for years as one of his original slaves.

One 2014 exchange:

"I need a vow of absolute obedience. I expect you to text me this vow now."

"I vow to do as you say ... 100% obedience."

In another text, Raniere wrote he wanted to "find other virgins" for him.

Prosecutors say the defendant also collected nude photos of the victim while she was still underage that were recovered from a computer during the investigation.

They gave jurors a look at the photos while keeping the images hidden from everyone else in the courtroom. 

No Allison Mack testimony

There was anticipation that Mack, the highest-profile defendant in the NXIVM case, might testify at the trial in light of her guilty plea.

She didn't, but her name came up several times in testimony identifying her as a "master" in the DOS sub-group, sometimes called "The Vow."

Allison Mack
Allison Mack departs the U.S. Eastern District Court on May 4, 2018, in New York City. Getty

A former member of the sorority testified that Mack, best known for her role as a friend of a young Superman in the "Smallville" series, recruited her in 2016 and ordered her to do whatever Raniere wanted.

"Now, go be a good slave," she testified Mack told her.

The 31-year-old witness said Raniere ended up tying her to a table while blindfolded so another woman could perform a sex act on her.

She said it left her "completely in shock."

Women branded 

 "Master, please brand me. It would be an honor."

It was after reciting those words in 2017, that Lauren Salzman was held down as another Raniere devotee used a cauterizing pen to etch the initials of Raniere into an area near her pelvis, according to her testimony. It was "the most painful thing I've ever experienced," she said.

The 42-year-old Salzman, a former member of Raniere's inner circle who pleaded guilty and agreed to become a government cooperator, was one of two witnesses to testify about submitting to the barbaric "initiation" ritual.

Salzman testified that she organized other brandings, inviting women to her house, where they were required to strip naked and sit blindfolded in a circle as part of the ritual.

The first woman branded, she said, "was screaming and squealing."

Only senior DOS members were allowed to know that the brand represented Raniere's initials, Salzman testified.

When she and others expressed concerns about keeping slaves in the dark about the meaning of the brands, Raniere told them, "It shouldn't matter" and that "we were making problems," she said.

Leaving a "nightmare"

Another witness testified about turning the tables on the man known as a master manipulator.

The 29-year-old witness testified that after taking NXIVM self-help courses as a way to overcome childhood traumas, she was recruited by Mack to join the sex slave subgroup. He said she was horrified when Mack gave an assignment in 2017 to "seduce" Raniere, something she should consider it an "honor."

"It was basically my worst nightmare come to life," she testified.

Before anything happened, she said, she came up with a story that she needed to return to California to deal with a family illness. Then she flattered Raniere by writing him a glowing note about the "bliss" she had achieved because of him, saying "You are an incredible human being."

It was a con job, she said.

"Were you feeling more bliss?" she was asked on cross-examination.

"Yeah," she shot back. "Because I was leaving."

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