In October 2017, New York Times published a report detailing years-long, heinous abuses against women within NXIVM (pronounced “nexium”), an Albany-based “self-help organization.” The Times piece depicted NXIVM as cult-like, run by Keith Raniere, known as “Vanguard,” and his number two, Allison Mack, an actor best known for her role as Chloe Sullivan in the television series Smallville. In the year-and-a-half since, allegations against NXIVM have grown to include trafficking, sexual abuse, starvation diets, and blackmail. On Tuesday, May 7, Raniere will stand trial, alone, in Brooklyn, where is he charged with forced labor, wire fraud conspiracy, human trafficking, sex trafficking, and possession of child pornography (two nude images of a 15-year-old.) He is also accused of having had sexual relationships with two girls under the age of 18. He has pleaded not guilty to the child exploitation charges.
NXIVM’s alleged abuses span decades. Below is a comprehensive primer covering the timeline, major actors, and events leading up to Raniere’s trial.
What is NXIVM?
According to NXIVM’s website (which has since been deactivated), the organization promised participants a “new ethical understanding that allows us to build an internal civilization and have it manifest in the external world,” through “seminars” and “Executive Success Programs” or ESPs. It was founded in 1998 by Raniere and former nurse Nancy Salzman, who acted as the company’s president. Prior to NXIVM, Raniere founded Consumers’ Buyline in 1990, a multi-level marketing company that, just three years later, was revealed to be a pyramid scheme. It was shut down in 1993, according to Vanity Fair, after being “investigated by regulators in 20 states and sued by New York’s attorney general.”
NXIVM was cut from a similar cloth. Financed by Sara and Clare Bronfman, heiresses to the Seagram liquor fortune, the organization ran life-coaching workshops that, in 2010, ran about $7,500 each. Vanity Fair described them in 2010 as being “based on an amalgam of therapeutic techniques, including hypnosis and Neuro-linguistic Programming, or NLP, a controversial behavior-modification regimen... repackaged—along with a moral twist, that by becoming fully empowered one could help create a more ethical world—into something called Rational Inquiry by Keith Raniere.”
In 2006, Edgar Bronfman, Sara and Clare’s billionaire father, called NXIVM a “cult” in Forbes Magazine. The Times’ recent report built on this characterization, describing not just a self-help organization moonlighting as a pyramid scheme, but also an alleged “sex cult,” complete with “slaves.”
What is DOS?
NXIVM grew much larger than its Albany-based headquarters (according to the Times, “an estimated 16,000 people in the United States and Mexico” paid for NXIVM courses), but centered in the New York state location was a secret wing called DOS, short for “dominus obsequious sororium,” Latin for “master over the slave women.” Reportedly, selected women would forfeit blackmail material to ensure their silence, usually in the form of pornographic pictures or financial information, referred to as “collateral.” They were also allegedly forced into “near-starvation diets” to satisfy the sexual needs of Raniere. (Raniere referred to DOS publicly as “a sorority.”) These are the same women who, when initiated, claimed that they were branded with cauterizing rods (which Raniere called a “tribute”), referred to as “slaves,” and told to stop dating to become available to their “master” at all times. This alleged sexual coercion, per the Times, resulted in multiple abortions.
One month after the Times report, rumors began circulating that Mack was somehow involved in DOS, and acted as a key recruiter, finding women for Raniere’s “sorority.” In April 2018, Mack was arrested for her involvement in the alleged trafficking circle. She was accused of recruiting victims by telling them they were engaging in a “women-only organization that would empower them and eradicate purported weaknesses that the NXIVM curriculum taught were common in women.” She pleaded not guilty. Two weeks later, she was released on house detention with electronic monitoring to her parents home in Los Alamitos, California and her bail set was at $5 million. In May 2018, it was reported that Mack came up with the branding system because she believed tattoos didn’t seem severe enough. According to reports, she was second in command at DOS. Raniere was the leader of NXIVM, and her “master,” but she was also a “master” herself.
What is this trial and what are the charges?
Months of court proceedings delayed the NXIVM trial, currently slated to take place Tuesday, May 7 (pushed from a late-April timeline). In the month leading up to the trial, all of the defendants except for Raniere, plead guilty, so now he’s the only one who will face a jury: Nancy and Lauren Salzman, Mack, Clare Bronfman, and NXIVM’s accountant Kathy L. Russell all sought plea negotiations.
On March 14, 2019, Nancy Salzman, president of NXIVM, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for her involvement. She told the courtroom, “It has taken some time and soul searching to come to this place. I accept that some of what I did was not just wrong, but criminal. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would. But I can’t.” Her sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 10.
Two weeks later, on April 2, Nancy’s daughter Lauren Salzman, a high-ranking member of NXIVM, also pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy. Unsealed court documents revealed that Lauren Salzman admitted to enslaving a woman for two years. “I knowingly and intentionally harbored Jane Doe 4, a woman whose identity is known to me, in a room in the home in the Northern District of New York,” she told the courtroom. She added that she also “threatened to deport Jane Doe 4 back to Mexico if she did not complete labor requested by myself and others.” She faces 20 years in prison but, as the New York Post pointed out, “prosecutors could recommend she face less time under a cooperation agreement.”
Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges on April 8, 2019, admitting to extortion, forced labor, keeping a “slave,” and holding a top role in DOS. She also faces 20 years in prison but, as Page Six reported, “It was not clear if she has a cooperation deal with the government, and her lawyers declined to comment.” That arrived long after her lawyers attempted to argue that her recruitment of so-called “sex slaves” by using blackmail to keep women tethered to the organization wasn’t a crime because Scientologists do it too.
Days later, on April 20, Clare Bronfman, heir to the Seagram liquor fortune, was arrested for racketeering conspiracy related to her involvement with the organization last summer. She pleaded guilty to “enabling a sex ring for Keith Raniere,” Rolling Stone reports, and admitted to harboring “someone who was living in U.S. illegally for unpaid ‘labor and services.’” Bronfman told the court “I was afforded a great gift by my grandfather and father. With the gift comes immense privilege and more importantly, tremendous responsibility. It does not come with an ability to break the law… For this, I am truly sorry.” She was forced to forfeit $6 million and faces two years in prison. Her hearing is scheduled for July 25.
Also on April 20: NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell pleaded guilty to one charge of visa fraud, CNN reports. She faces six to 12 months in prison.
That leaves Raniere.
On April 25, the New York Post acquired the grand jury testimony for the forthcoming trial and it’s every bit as disturbing as you’d imagine: allegedly, Nancy Salzman allowed Raniere to have sex with NXIVM’s “slaves” in the library of her house in Halfmoon, New York. From the Post:
“The bed was elevated, and a hot tub was underneath the bed,” a former Nxivm member, Mark Vicente, also testified, the papers say.
One of Raniere’s alleged slaves said she also had sex with the 58-year-old leader in the home of “Smallville” TV actress and high-ranking Nxivm member Allison Mack.
The library was where the feds found a hard drive containing child pornography and additional sexually explicit images of other Nxivm members, including bookkeeper Kathy Russell and accused DOS slave master, Lauren Salzman, prosecutors say.
What can we expect?
That’s hard to anticipate, but rumors abound. According to Page Six, Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, has said that Mack may testify against Raniere. Agnifilo claimed, “It’s not like I’m in the dark. I think that person might testify.” And since Russell, Bronfman and both Salzmans have also pleaded not guilty, as Rolling Stone points out, “at least some of his former acolytes are likely cooperating with prosecutors and may testify against him in trial.”
To protect the anonymity of the jurors in this high profile case, Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis told the Times they won’t be referred to by name, only numbers, and “will be semi-sequestered, meaning they will be escorted to and from the courthouse by federal marshals.”
The amount of tabloid fodder that has come out of the trial knows no bounds. And because celebrities of varying clout are involved, there’s plenty of intrigue. In March 2018, an old tweet of Mack’s sent to Harry Potter actor Emma Watson was unearthed, leading gossip magazines to deduce that she was attempting to recruit Watson for DOS. Two months later, in May, it was uncovered that Mack may or may not have wed Nicki Clyne of Battlestar Galactica fame as part of her NXIVM duties.
Actor Catherine Oxenberg’s daughter India was a member of NXIVM, and she’s been very vocal about the organization and Raniere. “My one reservation about the trial is that these victims are going to have testify and it is going to be terribly traumatic for them,” Oxenberg recently told the Times. “If Keith had any decency, he would plead out.”