In March 2018, Lauren Salzman, a high-ranking member in the self-empowerment organization NXIVM and a so-called “master” in the alleged sex cult DOS, was making a smoothie in the kitchen of a house outside Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when her friend Loreta Garza, another NXIVM member, burst into the room. She told Salzman that cops had just arrived at the house to arrest Keith Raniere, the group’s charismatic head, and Salzman’s on-off lover of nearly 20 years.
Salzman flew into a panic. Raniere had fled to Mexico the year before, following a damning New York Times report that he was the grandmaster of DOS, a NXIVM offshoot and secret all-female sorority of “masters” and “slaves.” Allegedly run by Raniere, the group reportedly had branded women, forced them to provide “collateral” in the form of explicit naked photos, and coerced them into having sex with him. Salzman and other DOS “masters,” including Garza, Smallville actress Allison Mack, and Battlestar Galactica actress Nicki Clyne, had flown to Mexico to visit Raniere. Despite the negative media attention swarming around the group, the understanding among DOS members was that they would participate in a “recommitment ceremony,” pledging their allegiance to Raniere — which, as Salzman later testified, was assumed to mean group sex.
Unfortunately for Raniere, however, the ceremony never happened, as authorities arrived at Raniere’s home on March 25 to arrest him on sex trafficking and racketeering charges. When the police showed up, “I was in one mode: protect Keith,” Salzman testified on Tuesday at the Brooklyn federal courthouse where Raniere is currently standing trial.
According to her testimony — which has so far taken three days — when police arrived at the home where Raniere was staying, he was taking a nap in an upstairs bedroom, so she ran up to try to help him escape. She talked to the police through the bedroom door, asking if they had a warrant. “The whole time, I kept thinking, ‘They could shoot in this door,'” she said. Yet she tried to remain calm. “My main priority was that Keith was OK.”
When police finally kicked down the door, Salzman said, they pushed her to the ground and pointed guns at her. Terrified, she called out Raniere’s name, only for him to emerge from a walk-in closet next to the bedroom. The man Salzman had previously described as “her most important person” — her mentor, spiritual advisor, and lover; the man whose initials she had chosen to brand into the flesh above her abdomen; the man who had taught her the values of love, sacrifice, personal responsibility and courage — had, when confronted with arrest, run away and hidden in a walk-in closet.
The account of Raniere’s arrest capped off the highly revealing direct testimony of Salzman, who has pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. Formerly one of NXIVM’s most loyal capos, an exhausted-looking Salzman recounted decades of her emotional manipulation at the hands of Raniere, a self-described genius who once held such sway over his followers that they believed he was able to control the weather.
The daughter of group cofounder Nancy Salzman, who has pleaded guilty to a single charge of racketeering conspiracy, Salzman, 42, began her testimony last week describing her first meeting with Raniere in 1998, when she was 21 years old. They began a sexual relationship in 2001, which they continued in secret until 2008 or 2009, while she was in DOS.
“He was my master,” Salzman said during the start of her testimony last week, adding that she “respected him, and trusted him and I wanted to be like him.” She called him “Doomp,” and he called her “Lorn/Forlorn,” ”’cause I was sad and suffering,” she said.
As Salzman ascended through NXIVM’s ranks, Raniere encouraged her to have sex with other women he was involved with, but forbade her to sleep with other men. At one point, she said, she wanted to have a relationship with another man, and approached Raniere to ask for permission. “He told me if I stayed, he would reinvest in our relationship and we would have children,” she said. Salzman reluctantly agreed to these conditions, as she desperately wanted to have a child.
In 2010, another NXIVM member that Raniere was sexually involved with, a Mexican woman identified only as “Dani,” fell in love with another man, which Raniere deemed an ethical breach. According to Salzman’s testimony, he and Dani reached an agreement that she would be confined in a room in a home she shared with her parents, with no communication with the outside world; if she did not agree to these terms, Salzman testified, she would have to go back to Mexico.
“He thought if she did this process, she’d have some kind of breakthrough,” Salzman testified. “I wanted her to be able to have that.” Initially, Raniere said Dani would only have to stay a few days in the room, which contained little other than a bare mattress, for a few days. But according to Salzman’s testimony, she ended up staying for somewhere between 18 and 24 months.
During that period, Salzman acted as Dani’s only liaison with the outside world, delivering apologetic letters that she wrote to Raniere — few of which, Salzman testified, he actually read. At one point, Raniere asked Dani’s mother, Adriana, to stay confined to a room adjacent to Dani’s, as a way to make it clear to Daniela that her actions were “affecting other people” close to her, Salzman testified. When she finally left in February 2012, she was driven to the Mexican border by her father and another NXIVM member, who refused to give her immigration papers; in a series of emails read during the trial, when she begged for her papers back, NXIVM officials refused, accusing her of being manipulative and “playing games.”
Salzman’s account of how the group treated Dani was one of the most emotional aspects of her testimony. “Of all the things I did in this case and all the crimes that were committed, this was the worst thing I did,” she said, sobbing. Nonetheless, she continued to follow Raniere’s orders to not allow Dani to have access to her papers, on the grounds that she wanted him to think she was willing to “do what it took to be a responsible parent.”
For years, Raniere continued to hold the prospect of having a child with Salzman over her head, at one point giving her a timeline of between “a year and five years.” He revoked the option, however, after Salzman committed an “ethical breach,” jumping on a another man while celebrating a victory after a volleyball game. Raniere was furious, saying he questioned whether he wanted to have a child with someone who could be so “disrespectful” to him.
In response, Salzman sent him a seven-page letter recounting all the ways she was behaving inappropriately. “I created enough damage to thwart our plans together for the rest of our lives,” Salzman read from the document in court on Friday. In it, she apologized for having disrespected him and for damaging her own reputation as a group leader, as well as that of their theoretical child, “someone who doesn’t even exist yet.” But Raniere was unmoved, dealing her a final blow, Salzman testified, when he revealed that he would be fathering a child with another longtime girlfriend.
“I was very upset,” she said. “It felt very hurtful and confusing to me.” Nonetheless, she stayed in the group. “I committed to stay with nothing. No relationship, no baby. Nothing.”
In 2017, Salzman became even deeper in Raniere’s thrall when she was recruited to the secret all-female organization by Rosalaura Junco, a NXIVM member and the daughter of a wealthy Mexican media scion. After providing “collateral” in the form of embarrassing documents and explicit naked photos, Salzman became what she referred to as a first-line “slave” of the group, or a member of DOS’s innermost circle, reporting directly to Raniere, along with Junco, Mack, Clyne, and four other women. Salzman testified that shortly after she joined DOS, she discovered that everyone except Junco had previously been or was currently in a sexual relationship with Raniere.
According to Salzman, the group would meet three times a week, with members required to pose for a naked group photo at the start of every meeting and send it to Raniere. “We were supposed to be uniform: All looking the same, and fully frontally naked,” Salzman testified. Raniere required the brands on the women to be on full display and they should all “appear happy” — if they weren’t to his satisfaction, he would sometimes request a new photo. “If our legs weren’t spread enough, we’d have to spread our legs more,” Salzman said, adding that the group members were aware that his preferences skewed toward “up-close vaginal pictures.”
Many DOS slaves were told to participate in various forms of “self-denial,” such as refraining from masturbation and limiting themselves to 1,500-calorie diets. They were also told to seduce Raniere, a task that Salzman referred to as “the Assignment.” Salzman claimed not to have known about the Assignment until Mack mentioned that slaves she had recruited were having sex with Raniere. When Salzman confronted Raniere about it, he denied sleeping with the women. The seduction assignment, he said, was intended to give women “an experience with the man where the man could’ve abused his power, but didn’t.”
“He thought it would be a growth experience for them,” Salzman testified.
DOS members were also required to do “penance” for perceived misdeeds. Such penance including paddlings with a leather strap, which Raniere would occasionally supervise remotely via conference call. “He called in and wanted to make sure we were flicking the wrist hard enough,” Salzman said. She testified that a fellow DOS member, Daniella Padilla, told her Raniere had once been violent towards her after accusing her of being in a “prideful” state. “She had been on the floor and he had kicked her,” Salzman recounted Padilla telling her.
Raniere had also planned to build a dungeon in the basement of the sorority house, and Padilla purchased various BDSM sex toys for use during penance, as a sex-toy company owner testified last week. Padilla had also planned to purchase a cage, though she canceled the order shortly after the inner workings of DOS were made public in the spring of 2017.
Around that same time, one former DOS slave and a longtime friend of Salzman’s, Sarah Edmondson, left the group after discovering that the DOS “brand” was not some badass empowerment symbol, but actually Raniere’s initials. Edmonson’s husband publicly confronted Salzman about DOS at a NXIVM event, prompting the rest of the organization to learn about the existence of DOS. Knowledge of the group became widespread in late 2017, after the New York Times published its DOS expose featuring an interview and photographs of Edmonson displaying her brand.
In response to the bad press surrounding NXIVM, Raniere went into damage control mode. According to Salzman’s testimony, he immediately instructed all of the DOS first-line slaves to deny that Raniere had any knowledge of DOS, and that the women had branded themselves of their own volition. He also instructed the group to make a website for the group under the new name Bar Alpha Mu, as he had told the women to tell other members of NXIVM that the brand was not of his initials, but of the Greek symbols.
Raniere also drafted a public statement defending the existence of DOS while simultaneously denying he had anything to do with it. The statement, which was read at trial, accused the media of shaming the women for engaging in consensual activities and spearheading a “campaign against the rights of women and alternative lifestyles.” At one point in the email, Raniere compared DOS members to authors of the Declaration of Independence.
As NXIVM membership rates dwindled, Salzman stuck to the narrative that Raniere was unconnected to DOS and had no knowledge of the group. “I lied to everybody. I lied to the entire community about it,” she testified. Apparently emboldened by her demonstration of loyalty, Raniere once again brought up the idea of fathering a child with Salzman, accompanying her to doctor’s office visits so she could receive fertility treatments. At the time, Salzman was thrilled, but when Raniere refused to get a blood test, she started to realize his true intent was “to keep me doing what I was doing better than anybody else at the time, which was going out and legitimizing [DOS],” she testified.
Following Raniere’s arrest in Mexico, Salzman said, she started to come to terms with the true extent of Raniere’s thrall over her; at times, she appeared to be processing it even while she was on the stand. “Everything we had done, everything I was teaching NXIVM…was all centered around the fact that we can live this principled life,” she said.
Watching Raniere skulk out of a walk-in closet as guns were pointed at her head, however, put all of his teachings, all of his promises, and all of their shared dreams together into perspective. “It never even crossed my mind that I would choose Keith and Keith would choose Keith,” Salzman said.