Beginning Tuesday, Keith Raniere, founder and leader of the self-empowerment group and alleged sex cult NXIVM, will stand trial for criminal charges including racketeering and sex trafficking, and faces life imprisonment if convicted on all counts. The details of the allegations against him are as well-publicized as they are horrific: Raniere stands accused of running NXIVM as his own personal sex cult, coercing female followers into sleeping with him, having his initials branded into their flesh and punishing them by threatening to release “collateral,” such as pornographic photos, if they had sex with anyone other than him or chose to leave the group. He is also accused of encouraging women in the group to have abortions should they get pregnant, and to starve themselves in order to achieve his ideal female body image, to the point that some of his followers stopped having menstrual periods.
Raniere is not the only member of NXIVM to face criminal charges: five other high-ranking members of the group, including Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman, cofounder Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren Salzman, bookkeeper Kathy Russell and former Smallville star Allison Mack, were also arrested following an FBI investigation. Given the amount of control Raniere is alleged to have exerted over his female followers, using his power and influence to cultivate an extremely tight-knit inner circle of women quick to defend his every action, many expected the others to plead not guilty and stand trial alongside him. Yet all of them have taken guilty pleas, leaving Raniere to stand trial alone.
It’s an unfamiliar role for the spiritual leader formerly known as Vanguard, who once claimed to hold a Guinness World Record for world’s highest IQ and was so adored and doted upon that his followers devoted an entire week-long holiday, “V” Week, to the celebration of his birthday. And by all accounts, Raniere, who is currently being held in the maximum-security Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Brooklyn, hasn’t been taking to the role well. “He hasn’t seen sunshine in 13 months and two weeks,” says Frank Parlato, a former NXIVM publicist turned whistleblower whose independent reporting is widely credited with helping to spur the FBI investigation into the group. “[He’s] been limping…he’s grown pale. What I hear from my sources is he’s now become more pensive as the trial comes.” The fact that his former acolytes will not be standing trial alongside him — and with some, like Mack and Salzman, speculated to testify against him in court — probably has done little to boost his morale.
But while many were surprised that Raniere’s co-defendants would enter guilty pleas — particularly Mack, who has been depicted in many media accounts as Raniere’s righthand woman and one of NXIVM’s fiercely devoted acolytes — NXIVM insiders Parlato and Barbara Bouchey, a former high-ranking NXIVM executive who dated Raniere for eight years before leaving the group one year later, say they were not surprised at all. Despite the media positioning Mack as one of Raniere’s most loyal devotees, she was not nearly as instrumental in the inner workings of the organization as the media has portrayed, Parlato says. “She was an outsider who was used for purposes of recruitment,” he says. “She was famous, she was attractive, she was vivacious and she was a great draw to lure other people into the group. I honestly think [Raniere] used her as a dupe throughout the entire relationship.”
It was not Mack’s guilty plea but that of Bronfman — the Seagram’s heiress who allegedly bankrolled many NXIM projects, not to mention its legal attacks against critics and defectors, that was probably the biggest blow to Raniere. Both of the NXIVM insiders Rolling Stone spoke with said they felt Bronfman was among the more ruthless and fiercely committed members of the group, and that “her money, wealth and prominence in the world created a certain kind of arrogance that she could get away with certain things or buy her way out of them,” thus negating the need to take a plea, as Bouchey put it. When Bronfman finally did enter a guilty plea, Raniere was reportedly “very pissed,” Parlato says. (The federal government brought charges against Parlato alleging that he had stolen $1 million from the Bronfmans from his time representing the organization, and later brought other charges including mail fraud and tax evasion; all the charges were subsequently dropped.)
Regardless of whether Raniere’s NXIVM co-defendants actually had any intention of standing by him at trial, a superseding indictment brought against Raniere last March, including child pornography possession and exploitation charges, changed everything. While these charges were dropped by U.S. Eastern District judge Nicolas Garaufis last month, on the grounds that the alleged acts took place in New York’s Northern District (which could still potentially bring the charges against Raniere), evidence supporting the charges, such as nude images allegedly sent to Raniere by a 15-year-old girl, will still be introduced at trial, despite Raniere’s legal team’s efforts to have them suppressed. The introduction of these charges and this evidence “changed the tenor of the entire trial,” says Parlato. “At one point, the defense was that these were all consenting adults. Now, you add one of the most odious and reprehensible charges, which is child porn.” The combination of photographic evidence, as well as the possibility of testimony from another one of Raniere’s alleged underage victims, a woman who told the police in 1993 that she and Raniere had more than 60 sexual encounters when she was 12 years old, likely indicated to the other defendants that “their success at trial would be far less rosy,” as such evidence would be “hugely influential to the jury,” says Parlato.
The fact that Mack, Salzman and Salzman’s daughter Lauren also signed cooperation agreements against Raniere means that it is likely they will be called to testify against him. (Kristen Keeffe, the mother of Raniere’s child and a former member of his inner circle, may also testify, per the Albany Times-Union.) Facing off against the women who previously doted on him and propped him up as an intellectual giant will likely be a harrowing experience for Raniere. “Imagine him in a courtroom with five of his closest confidantes spanning 40 years who are now not only going to confront him, they’re gonna speak publicly on the witness stand against him,” says Bouchey. “I think he’s not gonna handle it well at all.”
Despite the preponderance of evidence against Raniere, both Bouchey and Parlato say they aren’t surprised that he did not take a plea deal, which would spare him and his followers the media circus of a trial. That’s in part because the prosecution may not have offered him an alternative preferable to his minimum sentence if he is found guilty at trial, says Parlato. “It’s very possible they aren’t offering him short of anything of 20 or 25 years in sentencing guideline ranges,” says Parlato. “He may feel at this point, ‘What’s the downside of going all the way? If I get one juror to hang this jury, maybe I can live to fight another day.'”
For his part, Raniere’s lawyer has said he could argue that all of the acts his followers submitted to — the sex, the branding, the submission of collateral — were all wholly consensual, and that any unethical actions he took as the leader of NXIVM were for the good of the organization. Although Raniere’s primary defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone, he has previously said that Raniere “devoted every waking moment” to his life as NXIVM head and was committed to the cause of self-empowerment, and Parlato says it is likely that he will further invoke the positive benefits the group had for many of its members. “They’re gonna try to elaborate and perhaps embellish on the good it did for these women in their everyday lives, based on their careers and successes, if any,” he says, adding that the argument will likely be that, “Keith had no malicious intent. This was a type of training to improve their welfare.” And part of what makes this argument slightly more complicated than it appears is that there is a grain of truth to it: despite the enormous financial cost of her legal battles with NXIVM and the damage she alleges Raniere did to her life, Bouchey says she benefited from many of the group’s teachings, and that many of the community members were smart, confident people devoted to self-improvement. The media narrative of NXIVM, says Bouchey, is that “there was no good there, we were all crazy, we were all broken women. And that’s just not true.”
Parlato believes the likelihood of Raniere’s defense working is “very small.” But that small chance is one that Raniere is willing to take, says Bouchey. “Keith is a gambler,” says Bouchey, citing Raniere’s alleged $65 million commodities market loss as evidence. “[The] other thing is, Keith has gotten away, most of his life, with talking his way out of things. He is a very persuasive, intelligent person. He believes he can convince someone what he thinks. And all it takes is one juror. I think Keith won’t plead guilty because he’s narcissistic, cocky, confident, crazy, arrogant. And he’s gonna take his chances.”