Although the trial of Keith Raniere, the alleged mastermind behind the self-empowerment cult NXIVM, doesn’t begin until the end of April, the court proceedings have already given us plenty of drama. There’s been fainting in court, child pornography charges and, as with all things 2019, a brief appearance by attorney Michael Avenatti. And in a surprising twist, all of the defendants in the NXIVM case, with the exception of Raniere, have pleaded guilty to some of the charges against them, meaning that at least some of his former acolytes are likely cooperating with prosecutors and may testify against him in trial.
In the days leading up to Raniere’s trial (and as jury selection begins today), here’s a primer on who’s who in the NXIM trial — and what we can expect going forward.
Who she is and what she was charged with: Perhaps the highest profile defendant in the NXIVM case, Mack is the former star of the WB show Smallville, on which she played Superman’s friend Chloe Sullivan. Supposedly Raniere’s second-in-command, Mack is alleged to have recruited members of NXIVM to join a secret society called DOS, and was charged with counts of sex trafficking and forced labor. As recounted by former DOS member Sarah Edmondson in a chilling New York Times exposé, as well as the podcast Uncovered: Escaping NXIVM, DOS members, or “slaves,” were required to give up “collateral” (a.k.a. nude photos or other embarrassing or compromising information) to “masters” within the group. As part of an initiation rite, they were also required to be branded with a secret NXIVM symbol, which is comprised of Mack’s and Raniere’s initials. Mack has admitted to the branding being her idea, brushing off suggestions that members should get tattoos: “I was like: ‘Y’all, a tattoo? People get drunk and tattooed on their ankle ‘BFF,’ or a tramp stamp. I have two tattoos and they mean nothing,'” she told the New York Times last year. Mack also played a key role in recruiting members for the group, reaching out to actresses like Emma Watson and Beverley Mitchell to get them to join NXIVM. (Neither joined the group.)
How she’s pleading: Guilty, to one count of racketeering conspiracy and one count of racketeering. In court earlier this month, Mack tearfully apologized for her role in the NXIVM case and admitted to recruiting members to perform “services” for Raniere. “I’m very sorry for the victims of this case,” she said in court. “I’m very sorry for who I’ve hurt through my misguided adherence to Keith Raniere’s teachings.” Of all the NXIVM defendants, her guilty plea was arguably the most shocking, due to her close proximity with Raniere and her allegiance to the group. She faces up to 20 years in prison and is due for sentencing in September.
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Who she is and what she was charged with: A former psychiatric nurse, Salzman (who, within the group, was also known as “Prefect”) cofounded NXIVM and its self-help “Executive Success Programs” with Raniere. (Her daughter, Lauren Salzman, is also a defendant in the NXIVM case. See below.) After she was arrested, her home was raided by federal agents, who seized hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. She was accused of logging into NXIVM members’ email accounts, using their usernames and passwords, to see if they were sharing information about the group with outsiders. She was also accused of altering videotape of Raniere’s speeches and NXIVM promotional materials during civil lawsuit proceedings initiated by a former NXIVM student, editing footage NXIVM was ordered to turn over during the discovery process to remove evidence she thought would be detrimental to NXIVM’s case.
How she’s pleading: Guilty, to a single charge of racketeering conspiracy. “I accept that some of the things I did were not just wrong, but sometimes criminal,” she said during a tearful court appearance in March, apologizing for having lured her daughter into the group. “I justified them by saying that what we were doing was for the greater good.” She faces 33 to 41 months in prison, and will be sentenced in July.
Who she is, and what she was charged with: Lauren Salzman is the daughter of Nancy Salzman, a.k.a. “Prefect,” the cofounder of NXIVM. According to Edmondson, Salzman (her former best friend and maid of honor at her wedding) lured her into DOS, telling her it was a secret society aimed at female empowerment before branding her with a secret symbol and threatening to embarrass her with “collateral” if she left the group. She was then branded with a cauterizing pen in a secret ritual that was filmed by so-called “masters.” Salzman was accused of enslaving a former sexual partner of Raniere’s for two years against her will, forcing her to perform labor for NXIVM and threatening “to deport [her] back to Mexico if she did not complete labor requested by myself and others.” The woman was reportedly sent to Mexico without her identification documents as punishment for having romantic interest in a man other than Raniere.
How she’s pleading: Guilty, to two felony charges of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. Her sentencing is scheduled for September.
Who she is: The former bookkeeper of NXIVM, Russell was arrested and charged with racketeering conspiracy along with the other defendants. Prosecutors claimed Russell and Raniere conspired to smuggle an illegal immigrant into the United States by giving her an IDA card that formerly belonged to a deceased woman. As recently as earlier this month, Russell proved extremely devoted to NXIVM and Raniere during testimony, reportedly invoking her Fifth Amendment privilege more than 80 times and refusing to answer questions not only about her knowledge of Raniere’s alleged sexual relationships with members of DOS and underage girls, but also seemingly innocuous questions related to her weight and level of education.
How she’s pleading: As of Friday, Russell has pleaded guilty to one charge of visa fraud.
Who she is, and what she was charged with: The Seagram’s heiress joined NXIVM upon the urging of her sister Sara, who was a member of the group in the early 2000s. Although initially reluctant, she quickly became a major supporter of the group, with her and Sara donating nearly $65 million of their fortune to NXIVM despite the protestations of her now-deceased father, Edgar Bronfman, Sr. Bronfman was aggressive in defending NXIVM against its detractors, allegedly bankrolling many lawsuits against those who accused the group of adopting cult-like tactics. Although Clare was reportedly unaware of DOS and its branding practices, when she learned of the secret society in 2017 she leapt to Raniere’s defense, writing that “it would be a tragedy to lose the innovative and transformational ideas and tools that continue to improve the lives of so many.” In March, she made headlines when she fainted in court after it was revealed that disgraced attorney Michael Avenatti had negotiated with prosecutors on her behalf, along with her lawyer Mark Geragos.
How she’s pleading: As of Friday, Bronfman has pled guilty, to charges of lying to the government in 2014 about harboring an illegal immigrant who provided “labor and service” for Bronfman and NXIVM. She also pled guilty to allowing Raniere to have access to the credit card of his deceased girlfriend. Although Bronfman will avoid going to trial, she faces more than two years in prison and will have to give the court $6 million as part of the terms of her guilty plea. She will be sentenced in July.
Who he is, and what charges he’s facing: A self-proclaimed genius, Raniere was involved in a number of multi-level marketing schemes prior to founding NXIVM with Salzman in the 1990s. Within the group, he was known as “Vanguard,” attracting people to the group with claims that he could help people overcome personal and professional barriers with his self-help techniques. He allegedly kept a harem of 15 to 20 women to provide him with sexual services, forcing them to starve themselves to maintain a low weight and perform labor for him. Raniere is facing forced labor, wire fraud conspiracy, human trafficking, and sex trafficking charges. In March, he was also charged with possession of child pornography between 2005 and 2018, on the grounds that a teenage girl he was having a relationship with served as one of his “slaves” and sent images to him that “constituted child pornography.” Raniere is also accused of having sexual relationships with at least one other girl under the age of 18.
How he’s pleading: Raniere is the only member of NXIVM to plead not guilty. He has denied all of the allegations against him, and has claimed that all of his relationships with women in NXIM were consensual. His trial will begin at the end of the month.