Since his arrest last year in Mexico on sex trafficking and racketeering charges, tabloids have referred to Keith Raniere, the head of the self-help organization NXIVM, as the leader of an all-female “sex cult” called DOS. The 58-year-old spiritual leader known as the “smartest man alive” was worshipped by followers, with some former NXIVM members testifying they believed he could control the weather and that swallowing his semen could help them see “a blue light.”
Yet during closing arguments at Raniere’s trial at the Eastern District Courthouse of New York, Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo adamantly denied that DOS was a cult, or that Raniere was a cult master.
“The word ‘cult’ has come up a few times. I don’t think that helps you,” he told jurors during his closing arguments, which spanned nearly three hours over the course of Monday and Tuesday.
Regarding allegations that Raniere branded DOS slaves with his initials, forced them to send him close-up images of their genitals, and coerced them into having sex with him, Agnifilo said, “the conduct, looked at objectively, is pretty out there. But that doesn’t make it a crime.”
Agnifolo presented his closing arguments in front of a courtroom packed with dozens of former NXIVM members and former DOS slaves, including India Oxenberg and her mother, Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg. Raniere is standing trial for seven charges, and faces life in prison if convicted.
Dressed in a maroon sweater and looking characteristically boyish, if not slightly more rumpled than in previous weeks at trial, Raniere watched the proceedings quietly, occasionally scribbling notes.
But before Agnifolo presented his case, U.S. Attorney Moira Penza delivered her final arguments. She started by presenting a map illustrating Knox Woods, the leafy suburban neighborhood in Clifton Park, New York, where NXIVM was headquartered.
“It looks like the American Dream,” Penza said, her voice growing increasingly hoarse over the course of her nearly four-hour closing. “But if we’ve learned anything from this trial, looks can be deceiving.”
Penza then identified the various locales that had been referenced throughout the past six weeks of testimony, including 120 Victory Way, where a DOS slave known as Nicole testified that she was blindfolded, tied to a table, and instructed by Raniere to receive oral sex from a stranger; to 12 Wilton Court, where a former Raniere paramour identified only as Daniela testified that she was held alone in a room for nearly two years, with only a mattress, a pen, and sheaves of paper to keep her company.
Penza compared the last six weeks of testimony to “a horror movie.”
“But for the defendant’s victims, it was all too real,” she added.
She pointed to evidence of activities within DOS — the branding, the alleged coerced sex, the restrictive 500-calorie diets some slaves were required to adhere to — as directly refuting the image that Raniere’s inner circle attempted to put forth of a “humanitarian, leader, guru.”
“You saw him for what he was: a predator, a crime boss, a crime man,” Penza told the jury.
During her closing argument, Penza detailed the extensive allegations against Raniere, some of which dated back a dozen years or more. She outlined what she referred to as Raniere’s acts of “deception” under the racketeering charge, including obstructing justice by editing video footage introduced in court; hacking into the email accounts of so-called NXIVM “enemies” such as billionaire Edgar Bronfman; and using the credit card and bank account of a deceased NXIVM member on thousands of dollars of purchases at Amazon Marketplace, Neiman Marcus, and the iTunes Store, among others.
She showed the jury and courtroom spectators redacted nude photos of Daniela’s sister Camila, with whom she alleges Raniere started a sexual relationship back in 2005, when Camila was just 15. As part of the racketeering charge, Raniere is being charged with acts of sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child pornography, which was found on a hard drive in his study.
Penza then alleged that Raniere had founded DOS for the purposes of his own sexual gratification, recruiting women under false pretenses by ordering “first-line” DOS slaves and members of the NXIVM inner circle, such as codefendants Lauren Salzman and Smallville actor Allison Mack, to tell recruits DOS was a female empowerment group. He then instructed his “slaves” to extract collateral from DOS recruits, task them with assignments to seduce them, and ultimately brand them with his initials.
Pointing to 2015 texts that Raniere sent to Camila saying that he wanted her to “own a fuck toy slave for me that you could groom as a tool to pleasure me.” Raniere’s ultimate goal, Penza claimed, was to create a wide-ranging network of female “slaves” “to do work for him, to have sex with him, and to recruit new sex partners for him.”
“The defendant did not create DOS to be a sisterhood…a group of best buddies,” Penza wryly said, hearkening back to Agnifilo’s classification of the group in his opening arguments. “This was not about making anybody’s life better.”
During closing arguments for the defense, which chose not to call any witnesses, Agnifilo did not deny that Raniere founded DOS, nor did he deny that DOS slaves were branded with Raniere’s initials, as former DOS first-line slave Lauren Salzman and DOS recruits identified only as Nicole and Sylvie previously testified. He also did not deny that Raniere had sexual relations with a number of DOS slaves.
He did, however, refute Penza’s assertion that DOS slaves were coerced into having sex with Raniere, or that DOS was founded with the direct purpose of furnishing Raniere with sexual gratification.
“There’s been no shortage of intimate partners for Keith Raniere pre-DOS. He’s had them his whole life,” Agnifilo said. “This is just his lifestyle.”
Agnifilo suggested that contrary to Penza’s classification of DOS as an abusive sex cult, the group was actually intended to help and support women. He said that Raniere founded the group as a way to provide support for Camila, who had at one point admitted to purposely hurting herself. “He wanted her to make a commitment to the group” that she would no longer engage in self-harm, Agnifilo argued, stressing that DOS and other teachings in the NXIVM curriculum strongly emphasized the importance of such commitments: “Commitment is virtue. Commitment builds character,” he said.
He also emphasized that despite the requirement that slaves submit collateral to join DOS, at no point was the collateral ever released, nor was there ever any threat to release the collateral. (During rebuttal from the government, assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko reminded jurors this was not the case, and that a number of former slaves testified they had heard many first-line slaves be threatened with the release of collateral, and that Raniere himself had mulled over releasing that of former DOS member Sarah Edmondson.)
Agnifolo also said that members of DOS such as Jay — a former slave who testified that she left the group after she was assigned by Mack to seduce Raniere to heal her from being molested as a child — had “a choice,” Agnifilo said. “And it’s obvious because people made the choice [to leave] and nothing happened.” (Lesko also refuted this, pointing out that the former DOS slaves never got their collateral back.)
The crux of Agnifilo’s argument about DOS was that it was not intended to be sexual, and that it was little more than a “social group.” (Lesko promptly eviscerated this line of argument, cracking, “If it wasn’t created for sex, then what was gonna happen in the dungeon? Were they gonna knit sweaters?”) To bolster this point, he alluded to testimony from Nicole, who last week testified that she was recruited to DOS after she professed to Mack in an email that she was struggling with suicidal thoughts. After providing collateral to join DOS in the form of a sexually explicit video and a letter falsely accusing her father of sexual abuse, Nicole said, she was tied to a wooden table, blindfolded, and forced to receive oral sex from a stranger.
Nicole, who was among the courtroom spectators during closing arguments, was seen to mouth “oh my God” and tear up when Penza played audio evidence of Raniere discussing the specifics of the branding process, including instructions that DOS slaves be nude and “held to the table like some sort of sacrifice.”
Despite Nicole’s visibly emotional testimony, however, Agnifilo suggested during closing that for Nicole, “maybe [DOS] worked” to cure her depression, referring to the organization as “strong medicine” when used in “the right circumstances with the right people at the right time.”
“You never saw those kinds of emails again,” he said, referring to her initial despondent emails to Mack, who recruited her into DOS a mere few days later.
During his rebuttal, Lesko appeared to take particular issue with this line of Agnifilo’s argument, which he characterized as egregious victim-blaming. “He was arguing Nicole wanted it. That it was good for her,” he told the jurors. “Don’t let him do that in this courtroom.” He also objected to Agnifilo suggesting that DOS was “strong medicine” for Nicole, deadpanning that being tied to a table and forced to receive oral sex from a stranger was “no medicine. That’s a sex crime.”
Above all else, during his closing argument Agnifilo encouraged the jury to keep in mind that there was a reason why many longtime NXIVM devotees such as Salzman and Mark Vicente, a filmmaker and former high-ranking NXIVM member who left in 2017, stayed in the group for decades. “They did things they believed in, that they thought were important,” Agnifilo said. “And what they believed in was Keith Raniere.” He attributed the government’s witnesses testimony against Raniere as a “change in perspective,” a phrase that recurred several times during his argument, even at one point citing the 1999 film The Sixth Sense as a prime example of such a shift. (“So what, Keith was dead the whole time?,” a spectator was overheard to mutter in response.)
But at the end of more than six weeks of harrowing testimony, it was clear that at least some courtroom attendees were not buying Agnifolo’s argument. At one point, when Agnifilo suggested that there was absolutely no evidence during the trial that Raniere “had a misogynist view of women,” one spectator in the gallery burst out laughing — a rare moment of levity in a trial that has otherwise been mired in dark, disturbing testimony.
Agnifilo urged the jury to acquit Raniere on all charges, arguing that while many jury members might find his behavior “disgusting” and his lifestyle “distasteful,” none of he evidence presented at trial suggested he was guilty of violating the law. “Unpopular ideas aren’t criminal. Disgusting ideas aren’t criminal,” he said.
The prosecution painted a starkly different portrait of Raniere, with Penza during the jury to recognize the “inner circle” of NXIVM for what she says it was: a wide-ranging criminal enterprise that kept the arm of the law at bay for years and built a culture of lies and secrecy to protect him.
“The defendant can’t hide anymore. A light has been shown in the darkness, and his crimes have been exposed,” she said. “Trust the evidence. Trust your judgment.”