When Toni Natalie spoke to Rolling Stone on the morning of jury deliberations for the Keith Raniere trial, she predicted the jury would reach a guilty verdict by, “3, 3:30.”
The former girlfriend of Raniere, the leader of the spiritual organization Nxivm, was only about an hour off. After six weeks of grueling testimony, during which witnesses gave grueling testimony about being held down and branded, beaten with paddles, and coerced into having sex with the defendant, Raniere has been found guilty of all seven of the criminal charges against him. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Raniere, 58, was arrested in 2018 in Mexico, where he had fled with a few members of his inner circle following the publication of a damning 2017 New York Times story alleging that Raniere was the leader of DOS, an all-female “sex cult” that required women to submit embarrassing “collateral” in the form of sexually explicit photos, and be branded with Raniere’s initials. According to testimony from Lauren Salzman, a former high-ranking NXIVM member and DOS slave who was with Raniere when he was arrested, Raniere hid in a walk-in closet when police arrived to arrest him.
Raniere was charged with racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and attempted sex trafficking.
The jury, which consisted of eight men and four women, deliberated for just four hours before reaching a verdict. As the jury members delivered their verdict, Raniere sat quietly in a maroon sweater with a blue collared shirt underneath. He stared intently at the judge and jurors as they one-by-one delivered their verdict.
To convict Raniere of the racketeering charge, jurors had to find him guilty of at least two of 11 predicate acts, including possession of child pornography, extortion, sexual exploitation of a child, and forced labor. They found him guilty on all 11.
In an interview with Rolling Stone leading up to the verdict, Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District and managing partner of Tucker Levin, said that for this reason, the racketeering charge would be most difficult for Raniere’s defense team to beat. “This is a matter of convincing jurors to reject [multiple] different underlying acts. That’s an uphill battle,” Levin said.
He also noted that the allegations against Raniere stretch back almost 15 years, with the earliest alleged act, conspiracy to commit identity theft, dating back to 2004. It’s then that the government alleges Raniere helped smuggle a Mexican woman named Daniela over the U.S.-Canada border by supplying her with the ID of a deceased Alaskan woman.
Reached for comment outside the courtroom, Catherine Oxenberg, the mother of India Oxenberg, a former DOS slave, wept as she said, “I’m so damn grateful. Justice has been served.”
In a deeply emotional moment after the verdict was announced, Agnifilo approached Barbara Bouchey, a former girlfriend of Raniere’s, and appeared to offer her some version of an apology. “I hope some good feeling somehow comes out of it.”
The trial, which spanned more than six weeks at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, was replete with testimony from former members of NXIVM, which Raniere founded in 1998 with his collaborator Nancy Salzman. NXIVM has been described as an amalgam of various ideologies, including Scientology, the 1970s self-help group EST, and objectivism, the philosophical system developed by Ayn Rand.
During her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar characterized Raniere as a “con man” who “targeted people looking to improve their lives. “Once he gained their trust, he exploited it,” Hajjar said. Her opening arguments primarily focused on DOS, the all-female organization that was the subject of the New York Times piece. She accused Raniere of instructing first-line DOS slaves to recruit women by telling them it was a female empowerment group. The women were then required to provide “collateral” in the form of embarrassing nude photos and letters to prevent them from leaving the group, she said.
“Through it all, the defendant maintained a charade: even though he controlled the victims, it was about female empowerment,” Hajjar said.
In his opening arguments, Raniere’s lead attorney, Marc Agnifilo, denied that DOS was a “sex cult,” saying that women were encouraged to share their nude photos as a way of embracing their “vulnerability.” He also said that many former NXIVM members said the group was “wonderful and it helped them,” pointing out that nearly 17,000 people at one point took NXIVM courses. “They took them because they got something out of them,” he said. (Indeed, many current NXIVM members were seen attending the trial throughout the testimony, though none spoke to the media.)
During the trial proceedings, jurors heard testimony from Daniela, a former NXIVM member who said she was imprisoned by Raniere in a room for more than two years as punishment for falling in love with another man; Nicole, a former DOS slave who alleged that, as part of DOS, she was blindfolded, tied to a table, and forced to have a stranger perform oral sex on her; and Salzman, another former DOS slave and NXIVM insider who alleged that Raniere instructed her to withhold the true purpose of DOS from potential recruits.
Raniere’s defense team did not call any witnesses to testify at trial. Although there was intense speculation among members of the gallery that Allison Mack, an actor who starred in Smallville and alleged DOS master who pled guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, would be called on to testify, she did not make an appearance at the trial. (Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy in April. She will be sentenced in September.)
Jurors did, however, see evidence that Raniere engaged in a sexual relationship with Camila, Daniela’s sister, when she was 15 years old. (Raniere also is alleged to have slept with another of Daniela’s sisters, Mariana, who ended up fathering one of his children; Daniela testified that Raniere encouraged the two to engage in a threesome, which ended when the two sisters broke down in tears.)
During one particularly brutal moment, jurors looked at naked photographs of Camila which were allegedly taken when she was 15, which were found on a hard drive on Raniere’s computer in a folder titled “Studies.” The folder contained hundreds of photos of women in NXIVM, all of whom were posed to prominently display their genitalia.
The testimony painted a portrait of a deeply controlling, paranoid man who was obsessed with exerting ultimate authority of women, dictating what they ate, who they had sex with, and even how they groomed their pubic hair. It also painted a portrait of NXIVM as an organization that elevated Raniere to the status of a god, telling followers he was the “smartest man alive” who had the ability to control technology and the weather.
Testimony from former NXIVM members suggested that Raniere had absolutely no restraints on his power, with members of his “inner circle,” such as codefendants Allison Mack, Clare Bronfman, and Salzman, shielding him from any external critiques or recourse from law enforcement. (Mack, Bronfman, and Salzman all took guilty pleas, and did not stand trial with Raniere; Salzman signed a cooperation agreement with the government in exchange for her testimony.)
In front of a packed courtroom on Monday and Tuesday morning, Agnifilo did not attempt to refute the government’s characterization of Raniere’s actions, particularly in the context of DOS, saying that the jury may find his behavior “disgusting” and his lifestyle “distasteful.” He did, however, dispute that any of the allegations against him constituted criminal acts, arguing, as he did throughout much of the trial, that there was no evidence that the activities in DOS were not consensual.
“Unpopular ideas aren’t criminal. Disgusting ideas aren’t criminal,” he said, closing by urging the jury to acquit on all charges.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko, however, swiftly eviscerated this argument in the rebuttal. “The defendant used almost every [abuser] technique in the book,” he said. “The level of manipulation, the level of coercion, the level of mind control [was] astounding.”
In an interview outside the courtroom, Agnifilo said, “We knew it was a tough case going in. We do plan on appealing. Keith maintains his innocence. It’s a very sad day for him.”
“I do hope the verdict brings some solace to people,” he added.
Bouchey, who attended every day of the trial proceedings, was similarly deeply emotional. She just missed seeing the verdict by a few minutes. “I’m so relieved,” she said through tears as reporters told her of the verdict. “That’s amazing.”
Natalie, however, was somewhat more wry. “Send Keith a Post-it Note in prison,” she told reporters through a smile and tears — a reference to Raniere’s habit of taking notes on Post-It notes throughout the trial.
Raniere will face sentencing on September 25th.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Raniere will be sentenced on November 25th; the sentencing will take place September 25th.