The trial for Keith Raniere, the founder and leader of NXIVM who allegedly used the spiritual organization as a front for a “sex cult,” began on Tuesday morning at a federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn. Raniere — who is charged with seven criminal counts, including racketeering, forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and sex trafficking — faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. All five of Raniere’s NXIVM co-defendants, including Smallville actress Allison Mack, have accepted guilty pleas.
The mood of the first day of Raniere’s trial was hectic and even somewhat convivial, with some attendees greeting each other warmly in the security line. So many people showed up for the first day that many visitors and reporters were relegated to another courtroom to watch the proceedings on multiple screens.
After being given instructions by Judge Nicolas G. Garaufis, a straight-spoken man with a slight New York accent and a shock of white hair, the jury listened to opening statements from both the defense and the prosecution. The former depicted Raniere largely as the media has since he was arrested last year: as a charlatan and a scam artist who compared himself to Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi and boasted of his superior IQ while quietly grooming many of his female followers to fulfill his sexual desires, under the guise of spiritual empowerment.
“Keith Raniere claimed to be a leader,” assistant U.S. attorney Tanya Hajjar said during the prosecution’s opening statements. “But he was a con man. He targeted people looking to improve their lives…once he gained their trust, he exploited it.”
During opening statements, Hajjar alleged that Raniere, who wore a beige sweater and had his long hair cut short, was the powerful leader who relied on an inner circle of followers to support him and prop him up. “This was organized crime, and Keith Raniere was a crime boss,” she said. Hajjar said that the group operated according to a “pyramid-like structure,” with Raniere on the top accumulating power. She described how Raniere allegedly groomed his followers to earn their trust so he could “use that trust for things he wanted: sex, power, and control,” she said.
Hajjar said the jury would hear testimony from a Mexican family with four children, three girls and a boy. After Raniere offered to tutor the children, the family moved to upstate New York, where NXIVM was headquartered. “Instead, he had sex with all three daughters and, in order to do it, he turned family against family, sister against sister,” Hajjar said. She recounted how one of the sisters would later be called upon the state to testify about being imprisoned in a room for nearly two years after she committed what Raniere referred to as an “ethical breach” — falling in love with a man who was not Raniere. In this “little room, with nothing in it but mattresses, pen, and paper,” with surveillance cameras set up outside of it, Hajjar claimed that the young woman slipped note after note to Raniere apologizing to him, only for him to order NXIVM employees to be driven across the Mexican border without her identification papers.
Hajjar also showed the jury pictures of his alleged victims, including another one of the daughters of the family. The then-15-year-old girl allegedly said sent nude images to Raniere while she was underage, which led the state to charge Raniere with possession of child pornography — a charge which has since been dropped on the grounds that it took place in another New York district, though evidence of which will be introduced in court. Hajjar alleged that the young woman later became a member of DOS — an all-female secret group within NXIVM that was purported to be a female empowerment organization — and forcibly performed oral sex on another DOS inductee, a 32-year-old actress, while the woman was blindfolded and tied to a table. “The same girl robbed of innocence and childhood….became a woman to victimize others,” she claimed.
Hajjar went on to allege that Raniere founded the group as a way to fulfill his sexual desires and exert the ultimate form of control over his victims. “He controlled their schedules, their diets, where they went, who they saw,” she says. Hajjar said that the jury would see emails, messages and video recordings of Raniere giving explicit instructions to DOS masters, instructing them that DOS slaves “should be completely nude and held at the table like a sacrifice.” Hajjar showed the jury photos of the brand that DOS members had burned into their skin, which was given to them with a cauterizing pen, allegedly as part of their initiation. She said that at the time, the members were unaware that the brand was made up of Raniere’s initials, even though she alleged he later said “he wanted his DOS slaves to be branded with his monogram.”
Hajjar detailed Raniere’s alleged practice of keeping “hundreds” of similarly explicit photos of female DOS members, which he stored on a computer. “These photographs became instruments of coercion and control” within the organization, Hajjar said, claiming that DOS members would submit the photos as “collateral” as part of the initiation process. “Through it all, the defendant maintained a charade: even though he controlled the victims, it was about female empowerment,” she said.
In the defense’s opening statements, Raniere’s lead attorney, Marc Agnifolo, did not dispute the meat of the facts set forth by the prosecution, so much as he urged the jury to instead focus on the motivations behind Raniere’s actions. “I’m gonna defend his intentions to my last breath. I’m gonna defend his good faith to my last breath,” he said.
Agnifolo did not refute claims that Raniere had multiple relationships with women within the NXIVM organization. Jurors, he said, are “entitled to the opinion, ‘I think that’s morally wrong’… but that’s not a charge.” Agnifolo also did not deny the prosecution’s allegations that Raniere slept with all three of the daughters in the Mexican family, though he denied allegations that Raniere kept the girl captive against her will, saying she was free to go at any time; he also claimed that her punishment was not due to her sleeping with another man, but to her stealing money from the company while she worked in NXIVM’s administration office.
Agnifolo also addressed the prosecution’s claims that Raniere founded DOS as a way to exert power and control over female group members. Comparing the organization to the Freemasons, he said Raniere founded the group as a “sisterhood, a women’s organization.” He claimed that his client’s efforts to control their diet and their schedule were integral to the group’s self-empowerment agenda. “This is something these people signed up for,” Agnifolo said. “They are not there to go shopping and eat cake…they are there to make their lives better.”
Providing collateral as terms of admission to DOS, Agnifolo said, was not a form of extortion, but a way for members to take “personal responsibility” for their own actions and fulfill their personal goals, adding that the collateral was never released. He denied that DOS members were branded against their will, stating that “there are certain sports figures, members of fraternities” who also get brands. He also claimed that the women in DOS provided naked photos as a therapeutic tactic, as a way for them to embrace their “vulnerability” and recover from their “issues with their own bodies.” And he refuted allegations that DOS masters’ efforts to recruit other women were tantamount to sex trafficking: “These are best friends. They trust each other, they love each other,” he said. “They’re not looking to harm their best friends.”
Above all else, Agnifolo urged the jury to consider the perspectives of former NXIVM members who would be called by the state to testify against Raniere, including those who said they enjoyed their time in the organization. In emails and text messages that will be introduced as evidence, Agnifolo said, “a lot of these witnesses say NXIVM was wonderful and it helped them,” he said. He pointed to the fact that nearly 17,000 people took NXIVM courses as evidence that the self-help organization did more good than harm, saying that “all sorts of successful people” took the courses: “they took them because they got something out of them,” he said.
To bolster his point, he paraphrased a quote from the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, in which noble defense lawyer Atticus Finch tells his daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He urged the jury to exercise empathy and view the forthcoming testimony from Raniere’s perspective.
Toward the close of his opening remarks, Agnifolo made another historical allusion, to a speech by Winston Churchill following the World War II battle of Dunkirk. He quoted the former Prime Minister as saying that Britain was committed to defending “our island home.” “My island home is that man’s good faith. My island home is that man’s intentions,” Agnifolo said with a flourish, referring to Raniere. “And at the end of [the trial], the flag of freedom will be flying over my island home.”