New York — Longtime cult expert and NXIVM foe Rick Ross told jurors Wednesday he quickly identified the secretive self-help organization as a "destructive program" trying to create clones of spiritual leader Keith Raniere.
The 58-year-old Raniere bristled in his maroon sweater as Ross took the stand in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, where the man known as "Vanguard" faces charges of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor and conspiracy.
Ross, 66, who heads the Cult Education Institute and who was subjected to a 14-year legal battle with NXIVM that ended in 2017, said he first encountered NXIVM in 2002. A couple, Morris and Rochelle Sutton of New Jersey, hired him to extract their adult children from the group using an intervention. It was among 500 interventions Ross said he has done since 1982.
"It became clear to me that this was a personality-driven group defined by its leader — eerily reminiscent to Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard," Ross testified, citing the controversial church closely associated with actor Tom Cruise.
Ross said he met with the couple and their son, Michael, in Boca Raton, Fla., and tried to impress upon Michael Sutton that NXIVM, also known as Executive Success Programs, was engaged in "large group awareness training" or LGAT similar to another self-help organization, Landmark Education, that had sued him.
(After initial publication of this story, Landmark issued a lengthy statement asserting that it is not an LGAT program, and rejecting any comparison between its operations and those of Executive Success Programs and NXIVM. Landmark's federal suit against Ross, filed in New Jersey in 2004, was withdrawn the following year.)
"My feeling was Executive Success Programs was a destructive program and it was hurting people and it had the potential to hurt more people," Ross testified. "It became obvious to me how much power the group had over him."
Ross said he told Michael Sutton NXIVM's guidelines were less about a self-help group and more about a "cult of personality" — Raniere.
"I said, 'Is that really what you want in your life?'" Ross recalled telling the man. "I said, 'It sounds like what they're selling is you have to think like, act like and be like Keith Raniere.'"
As he tried to convince the man to withdraw from NXIVM, Ross testified, Michael Sutton was on the phone with NXIVM President Nancy Salzman. She wanted other experts to offer opinions and for years fought efforts to cast the organization as cult-like.
Ross said two experts — mental health doctors John Hochman and Paul Martin — later wrote reports highly critical of NXIVM. Michael Sutton did not want to read the reports, Ross said.
In their reports, the doctors took issue with NXIVM literature that redefined meanings of the words "good" and "bad."
Raniere's 12-point mission statement for NXIVM also featured the line, "There are no ultimate victims." Martin questioned the statement in his report, noting the unquestioned victim status of battered spouses and drunk driving crashes, among others.
"What does this mean?" he wrote.
The reports later became part of the lawsuit NXIVM filed against Ross, who had published the findings on his website. He also published information from Sutton's sister, Stephanie Franco, who left NXIVM.
In 2015, the Times Union reported that Kristin Keeffe, a former legal liaison for NXIVM, had alleged the corporation conducted secret financial research on federal judges involved in the group's legal battles. The targets included U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh and U.S. Magistrate Mark Falk, both of whom presided over a lawsuit NXIVM filed against Ross in 2006.
Ross prevailed in the years-long litigation, in which NXIVM had accused him of publishing — without authorization — protected materials from its training programs. Ross accused the corporation of hiring a New York investigative and security firm, Interfor, to conduct background checks on Ross, including obtaining details of his banking records and personal relationships.
A nine-page report attributed to Interfor, whose president, Juval Aviv, is a former Israeli intelligence officer, was filed in the case and included Ross's Social Security number, date of birth, medical and psychological history and details from his personal checking account and telephone records.
Salzman, one of Raniere's five co-defendants who all have pleaded guilty in the case, admitted conspiring to alter a videotape of NXIVM instructional sessions that had been ordered turned over as evidence in their lawsuit with Ross.
During cross-examination, Raniere attorney Marc Agnifilo asked Ross about $12,500 in donations he received from the late Seagram's liquor tycoon Edgar Bronfman, who became a NXIVM critic and once referred to it as a "cult" in a 2003 Forbes magazine interview.
His daughters, Clare and Sara Bronfman, were devoted members of NXIVM and their financial backers. Clare Bronfman was a co-defendant of Raniere before she pleaded guilty in April.
Ross only remembered one $5,000 check from their father, prompting Agnifilo to remind him of additional checks from Edgar Bronfman for $5,000 and $2,500.
Agnifilo asked Ross if he or the doctors ever took a NXIVM class or simply relied on the NXIVM literature they reviewed -- and notes written by Franco.
"It is a wealth of material," Ross responded.
At one point, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar showed Ross a file with his name on it. A prior law enforcement witness testified Nancy Salzman kept the file in the basement of her Oregon Trail home in Halfmoon along with files of other "enemies" of NXIVM.
Ross said he had never before seen the file.
Prosecutors later called an FBI examiner, Brian Booth, who testified about naked photos of women formerly linked to Raniere that were found in a computer at 8 Hale Drive, the defendant's so-called "executive library" in the Knox Woods complex in Halfmoon. The witness is expected to testify Thursday about child pornographic images of a 15-year-old girl from Mexico - who allegedly had sex with Raniere -- taken in 2005.
An FBI agent who investigated the case is expected to be the final prosecution witness. The government is expected to rest its case Thursday.
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