New York – Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn want longtime NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell to serve six months to a year behind bars, saying the "blind loyalty" she showed to cult leader Keith Raniere facilitated the abuse of his victims.
One of the most well-known, stomach-turning details of the NXIVM saga is undoubtedly the branding ceremonies performed on members of DOS, the cult’s inner circle. By putting up collateral and bearing the initials of leader Keith Raniere on their skin, these women secretly took a vow of obedience to their master.
In a recommendation to Senior U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, prosecutors said the former Halfmoon woman and onetime Alaska resident was not the most culpable of the six defendants convicted in the successful 2018 case against the leaders of NXIVM, a purported personal development company based in Colonie.
“But her willingness to obey Raniere’s directives without question," Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar told the judge, "caused real and significant harm to others."
Garaufis is scheduled to sentence Russell, 63, on Oct. 6. It will be the final sentencing in the more than 3-year-old case involving the shadowy organization that spread from the Capital Region to Los Angeles, Mexico, Canada and across the Atlantic. Jurors convicted Raniere, the NXIVM leader known as "Vanguard," of all charges, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy and racketeering charges, in 2019. Now 61, the former Halfmoon man is serving a 120-year sentence in an Arizona prison.
In Hajjar's memo to the judge, the prosecutor painted Russell as a devoted acolyte all too ready to please Raniere, the notorious self-help guru and her onetime lover.
"She was willing to undertake nearly any task assigned to her, from transporting a teenager across the Canadian border with a false
identification card to defrauding United States immigration authorities by signing and presenting false documents in support of a visa application," Hajjar told Garaufis.
In April 2019, just weeks before Raniere's trial, Russell pleaded guilty to a single count of visa fraud. Russell admitted that in February 2014 she signed a fake letter at the U.S. Consulate in Mexico on behalf of NXIVM member Loreta Garza, also known as Loreta Garza Davila.
The letter claimed NXIVM hired Garza as a management consultant when, in reality, Garza was hired to manage Rainbow Cultural Gardens (RCG), a chain of schools, built on Raniere's philosophies, that claimed to immerse children in nine languages. Garza used her "consultant" dollars to pay RCG employees, who did not report their income. RCG also did not pay state taxes, Hajjar said.
Raniere recruited Garza into his secret clan, Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), in which "slaves" took lifetime vows of obedience to "masters." Raniere, the only male in DOS, commanded it through eight "first line" slaves, which included Garza. DOS members unwittingly handed over blackmail material called "collateral" — such as naked photos — before joining what they thought was a women's empowerment sorority. Once in DOS, Raniere demanded they be subjected to sleep deprivation, eat only a few hundred calories a day and wear chains around their necks to symbolize collars. Raniere instructed many DOS members to be branded on their pelvic areas with a symbol later revealed to be Raniere's initials. Others were given assignments to "seduce" him.
Hajjar reminded the judge that in August 2011 — at the direction of Raniere — Russell leased a home on Victory Way in the Knox Woods townhouse complex in Halfmoon. Using the name "Kathy O'Sullivan," Russell paid a landlord cash in a paper bag at a local Starbucks coffee shop. Russell falsely told the landlord she "received a lot of money after her husband died," Hajjar noted.
Raniere used the property for an abusive sexual relationship with a Mexican woman whom he had been sexually exploiting since she was 15, stated Hajjar.
"Although (Russell) may have been unaware of the relationship, her actions — and blind loyalty to Raniere — facilitated the abuse of Raniere’s victims," the prosecutor said.
And Hajjar told the judge of additional deeds by Russell involving the older sister and brother of the Mexican woman.
In 2004, at the Canadian border, Russell provided that woman's older sister with a fake sheriff's identification card with the name "Lisa Chenoa." Russell drove the older sister to Halfmoon — and later reminded her that she had helped smuggle her into the country. Raniere then invited the older sister to engage in sexual activity with Russell, the prosecutor told the judge.
The older sister testified at Raniere's trial that she felt she "owed" Russell. She also testified she was isolated in a room in her family's Wilton Court townhouse in Knox Woods for nearly two years as punishment for kissing a man other than Raniere.
The prosecutor said Russell also distracted an accountant, James Loperfido, who worked for NXIVM-associate-turned-foe Joseph O'Hara, while the older sister placed keylogging software on Loperfido's computer to record his every keystroke.
In 2015, Hajjar added, Russell took part in a scheme to make it appear that the brother of the Mexican sisters was employed by a company in Clifton Park called Sagitta, supposedly affiliated with his father's rock-drilling business in Mexico. In reality, the brother was working for a film production company, Moving Pixels, owned by NXIVM operations director Clare Bronfman and was paying rent to NXIVM's president, Nancy Salzman. Russell, Bronfman and Salzman arranged fake invoices and pay stubs, Hajjar said.
Hajjar said a presentencing investigation report conducted by a federal probation officer did not indicate whether Russell's support for Raniere continues. Hajjar said prosecutors believe Russell's "efforts at rehabilitation and expressions of remorse, if any, warrant significant consideration" by the judge at the sentencing.
Russell's defense attorney is expected to file a sentencing recommendation as well.
Nancy Salzman, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, received three-and-a-half years in prison on Sept. 8. Her daughter, ex-NXIVM official and former first-line DOS member Lauren Salzman, the government's star witness, received five years probation. Actress Allison Mack, a former first-line DOS member who provided cooperation for the government, received three years in prison; Bronfman, the Seagrams heiress, received six years and nine months in prison for conspiring to harbor or conceal illegal immigrants for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification.