New York – A federal judge in Brooklyn spared longtime NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell prison time when he sentenced her to 24 months of probation and 200 hours of community service for visa fraud Wednesday, marking the final sentencing in the more than three-year case against cult leader Keith Raniere and five disciples of his notorious Capital Region-based personal growth organization.
The 63-year-old Russell faced up to a year in prison from Senior U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis under her 2019 guilty plea for crimes that included her presenting a fake letter for a visa application at the U.S. Consulate in Mexico on behalf of NXIVM member Loreta Garza in February 2014.
“This sentencing is the final event in an almost four-year-old litigation that has demonstrated to everyone the great harm that can be done to so many by so few,” Garaufis said before imposing the sentence.
The judge said he believed Russell’s rehabilitation would be hindered by jail time and interfere with her so far successful efforts to get on with her life.
“I don’t think there is anyone associated with this litigation who doesn’t feel deeply about the human misery that was created by Keith Raniere over a 20-year period.”
The judge told Russell that emails provided by her defense team made it clear that Raniere, NXIVM president Nancy Salzman and Clare Bronfman, the wealthy Seagrams heiress and NXIVM operations director, took advantage of Russell’s weaknesses to manipulate her.
“This is a classic case study as to how a cult environment injures people even as they engage in the improper activities of the cult,” the judge said.
Russell appeared in court two days after her attorney, Justine Harris, filed a sentencing recommendation with the judge asking for probation and no jail time. Harris told the judge her client took NXIVM classes in Alaska starting in 2001. A year later, Russell left behind her a 12-year-old son to follow Raniere as a NXIVM bookkeeper in the Capital Region, where she became his sexual partner and would eventually earn his wrath.
Harris said Russell needed the permission of Raniere on how much to weigh, to dance or even own a cat. She said Raniere -- who was sleeping with more than 20 women in NXIVM -- stopped having sex with Russell in 2008 but still demanded Russell remain faithful to him. If Russell dared commit an "ethical breach" in NXIVM, she would face punishments. As Russell’s life in NXIVM continued, she was underpaid and overworked, demoted and fired and unable to quit a job and life that her son would later liken to indentured servitude, the lawyer said.
Russell now rejects Raniere, who was convicted at trial of all charges in 2019, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy and racketeering charges that included underlying acts of extortion, possessing child pornography and identity fraud. He is serving a 120-year federal prison sentence in Arizona.
“I denounce NXIVM and I denounce Keith Raniere,” Russell, wearing a dark green blazer, told the judge, as she read from her letter to the court Wednesday, referring to Raniere as a “monster.”
Russell's visa fraud made it appear that Garza, also known as Loreta Garza Davila, was coming to the U.S. to work as a management consultant, when in reality she was to manage Rainbow Cultural Gardens (RCG), a chain of Raniere-influenced schools that claimed to immerse children in nine languages.
Garza later became one of eight "first-line masters" in Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), Raniere's secret "master/slave" club. Raniere manipulated sleep-deprived and calorie-starved women to hand over blackmail material as a prerequisite for making a lifelong commitment to a supposed women-only empowerment sorority. In reality, DOS was controlled by a man - Raniere -- who, as the ultimate "grand master" of the clan, directed "assignments" requiring women in DOS to sexually seduce him. Other women were branded on their pelvic areas with a symbol that turned out to be his initials.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar had told the judge in a sentencing recommendation that while Russell was not the most culpable of the six NXIVM defendants charged in 2018, Russell's "blind loyalty" to Raniere facilitated the abuse of his victims. They included members of Mexican family that relocated to the Knox Woods townhouse complex in Halfmoon for NXIVM, prosecutors said.
Raniere had sex with the family's youngest daughter beginning when she was 15 and he was 45. The NXIVM leader and youngest daughter continued to have an abusive sexual relationship for several years, often meeting in an apartment on Victory Way in Knox Woods that Russell leased in cash under a false name at the direction of Raniere.
At Raniere's demand, Russell provided the Mexican family's middle sister with a fake sheriff's identification card and fake name and drove her across the Canadian border to Knox Woods. Raniere later asked the middle sister, who believed she "owed" Russell. to engage in sexual activity with Russell. The middle sister would later break free from NXIVM and testify against Raniere, but not before he demanded she be confined to a room in her family's Wilton Court townhouse or nearly years -- all because she kissed another man.
The older sister testified at Raniere's trial that she felt she "owed" Russell. She also testified about her confinement to a room in her family's Wilton Court townhouse in Knox Woods for nearly two years as punishment for a breach. She kissed a man other than Raniere.
And Russell partook in a scheme to make it look like the son in the Mexican family was employed by a company in Clifton Park affiliated with his father's rock-drilling business in Mexico. But the brother was really working for a film production company, Moving Pixels, owned by NXIVM operations director Clare Bronfman and he paid rent to NXIVM's president, Nancy Salzman. Russell, Bronfman and Salzman arranged fake invoices and pay stubs, the prosecutor said.
Nancy Salzman, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. Her daughter, Lauren Salzman, a former NXIVM executive and first-line DOS member whose testimony for prosecutors laid bare Raniere's cruelty and manipulation, received five years probation. Allison Mack, a former high-ranking NXIVM member and former first-line DOS member who also cooperation for prosecutors, is serving three years in prison; Bronfman, the Seagrams heiress widely viewed as the financial muscle behind NXIVM and its Executive Success Programs (ESP), was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison for conspiring to harbor or conceal illegal immigrants for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification.