New York — Three years ago this month, a federal jury in Brooklyn began to hear about the inner world of NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, the Capital Region-based human potential guru now known as a cult leader.
For nearly two months, jurors listened as witnesses described a secret club where blackmailed "slaves" took lifetime vows of obedience to "masters." They saw evidence that Raniere started having sex with one future "slave" since she was 15, exploited her for child pornography and referred to himself as her "husband." They saw that woman's older sister testify how Raniere also groomed her for sex, then banished her to a room in her family's Halfmoon townhouse for nearly two years because she kissed another man.
And then, after deliberating less than five hours, the jury convicted Raniere on all charges, including sex-trafficking, forced labor conspiracy and racketeering and wire fraud crimes. Raniere, 61, known in his ranks as "Vanguard," is serving a 120-year sentence in a Tucson, Arizona federal prison.
But his legal saga is not over yet.
On Tuesday afternoon, the legal strength of Raniere's convictions and the sentence of a co-defendant, Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman, will be tested at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan. Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi and Circuit Judges Jose A. Cabranes and Richard J. Sullivan will listen to the arguments. Prosecutors get 10 minutes. Attorneys for Raniere and Bronfman will get five minutes apiece.
Nothing in the NXIVM case has ever seemed typical, and Raniere's appeal is no different.
In an 11th-hour failed bid last Thursday, Raniere attorney Joseph Tully asked the Second Circuit to delay the arguments. Tully said he uncovered new evidence showing FBI agents altered and destroyed evidence to support the prosecution's child pornography charges against Raniere. Agents discovered the images on March 27, 2018 inside Raniere's "executive library" on Hale Drive in the Knox Woods townhouse complex in Halfmoon, where dozens of NXIVM members lived.
Tully included statements from three forensic experts: retired FBI agent J. Richard Kiper, attorney Steven Marc Abrams and Wayne B. Norris, a California-based expert witness in computer forensics.
Prosecutors called Tully's claims frivolous. They noted that the former 15-year-old victim appeared at Raniere's sentencing. Now in her 30s, the Mexico resident said Raniere filmed the child pornographic images of her.
On Friday, the court denied Tully's request.
As for the defense's arguments for appeal, Tully contends that at trial Senior U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis prejudiced Raniere in defining a "commercial sex act" for jurors. He said the judge wrongly told jurors that a "thing of value" need not involve a financial component but any act performed with another person for sexual gratification. Tully said it "blatantly ignored" a federal trafficking law intended to address sexual exploitation for economic profit, was overly broad and ignored a legally required quid pro quo between the sex act and anything received by anyone.
In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar told the court: "Raniere did not preserve the challenges to the definition of a commercial sex act that he raises on appeal and his arguments are, in any event, frivolous. Second, the government adduced more than sufficient evidence to support Raniere’s convictions, including proof of commercial sex and of force, fraud and coercion."
Meanwhile Bronfman, NXIVM's former operations director and Raniere's longtime benefactor, pleaded guilty in April 2019 to conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal immigrants for financial gain and fraudulent use of identification. Bronfman, 43, formerly of Clifton Park and Manhattan, is serving six years and nine months in prison in Philadelphia.
Bronfman attorneys Ronald Sullivan and Daniel R. Koffman argued Bronfman is "collateral damage" to the charges at the heart of Raniere's sex-trafficking convictions, which targeted Raniere's secret leadership of Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), a "master/slave" club.
Members of DOS pitched it to recruits as a women's empowerment sorority, never mentioning Raniere, a man, secretly led it. To join, recruits supplied "collateral" -- such as naked photos or devastatingly embarrassing claims about themselves or close family members -- that could be disclosed if they ever turned on DOS. Once a member, the women learned they were "slaves" to "masters." Eight "first-line masters" answering only to Raniere directed his commands to dozens of lower-ranking "slaves" and, in turn, those women's "slaves." Raniere ordered the women be sleep-deprived, starved on low-calorie diets and often given assignments to "seduce" him.
A woman using a cauterizing pen branded many DOS members on their groin areas with a symbol they later learned was Raniere's initials. A DOS "sorority house" in Halfmoon, which included sex toys and a cage, was purchased.
At Bronfman's sentencing in September 2020, Garaufis said Bronfman was not in DOS, but noted he received letters from DOS members who asked for their collateral back. He said Bronfman refused to comply and worked with Raniere to try to threaten them into silence. Sarah Edmondson, a former NXIVM leader in Vancouver who belonged to DOS, told the judge that Bronfman tried to get her arrested on bogus charges after Edmondson went public with her story to the New York Times in 2017.
Raniere's other co-defendants included former NXIVM president Nancy Salzman, 67, daughter Lauren Salzman, former television actress Allison Mack, 39. and bookkeeper Kathy Russell, 64, all from Halfmoon. Lauren Salzman, 45, who received five years probation, and Mack, a three-year sentence, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and cooperated with prosecutors. Nancy Salzman, known as the "Prefect" in NXIVM, is serving a three-and-a-half year sentence for racketeering conspiracy. Russell received two years probation for visa fraud.
"The disparities between Bronfman’s sentence and those of her codefendants are warranted," Hajjar argued in court papers.