ALBANY — NXIVM leader Keith Raniere’s uncanny ability to avoid criminal prosecution in the Capital Region over two decades is now an issue in the race for Saratoga County district attorney.
Joined by actress Catherine Oxenberg, whose fierce battle to free her daughter from Raniere’s clutches helped topple the Saratoga County-based cult leader in 2019, Democratic candidate Michael Phillips on Thursday questioned why it was federal prosecutors in Brooklyn who took down the convicted sex trafficker known as “Vanguard.”
Phillips blamed his opponent, District Attorney Karen Heggen, a Republican who was elected in 2014 and has worked in the DA's office since July 1993.
"Where were the local prosecutors? What was going on? These people were an open secret in Saratoga County," Phillips said in a phone interview. "The Saratoga County district attorney needs to be held accountable for her lack of action on this."
Oxenberg asked, "How come nobody in the government was ever held accountable? I know some of the names in the police department. I know some of the names in the DA's office. I know — not all, but some — and I'm like, 'What's the deal with that?' They're still in office."
She told the Times Union she was not pointing fingers only at Heggen: She said officials on both sides of the political aisle failed to act.
"I'm standing with someone like Mike Phillips, who I believe has a different approach to his job, and he is willing to prosecute without fear or favor," she said. "And I haven't seen evidence of that up here at all. And I think we need more people in government who are willing to put themselves on the line to represent those who don't have the voice ... (similar to) all the women who were abused in NXIVM."
It is not the first time NXIVM has become part of a Capital Region district attorney race. In 2012, attorney Lee Kindlon criticized his Democratic primary opponent, incumbent David Soares, for allowing a NXIVM member to work in his office for several weeks to build a computer-hacking case against a whistleblower. That case was dismissed.
On Thursday, Oxenberg and Phillips highlighted the remarks of Senior U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis who, at the July 2021 sentencing of high-ranking NXIVM defector Lauren Salzman, said it was "not comprehensible to this court" why Raniere was not stopped years earlier.
“How in the world this went on for so many years in Albany, New York, and its environs will forever be a sad mystery to this court,” the judge said, mentioning that state and federal authorities in this region were aware of "illegality and abuses."
Heggen told the Times Union, "This was bigger than Saratoga County. This didn't just occur in Saratoga County. This just didn't occur in the Northern District. This just didn't occur in New York state. It occurred, not just through the United States, but internationally."
Heggen said nothing was brought to her office about the crimes that Raniere was later convicted of committing. NXIVM and its Executive Success Programs (ESP) operation were based in Colonie. More than two dozen members of Raniere's inner circle lived in and around the Knox Woods townhouse complex in Halfmoon.
NXIVM defector Mark Vicente testified at Raniere's trial that in 2009 he tried to get the Saratoga County's DA's office to act. He said he sent a letter to Heggen's predecessor, Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III, alleging that Barbara Bouchey, who defected NXIVM that year, had "flagrantly defamed" Raniere and NXIVM president Nancy Salzman and essentially accused Bouchey of extortion. Bouchey said the false accusations came within 18 hours after she and eight other members left NXIVM after learning Raniere was sleeping with several women on its executive board.
No charges were filed.
Phillips divulged that in February 2004, he was invited to a party in Saratoga Springs that he now knows was a NXIVM-related event.
"About two minutes in, I just said to myself, 'I don't know what these people are selling but it's weird. I'm leaving,'" Phillips told the Times Union. "I made the connection years later when I saw the same faces that were at that gathering in (stories published by) the Times Union."
The Times Union had since 2003 been reporting on NXIVM and ESP, including the 2012 series "Secrets of NXIVM" that reported extensively on allegations of Raniere's involvement with underage girls.
Phillips said he contacted Oxenberg a few months ago about the fact that NXIVM operated in Saratoga County for more than 15 years before federal prosecutors in Brooklyn charged Raniere in March 2018. Authorities arrested him in the Mexican fishing village of Chacala, where he had fled in the months after the New York Times, following initial coverage by blogger Frank Parlato, exposed Raniere's private "master/slave" club in which women were physically branded on their pelvic areas.
In June 2019, a federal jury in Brooklyn's Eastern District of New York convicted Raniere of all charges, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy and racketeering charges that included underlying acts of possessing child pornography, extortion and identity theft. He is serving 120 years in an Arizona prison. The sex trafficking charges were tied to Raniere's command of a secret group, Dominus Obsequious Sororium, known as DOS, in which female "slaves" pledged lifetime vows of obedience to "masters."
Raniere launched DOS in 2015, ordering female "slaves" to live on 500-calorie daily diet, wear chains around their necks to symbolize collars, respond to sleep-draining "readiness" drills at all hours and, in many cases, to sexually "seduce" Raniere, the grand master of DOS.
Catherine Oxenberg's daughter, India Oxenberg, who broke away from DOS and provided prosecutors with critical evidence, became the focus of the 2020 documentary series "Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult" on the Starz network. Her mother, who played Amanda Carrington on the 1980s hit show "Dynasty," wrote "Captive: A Mother's Crusade To Save Her Daughter From a Terrifying Cult," which inspired a TV movie.
The federal prosecution of NXIVM will be back on screens later this month, when the second season of HBO's "The Vow" premieres.
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