On Monday afternoon, the day before Keith Raniere was set to be sentenced, Make Justice Blind, an assortment of ardent NXIVM devotees, gathered to hold a press conference in front of the Brooklyn federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn. The group, including Battlestar Galactica‘s Nicki Clyne, set out to present what they referred to as “smoking gun” evidence that would supposedly justify a call for a delay in sentencing for Keith Raniere, the leader of the alleged sex cult NXIVM who has been incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Center since his 2018 arrest. “We the people prosecute the prosecutors. We the people investigate the investigators and judge the judges,” NXIVM follower and Raniere diehard Edoardo Asonsolo said during the press conference.
The following day, however, only one person had the power to determine Raniere’s fate: Judge Nicholas Garaufis, who sentenced Raniere to 120 cumulative years in prison. Garaufis issued his sentence in front of a packed court that required six overflow rooms to fit all media and spectators due to Covid-19 social distancing guidelines, all of whom listened intently to 15 consecutive victim impact statements, each more devastating than the last.
“In every aspect of his conduct, Mr. Raniere has acted like the law does not apply to him,” Garaufis said before sentencing Raniere. “Unfortunately for him, it does.”
In the spring of 2019, Raniere was found guilty of all seven criminal charges against him, including sex trafficking, racketeering, wire fraud conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. Numerous ex-followers testified against him at his trial, including former number-two man and filmmaker Mark Vicente (who is prominently featured in the HBO series The Vow, whose first season concluded last week), and Lauren Salzman, the daughter of NXIVM cofounder Nancy Salzman and Raniere’s former lover.
For decades, Raniere was the head and cofounder of NXIVM, a multi-level organization based in Albany that has been described as a melange of different philosophical and self-help methods, including Scientology and objectivism. NXIVM attracted numerous high-profile adherents, including Smallville‘s Allison Mack, the daughter of Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, and Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman. (Bronfman was recently sentenced to six years and nine months in prison after pleading guilty to charges related to identity theft and immigration fraud.)
Within NXIVM, Raniere is accused of running an all-female organization called DOS consisting of “masters,” “slaves,” and Raniere as the “grandmaster” overseeing all of them. Former DOS slaves including Salzman and Nicole, a young women who testified she was forced to be blindfolded and receive oral sex as part of her initiation into DOS, testified that “slaves” within DOS be branded with his initials, as well as perform grueling physical labors and stick to restrictive 500-calorie diets. Slaves were also required to submit “collateral,” including embarrassing nude and sexually explicit photos and other compromising materials.
“Through it all, the defendant maintained a charade: even though he controlled the victims, it was about female empowerment,” U.S. Assistant District Attorney Tanya Hajjar said of DOS during opening arguments. She referred to Raniere as a “con man” who targeted vulnerable women.
Raniere has maintained his innocence, with his lawyers writing in a court filing last month that “he is not sorry for his conduct or his choices,” and that he “intends to fight this case with all of his might, confident that he will one day be vindicated.”
In a statement before court prior to sentencing, Raniere reiterated this statement. “I do believe strongly I am innocent of all the charges, but it is also true I see all this pain,” he said in front of the court, adding that this also applied to people “I believe did not tell the truth.”
Many former NXIVM followers gave victims’ statements against Raniere, including Sarah Edmondson, a former DOS slave who appears in HBO’s The Vow; Kristin Keeffe, the mother of Raniere’s child and a former NXIVM inner circle member; and Camila, a former DOS member who had a sexual relationship with Raniere when she was 15.
“You are not a leader, a mentor, or a guru,” Edmondson said during her victim’s statement, which was videotaped and played for the court. “You are a liar, a parasite, and a grifter.”
During her victims’ impact statement, Camila spoke publicly for the first time and at length about the traumatic effect Raniere had had on her life after they first met when she was 13, beginning a sexual relationship when she turned 15. “He used my innocence to do whatever he wanted with me, not just sexually but psychologically,” Camila said before detailing how Raniere cut her off from her family, forced her to take naked pictures and to abort his child, and gave her HPV, leading her to develop cervical dysplasia. “He hid his abuse behind ideas and concepts of nobility, but there is nothing noble about abusing a child,” she said. (In a perverse twist, Judge Garaufis later revealed that Camila’s father Hector wrote one of more than 50 letters in Raniere’s defense: “I am frankly baffled as to why anyone thought this letter would help Mr. Raniere,” he said.)
Another one of Raniere’s victims, India Oxenberg, whose mother Catherine Oxenberg is depicted in The Vow, also testified at the sentencing, recounting in grisly detail how Raniere put her on a restrictive diet and forced her to lose 20 pounds, leading to her losing her period. “You wanted me to look like I was 12 years old; hungry, weak and easily manipulated,” she says. She also recounted how he forced her to lie naked in wait for one of their sexual encounters, then dreamily run his fingers all over his branded initials on her groin. She referred to the “unimaginable shame” of being known in the media as “a piece of meat, a branded, brainwashed, sex slave.”
Numerous victims made reference to Make Justice Blind and current Raniere devotees like Clyne, who sat placidly during the proceedings, implacable beneath her court-mandated surgical mask. Over the past few months, so-called social justice “movements” like We Are As One, spearheaded by Clyne, have protested outside the Metropolitan Correctional Facility, calling for Raniere’s release and coopting #BlackLivesMatter hashtags. “Who knows what you will create next using them as a weapon of destruction,” testified former NXIVM member Susan Dones, pleading for Judge Garaufis to impose the maximum sentence and sever contact between Raniere and his followers while he is in prison. Ivy Navares, a former NXIVM member and sexual partner of Raniere’s, reiterated this, angrily calling out Raniere for “direct[ing] your flying monkeys to create an insult to legitimate social movements.”
Raniere’s followers, however, could do nothing but watch helplessly while a parade of Raniere’s victims, most of whom were female, unleashed the torment he had spent years inflicting on them on the witness stand. In her statement, Raniere’s ex-girlfriend Toni Natalie, one of the earliest NXIVM whistleblowers, referred sardonically to Raniere’s “obsession with controlling and dominating women.” “Well, look around, Keith,” she said, gesturing around the courtroom. “It’s women who brought you down.”
Garaufis had asked the judge to sentence Raniere to no more than 15 years in prison, while also laying the groundwork for a potential appeal. According to court filings, Raniere is trying to create a podcast about his case and has set up a contest to find errors in his prosecution in exchange for a $25,000 cash prize.
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