Victim describes abuse by Keith Raniere, leader of NXIVM sex cult

Camila was expected to be available for sex at all hours. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Her voice trembling, the witness, identified only as Camila, recalled on Tuesday (Oct 27) the precise date that she was sexually abused by Keith Raniere, leader of a self-improvement company called NXIVM that prosecutors have described as a sex cult.

It was Sept 18, 2005, she said in her victim statement. She was 15, and he was 45. He insisted, she said, that they both recognise the date as their anniversary.

The relationship lasted 12 years, Camila said, with Raniere expecting her to be available for sex at all hours. He ordered her to weigh less than 45kg and directed her to get an abortion. She said she tried to kill herself once.

"I want to move on, but he has damaged me in so many ways," said Camila, who added that she was still having trouble figuring out the line between an abusive and a normal relationship.

Camila was the first of 15 victims who gave statements at Raniere's sentencing on Tuesday, where he was given 120 years, effectively life, in prison for sex trafficking and other crimes.

Raniere, 60, had promised a path to happiness, seducing successful and wealthy people including those who felt they lacked a higher purpose in life. His company offered self-empowerment workshops that were taken by Hollywood celebrities and business leaders.

But underneath the surface, Raniere was a puppet master controlling a cult-like criminal enterprise, prosecutors revealed at his trial last year. Some women in NXIVM were forced to have sex with Raniere and even branded with his initials in a secret ceremony.

Camila's mother, brother and a sister also spoke on Tuesday, telling the judge that Raniere destroyed their once close-knit family. The father and eldest daughter in the family - who had a child with Raniere - are still supporters of him. Raniere had a sexual relationship with all three sisters in the family.

Another victim, Ms India Oxenberg, told the court that Raniere tried to poison her relationship with her mother, actress Catherine Oxenberg, whose efforts to extricate her daughter from the organisation were part of a recent HBO documentary series about NXIVM called The Vow. Ms India Oxenberg said Raniere expected her to wait naked for him, like a piece of meat. She became so thin under his manipulation that she stopped getting her period, she said.

"You are a sexual predator, and you raped me," Ms Oxenberg said. "When you touched me, I recoiled."

Raniere's conviction last year capped a stunning downfall for a man who was once idolised by his followers but has since been exposed as a fraudster who exploited NXIVM's adherents for money, sex and power.

Former NXIVM members said Raniere and his inner circle preyed on insecure people who hoped that immersing themselves in expensive self-help classes would unlock the key to fulfilment. Even highly educated people became trapped inside Raniere's system, which he sold as the only way to overcome their fears, shaming anyone who tried to quit.

At Raniere's trial, prosecutors lifted the veil on a sordid side to NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um). A primary focus was a secretive women-only group inside the organisation.

During a videotaped initiation ceremony, the women lay naked on a table, saying, "Master, please brand me", as a cauterising pen seared their skin without anaesthesia.

Some of those women testified that they thought they were joining a women's empowerment group, only to discover that they were directed to have sex with Raniere.

The women, referred to as "slaves", needed permission to eat and were regularly required to hand over collateral like sexually explicit videos, which they constantly feared would be released. Prosecutors called it extortion.

On Tuesday, a former "slave" identified only as Nicole told the judge that the collateral was the only thing stopping her from spitting in Raniere's face during her time in the group, which she described as the most degrading experience of her life.

"I had never agreed to give up the right to my body," she said.

A jury convicted Raniere in June 2019 after a six-week trial. Prosecutors charged him with racketeering, applying a statute that had been used to dismantle the mafia families in New York. Besides sex trafficking, the jury found him guilty of crimes that included child pornography, forced labour, identity theft and obstruction of justice.

Prosecutors have said in court papers that Raniere deserves a life sentence, a punishment that is typically reserved for cases involving deaths or murders.

Raniere's lawyers have argued that nobody was "shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, slapped or even yelled at". This was not the typical organised crime case, and Raniere should get no more than 15 years in prison, they contended.

"No one has ever testified that he or she joined a drug gang or the Genovese Family or a cartel because they thought that by doing so, they could make the world better or bring a higher level of humanity to themselves and others," his lawyers wrote.

Prosecutors have said Raniere's unwillingness to accept responsibility and his contempt for his victims demonstrated that a life sentence was the only way to stop him from hurting more people.

To this day, Raniere has many supporters who believe he was wrongfully convicted and insist that every activity in NXIVM was among consenting adults. Dozens wrote letters to the court urging leniency.

Raniere himself has expressed no regrets, accusing Federal Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of corruption and demanding a new trial.

"He is not sorry for his conduct or his choices," his lawyers wrote in a court filing last month, adding that he "intends to fight this case with all of his might, confident that he will one day be vindicated".

In recent months, Raniere has spearheaded a campaign to overturn his conviction. He has directed his supporters to create a podcast about his case and set up a contest to find errors in his prosecution in exchange for a US$25,000 (S$34,000) cash prize, court filings show.

The company was funded in large part by an heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune, Ms Clare Bronfman, who spent more than US$100 million of her inheritance to sue Raniere's enemies and support the organisation. She even bought an island in Fiji that NXIVM's leaders used as a retreat.

One of NXIVM's top recruiters was Allison Mack, a former television actress known for her role on Smallville, whose glowing testimonials helped bring Hollywood celebrities into the organisation. The Dalai Lama once spoke at a NXIVM event.

Raniere was charged along with five women in his inner circle, including Bronfman and Mack. Each of them pleaded guilty ahead of his trial.

Bronfman was sentenced last month to more than six years in prison for her role in NXIVM. The others do not have sentencing dates yet.

The group's sales pitch claimed that Raniere was a genius with one of the highest IQ scores in the world.

In reality, prosecutors have said, he graduated with a 2.26 GPA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, after failing some of the maths and science classes that he later bragged about taking.

Many NXIVM members never had a sexual relationship with Raniere, but they did face pressure to pay for more and more classes, sometimes taking on debt to do so. One couple estimated they spent US$300,000 on NXIVM courses and were forced to declare bankruptcy, prosecutors have said.

Since Raniere co-founded NXIVM in 1998, around 18,000 people have taken its courses in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

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