New information about the inner workings of upstate New York’s so-called “sex cult” continue to be revealed as federal prosecutors pursue cases against its highest-ranking members.
An investigative journalist from the Times Union of Albany first exposed the group called NXIVM in a series of features in 2012 questioning its strange sex practices. However, authorities didn’t make any arrests until a 2017 exposé in The New York Times brought to light how members were allegedly enslaved, branded, and subjected to harsh corporal punishment.
In March 2018, NXIVM’s supposed leader, Keith Raniere—described by Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar last month as a “crime boss” who used “shame and humiliation as ways to bring people down”—was arrested and charged with sex trafficking after a standoff with Mexican federal agents in Puerto Vallarta. Several others, including an heiress, a Hollywood actress, and a former psychiatric nurse, were also charged in connection to NXIVM.
According to The New York Times, an indictment unsealed last year accused Raniere and his followers of taking part in NXIVM’s secret pyramid scheme involving identity theft, money laundering, sexual misconduct, and extortion, among other allegations. (In April, Variety announced that HBO is now working on a documentary series exploring the case.) Raniere has been charged with racketeering, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, and human trafficking. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and his defense attorney argues his various relationships with NXIVM members were all consensual. For the past six weeks, he has stood trial in a New York federal court for racketeering and sex trafficking.
Here are all of the harrowing, and at times disturbing, details that have emerged so far about the group’s sinister sex practices.
Actress Allison Mack was in a secret sect of the organization called a “master-slave” sex ring by prosecutors and which allegedly branded women.
According to court filings obtained by CBS, Raniere, who went by the codename “Vanguard,” created a sorority within NXIVM called “DOS,” an acronym for a Latin phrase meaning “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions.” The DOS had female “slaves” owned by “masters,” according to the filings. Smallville actress Allison Mack was allegedly second in command of the group, following Raniere.
Intimate details about DOS surfaced in a 2018 New York Times Magazine article. As a process of initiation, female members were allegedly branded near their pelvic bone with Raniere and Mack’s initials. Surgical masks were reportedly distributed to help with the scent of burning flesh.
According to the piece, an estimated 150 women joined DOS. During Raniere’s trial, his lawyers called the DOS “strong medicine” that was not for everyone, according to The New York Times, but that it was helpful to certain people.
On April 8, Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges related to NXIVM. As part of her guilty plea, she admitted to state law extortion and forced labor. In a statement, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard P. Donoghue said Mack recruited for NXIVM.
“Ms. Mack was one of the top members of a highly organized scheme which was designed to provide sex to [Raniere],” assistant US attorney Moira Penza said in court, according to The Guardian. “Under the guise of female empowerment, she starved women until they fit her co-defendant’s sexual feminine ideal.”
One member claimed Mack told her that having sex with Raniere would “get rid of” her sexual abuse trauma.
A 29-year-old NXIVM member identified only as “Jay” during testimony at Federal District Court in Brooklyn at Raniere’s trial, said she joined the organization under the guise that it was a women’s empowerment group. According to Buzzfeed, Jay said Mack told her that she needed to seduce and have sex with Raniere to, “help you get rid of all your sexual abuse trauma.” Then, she was to let him to take a nude photo of her.
Jay, who said she was sexually abused by her uncle when she was 12 years old, was upset that Mack tried to use her trauma against her. “Internally, I was just like, You fucking bitch,” she testified, according to Buzzfeed. Then, she realized she “needed to get the fuck out of there.”
Raniere allegedly groomed a 15-year-old girl who went on to become his first “slave.”
Raniere faces various charges related to his involvement with NXIVM, including conspiracy involving acts of child sexual exploitation and possession of child pornography. Federal prosecutors claimed to have evidence that Raniere engaged in a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl who went on to become his first slave. She allegedly sent images to him, “constituting child pornography.”
His lawyers tried to have the evidence barred from the trial, but a judge ruled that, “the images are ‘evidence regarding the formation and structure of DOS,’ which makes them evidence of Subject Offenses (sex trafficking, forced labor, and extortion) occurring in 2015 or later,” according to The New York Post.
According to the Albany Times Union, jurors at Raniere’s trial were shown sexually explicit images of the 15-year-old girl he allegedly had a relationship with.
The female sex “slaves” allegedly arranged themselves naked in front of Raniere while he lectured them.
According to one senior member, Lauren Salzman, at the start of NXIVM meetings, the women described as “slaves” offered a tribute to Raniere. During her testimony at Raniere’s trial, she reportedly said they stripped naked and sat on the floor in front of him, while he spoke to them about philosophy. If he couldn’t make a meeting, they took a group photo and sent it to him.
According to The New York Times, Raniere’s lawyers argued that people who claim they were coerced by NXIVM were actually making “adult choices.”
One member was kept isolated in a bedroom for two years. She claims that Raniere had sex with her and both of her sisters—and asked them all to get abortions.
“I knowingly and intentionally harbored Jane Doe 4, a woman whose identity is known to me, in a room in the home in the Northern District of New York,” Lauren Salzman told a judge, according to court transcripts obtained by The New York Post. The woman was reportedly kept in the home from March 2010 until April 2012 and Salzman threatened to deport her back to Mexico if “she did not complete labor requested by [her] and others,” the outlet reports. On April 2, she pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy. The woman, identified only as “Daniela,” testified in the trial against Raniere that he groomed her while she was still underage, and they had sex shortly after her 18th birthday.
Daniela claims Raniere also had sex with both of her sisters, according to CNN. All three sisters reportedly got pregnant at separate times, and had abortions at the suggestion of Raniere. When Daniela told Raniere that she was interested in another man, he “assigned” Salzman to help her “learn from her mistakes,” in solitary confinement, Salzman testified, according to The Daily Beast.
“Of all the things that I did in this case and all the crimes that I admitted to, this was the worst thing I did,” she reportedly said. “What can I say? I kept her in a room for two years and I didn’t go visit her. And when I did, I wasn’t even kind.”
NXIVM leaders kept tabs on members by monitoring their usernames and passwords.
Nancy Salzman was NXIVM’s co-founder and the first person in connection to the group to plead guilty. In court on March 13, she confessed to a single charge of racketeering conspiracy. She admitted to hacking the emails of members suspected to be moles. The former psychiatric nurse was known as “Prefect” in the group.
She also confessed to “having others destroy video tapes” memorializing Raniere’s teachings.
“I want you to know I am pleading guilty because I am, in fact, guilty,” she said at court. “I accept that some of the things I did were not just wrong, but sometimes criminal.”
“I still believe that some of what we did was good,” she added. Her daughter is Lauren Salzman.
An heiress to the Seagram fortune harbored an undocumented immigrant for financial gain, and stole a dead woman’s financial information.
Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman, a loyal NXIVM follower since the early 2000s, used her wealth to bankroll the group’s activities and acted as its legal enforcer. In April, she pleaded guilty to “conspiring to conceal and harbor an undocumented immigrant for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification,” according to The New York Times. Bronfman admitted to the crimes, and, per her plea agreement, forfeited $6 million. The plea meant she avoided going to trial with Raniere. “I am truly remorseful,” she reportedly said. “I endeavored to do good in the world and help people. However, I have made mistakes.”