Former self-help guru Keith Raniere was a “predator” who preyed on young women, including a 15-year-old girl, and turned them into sex slaves, a federal prosecutor told a jury at the start of his trial on Tuesday (local time).
- Pronounced “Nexium”, the secretive group recruited “slaves” and blackmailed them
- Mr Raniere has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking and child pornography
- Smallville actress and liquor heiress pleaded guilty to crimes connected to the cult
“The defendant took advantage of them emotionally and sexually,” assistant US Attorney Tanya Hajjar said.
“He sold himself as the smartest, most ethical person in the world … He compared himself to Einstein and to Gandhi.”
Mr Raniere, 58, is accused of recruiting women to join his alleged cult, NXIVM(pronounced “nexium”), and then exercising total control over them — forcing them to have sex with him, restricting their diets and branding them with his initials.
“No-one could challenge his authority,” Ms Hajjar told jurors.
Mr Raniere, who sat in the court room with his once-long hair cut short, has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking, child pornography and other crimes.
Mr Raniere’s defence lawyer Marc Agnifilo said his client was merely a tough taskmaster, not an abusive criminal mastermind.
He said Mr Raniere’s methods were meant to help people and all the women joined NXIVM voluntarily.
He said a woman allegedly confined to a room for two years had a consensual relationship with Mr Raniere and was free to leave at any time.
“This is something these people signed up for,” he said.
“Control can be very bad. Control can also make Marines. Control can make gold medal winners.”
Some of his alleged “slaves”, as well as members of his inner circle who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, are expected to testify over the course of the trial, which could last up to six weeks.
Smallville actor and alcohol heiress guilty
While prosecutors have not said who will take the witness stand, former Smallville actor Allison Mack and Seagram liquor heir Clare Bronfman have already pleaded guilty to playing supporting roles in the scheme, as well as three other women accused of involvement in Mr Raniere’s crimes.
Prosecutors said that Mr Raniere’s victims included three Mexican sisters, one of whom was only 15.
The Government plans to introduce explicit photographs of the youngest sister, seized from Mr Raniere’s computer, as evidence.
Another sister was confined to a room for two years, Ms Najjar said.
The trial caps a bizarre saga for Mr Raniere, who was arrested in March 2018 after fleeing to Mexico with Bronfman.
NXIVM, which started under another name in 1998, was based in Albany, New York, and at one time operated numerous self-improvement centres across North and Central America.
In 2015, prosecutors say, Mr Raniere established a sorority within NXIVM known as DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly means “master of the obedient female companions”.
The subgroup included “slaves” who were expected to obey “masters” in a pyramid-like structure, with Mr Raniere standing alone at the top as the only man.
The slaves were required to submit “collateral” to win acceptance that could then be used as blackmail material, including nude photos, rights to their financial assets or damaging information about friends and relatives, prosecutors said.
If convicted, Mr Raniere faces up to life in prison.