Updated: December 5, 2022
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A housing development in a small upstate New York town where members of the cultlike group Nxivm had homes functioned as the set of a “horror movie,” and the group’s leader, Keith Raniere, played the role of the central villain, a federal prosecutor told jurors on Monday.
During closing arguments in Mr. Raniere’s racketeering and sex trafficking trial, the prosecutor, Moira Penza, pointed to a map of a Clifton Park neighborhood where many Nxivm members lived, then described what witnesses said had happened inside several homes.
In one, she said, a naked woman was held down — “her arms above her head like a sacrifice, screaming” — while she was branded with Mr. Raniere’s initials. In another, a terrified woman named Nicole was tied to a wooden table, blindfolded, while someone performed oral sex on her, Ms. Penza said.
A third held an archive of sexually explicit photographs taken by Mr. Raniere, who was known as Vanguard, she said. They showed multiple women within Nxivm, including one Ms. Penza called “his trophy, his sexual conquest” — a 15-year-old girl from Mexico.
Over the course of four hours, Ms. Penza recapped portions of a six-week trial that included more than a dozen witnesses, including several ex-Nxivm members who described the bizarre inner workings of the group.
She told jurors that Mr. Raniere, who presented himself as a guru who could help improve people’s lives, was actually running a criminal enterprise that sexually exploited women.
“You saw him for what he was,” Ms. Penza told the jurors. “A con man, a predator, a crime boss.”
While using the organization as a cover, Mr. Raniere “tapped into a never-ending flow of women and money.”
One of Mr. Raniere’s lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, whose closing statement will continue on Tuesday, countered that he believed that people who now say that they were coerced by the group were in fact making “adult choices.”
Although Mr. Raniere led a life that might seem “inconceivable” to some, Mr. Agnifilo said many of his followers accepted that and looked up to him because of his insight and leadership.
“What they believed in, warts and all, was Keith Raniere,” he said. “They didn’t thank Vanguard because they were a bunch of robots.”
Mr. Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) in the 1990s as a self-help organization based near Albany. He is now on trial on charges of racketeering conspiracy, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking.
In addition to exploiting women for sex, Mr. Raniere charged more than $100,000 to an American Express card belonging to a senior Nxivm member, Pam Cafritz, after her death and wrote checks totaling more than $300,000 from one of her bank accounts, Ms. Penza said.
Followers paid thousands of dollars to take courses that Mr. Raniere sold as a path to more fulfilling lives. Former Nxivm members have said the courses were a means to indoctrinate and control people.
During the trial witnesses testified that members who displeased Mr. Raniere were said to have committed ethical breaches and were subjected to punishment. There was also testimony that senior Nxivm members spied upon those they considered enemies, including Edgar Bronfman Sr., the liquor magnate whose daughter, Clare Bronfman, was a high-level member of the group.
Among other things, Mr. Raniere was said to have founded a clandestine sorority within Nxivm called D.O.S., in which some women were referred to as “slaves” and required to follow orders without question. Some of the women were branded with Mr. Raniere’s initials and assigned to “seduce” him.
The women in the sorority were forced to hand over compromising information about themselves, called “collateral,” including nude photos and letters containing embarrassing confessions. They were told the material would be released if they disobeyed orders or tried to leave.
Ms. Penza told the jurors that a Mexican woman named Daniela, whom Mr. Raniere had “groomed” for a sexual relationship when she was a teenager, went on to “facilitate” his subsequent sexual relationship with her younger sister.
That sister, Camila, later performed oral sex at Mr. Raniere’s direction on the blindfolded woman, Nicole, Ms. Penza added. And Nicole was recruited to spy on a man within Nxivm whose offense in Mr. Raniere’s eyes was a romantic encounter with Camila.
Camila was one of eight “first-line masters,” who were recruited into D.O.S. by Mr. Raniere, according to testimony. They acted as his slaves and were encouraged to enroll other women as their own slaves.
The collateral was supposed to show commitment but was used to coerce the women, Ms. Penza said, adding that once it was turned over, “the fear of release is established and the power dynamic immediately shifts.”
Mr. Agnifilo questioned that theory, adding that the extortion was “purely theoretical” and was “not in anybody’s heart.”
He characterized D.O.S. as “strong medicine” that was certainly not for everyone, but could perhaps be helpful to certain people if it was administered in the right way.
At one point, Mr. Agnifilo commented briefly on a term that has hovered over the trial from its beginning. He said that although “the word cult has come up a couple of times in this trial,” it may not be something jurors ought to dwell on during their deliberations.
“I don’t think that helps you,” he told the jurors. “I think that’s kind of a dead end.”