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Federal sex trafficking charges lodged against NXIVM leader

Federal sex trafficking charges lodged against NXIVM leader

Group is based in Albany
Federal sex trafficking charges lodged against NXIVM leader
NXIVM founder Keith Raniere is pictured in 2009.
Photographer: Gazette file photo by Patrick Dodson

ALBANY AND CLIFTON PARK -- The head of a secretive group based in Albany and Clifton Park is facing federal sex trafficking charges.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn Monday unsealed a complaint against Keith Raniere. He faces one count each of sex trafficking, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking and to commit forced labor.

Raniere was to appear in federal court in Texas to be arraigned, where prosecutors were to ask that he be held, according to a prosecution filing. Details of that appearance were not immediately available.

Authorities caught up with Raniere behind the walls of a luxury gated community near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

The villas inside, according to court documents filed this week, had a price tag of up to $10,000 a week, not a place to expect a man who claimed for years he was penniless and didn't even have a driver's license.

Raniere was living inside one of the properties with several women, according to federal prosecutors. Mexican authorities took him into custody and delivered him to Texas on Monday. As Raniere was taken from the Mexican villa, the women chased after authorities in their own car at high speed, prosecutors say.

Raniere, also called "The Vanguard," heads a group called NXIVM, which most recently was the subject of a New York Times investigation into a secret sisterhood in the organization that led members to be branded.

The federal complaint includes many of the allegations in The Times investigation and expands on them. The Times reported the federal investigation underway in December.

The organization began in 1998 and offered improvement workshops. The complaint focuses on a period from February 2016 to June 2017, a period just after the secret society was allegedly developed.

The secret society, called DOS, included "masters" and "slaves," with Raniere as the secretive head master. Women would then ultimately be compelled to have sex with Raniere and often be groomed to his liking, according to the federal complaint.

These tasks allegedly force a slave to act as "personal assistants to the masters - bringing them coffee, buying them groceries, making them lunch, carrying their luggage, cleaning their houses and retrieving lost items for them." But the demands also call for more extreme behavior, such as ice-cold showers, standing for an hour at 4 a.m., and performing physically excruciating plank exercises, according to authorities.

Some tasks were allegedly geared toward making the women more sexually appealing to the master. "For example, Raniere is known to sexually prefer women who are exceptionally thin, and a number of the slaves' assignments required them to adhere to extremely low-calorie diets and to document every food they ate," the court documents say.

If society members did not comply with sexual or other requests, they risked the release of "collateral," or damaging information they'd supplied about themselves upon entry into the society. They continued supplying the information throughout their involvement, the complaint reads.

Despite vocal critics, NXIVM has collected a number of high-profile backers. Stephen Cooper, then acting chief executive of Enron, was involved with the group, as was Emiliano Salinas, the son of a former president of Mexico, according to Forbes. In recent court documents, the government has also alleged Clare Bronfman, the heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune, is also one of Raniere's main financial backers. She has not commented.

NXIVM is headquartered in Albany and operates around the United States, Canada and Mexico. Many of its members live in Clifton Park, the complaint reads.

Federal investigators based the complaint on interviews with a total of eight victims and interviews with additional first-hand witnesses. They also based it on electronic evidence from victims and witnesses and emails seized  through search warrants, the complaint reads.

Two victims in particular are highlighted by the complaint. One victim told of how Raniere had repeated sexual contact with her in a space on the second floor of a house in Clifton Park. She told investigators Raniere told her he could order her to have sex with him, but wasn't. However, she felt obligated to have sex with him to avoid the release of her damaging information.

The second victim was groomed and placed on a diet of 860 to 1,000 calorie a day. When given the assignment to have sex with Raniere while she stayed in Clifton Park, she left the group, but not before taking images of other members' collateral to protect her own, the complaint reads.

The most graphic allegation in the federal complaint relates to branding.

According to authorities, members of the DOS were burned with a cauterizing pen on their pubic regions. The women were required to strip fully naked, then held down by other members while the branding was done, authorities say. The "ceremony" was allegedly filmed. The symbol burned into the skin was said to represent the "four elements"; authorities, however, point out the symbol actually "consisted of Raniere's initials."

After the investigation began, Raniere flew with another high-ranking member of the group to a NXIVM center in Monterrey, Mexico, the complaint reads. He had not flown out of the country since 2015. He was arrested after six weeks of searching, according to prosecutors. The complaint was initially filed under seal in February, then unsealed Monday.

In a filing asking that Raniere be held pending trial, federal prosecutors called Raniere "significant risk of flight and danger to the community" and put the total number of slaves who were under his control at 50.

"The extent of his brazenness is demonstrated by the fact that he identified his adherents as 'slaves' and had them branded with his initials," prosecutors wrote. "If released, the defendant poses a risk to numerous women, including many DOS slaves who still believe they are under his control."

NXIVM responded to the allegations in The Times article last fall, saying the article "unfoundedly, and incorrectly, linked NXIVM corporation, and its related companies, with a social group."

An attorney for Raniere is not listed in federal filings.

This story contains material from The Washington Post.

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