explainer

The Nxivm 'sex cult' leader kept women as slaves. Today, their stories helped convict him.

Daniela was just 16 when she first met Nxivm leader Keith Raniere. She’d moved with her family from Mexico to Albany, New York, in 2002, lured by his organisation’s self-help curriculum.

To Daniela, Raniere, who was then in his early 40s, was “a rockstar and the smartest man in the world”; someone who promised her he would foster her dreams of becoming a scientist, empower her to make meaningful change. But over the coming months, his mentorship crossed a line into something more sinister. One evening he kissed her — her first kiss — and told her that when she was 18 he would take her virginity, as long as she lost weight.

“I didn’t see Keith that way, but I could see in subtle ways that he was flirting with me,” Daniela said in court, according to the Daily Beast. “Now, I believe he was grooming me.”

The Quicky explores how ordinary people, people like you, can end up in a cult.

Daniela’s story is just one of several chilling accounts that emerged in a New York court this year, as Raniere was tried for multiple crimes linked to his activities at Nxivm (pronounced ‘nexium’).

That trial ended on Wednesday, local time, with the 58-year-old being convicted on all charges levelled against him, including racketeering conspiracy, sex trafficking and possession of child pornography.

The jury took less than five hours to reach its verdict, which now leaves Raniere staring down the barrel of a possible 25-year prison sentence.

Other senior Nxivm leadership accepted plea deals during the investigation, including the group’s president and co-founder Nancy Salzman, her daughter Lauren Salzman (who testified as the prosecution’s star witness), Allison Mack, who starred in TV series Smallville, and Clare Bronfman, an heir to a major Canadian liquor fortune who served as a bookkeeper.

All up, six former members took the stand, providing the inside story of how Raniere and his inner circle indoctrinated his success-hungry followers under the guise of professional and personal development.

Here’s what the trial revealed about what went on inside the mysterious group.

Forced abortions and solitary confinement.

Daniela told a court she had multiple sexual encounters with Raniere once she turned 18, including group sex with her sister (“we cried the whole time”).

The court also heard that Raniere performed sexual acts on the siblings’ youngest sister, who was the subject of the child pornography charges, and that all three fell pregnant to him at varying times and were forced to undergo abortions, The Daily Beast reported.

Nxivm's Albany, New York, headquarters. Image: Getty.
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Daniela ultimately fell out of favour with Raniere after she told him she'd kissed another man. Her admission sparked a years-long nightmare that culminated in Raniere banishing her to solitary confinement in a bedroom of her parents' rented home in 2010.

There she spent 23 months in isolation; food was left outside her door, her only contact was with Salzman. She sneaked out twice in that time, to get reading material and check her email — no one had contacted her.

It ultimately took the sight of a bird outside her window to remind her that the world was bigger than Nxivm, and even her parents.

"I said f**k everybody," she testified according to Vice. "I'm going to live."

In 2012, Daniela asked to be let out and was escorted back to Mexico. Her family remained behind.

The secret slave ring: branding, blackmail and dog collars.

Among the stunning allegations made by the prosecution, were details of a secretive Nxivm slave ring known as DOS.

DOS was structured like a pyramid scheme, with Raniere (known as 'The Vanguard' to his followers) at the top, and various levels of slaves beneath who were each required to recruit their own slaves. Both Mack and Salzman testified that they were among a group of seven "top line" masters who served directly beneath the leader.

According to court documents, slave tasks ranged from the menial (cleaning, running errands), to being assigned to perform sexual acts with Raniere.

DOS was reportedly proposed to participants as a special all-female offshoot of Nxivm — a "secret sisterhood". But participants discovered that in order to join, they had to provide collateral in the form of explicit photographs or incriminating information that could be released if they spoke about or left the program.

A number of DOS members also showed evidence of branding, according to court documents. The prosecution said they'd been forced to burn a design into their crotch area using a cauterising pen.

"During the branding 'ceremonies,' slaves were required to be fully naked, and the master would order one slave to film while the others held down the slave being branded," an FBI arrest affidavit reads. "Some DOS victims were told that the brand stood for the four elements (the lines represented air, earth and water and the cauterising pen represented sealing with fire). Based on information obtained during the course of the investigation, however, it is clear that the brand in fact consisted of Raniere's initials."

nxivm sex cult
Actor Allison Mack leaves court during Raniere's trial. Image: Getty.
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A member of DOS, identified only as Sylvie, told the court that she became part of the slave program after her 'master', a woman named Monica, arranged for Raniere to perform oral sex on her.

After the encounter, “he told me he was my grand master now and that he was a master of Monica,” Sylive testified according to The New York Post.

She claimed she was forced to pose for nude images, taken by Raniere, and was also due to make a “life commitment to Monica".

“There would be a ceremony where she would put a necklace on me with a clasp that couldn’t be broken,” Sylvie told the court. “I think she called it a dog collar.”

Sylvie, who was married at the time, told her husband about DOS and its practises, but said he simply didn't believe her.

Nxivm's spectacular collapse and the arrest of Raniere.

In 2017, allegations about DOS emerged in The New York Times and later on US network ABC's 20/20 current affairs program. Former members and relatives of current ones exposed it all — the slave/master system, the branding, the involvement of high-profile people including Allison Mack.

Raniere moved to Mexico in early 2018 as investigators closed in. Raniere's 'top line slaves' travelled to his home, in a gated community, to prove their loyalty via a 're-commitment ceremony'. Salzman testified that the event would include group oral sex, as a way to do “something special for Keith", The Daily Beast reported.

But before the ceremony could begin, authorities had surrounded the compound.

“Honestly, I went into one mode—protect Keith. I closed all the doors, all the blinds,” Salzman said. “And I looked out the window and all I could see was federal agents with machine guns surrounding the property and Keith refused to leave. He wanted to stay.”

During the raid, Salzman was pinned to the ground by the authorities while Raniere hid in the closet. It was in those moments, she told the court, that she realised he was not the protector he'd claimed to be.

"It never crossed my mind that I would choose Keith," she said, "and Keith would choose Keith."

Raniere is awaiting sentencing.

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