Alleged cult leader faces arraignment on sex trafficking charges
The leader of a group detractors say is a cult that literally branded women and brainwashed them into becoming sex slaves is set to be arraigned Friday afternoon on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor.
Keith Raniere, co-founder of the NXIVM group, will make his first appearance before a federal judge in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, after being arrested last month in at a villa in Mexico. He waived his right to an identification hearing in Texas and was transferred to New York.
Known to his followers as “Vanguard,” Raniere is accused of masterminding and overseeing a system in which women were told the best way to advance was to become a "slave" overseen by "masters." They also were expected to have sex with him, do menial chores for masters, and to keep the arrangement a secret - or face public humiliation, the complaint says.
“[Raniere] has maintained a rotating group of fifteen to twenty women with whome he maintains sxual relationships,” the complaint notes. “These women are not permitted to have sexual relationships with anyone but Rainere or to discuss with others their relationships with Raniere.”
Albany-based defense attorney Paul DerOhannesian has been retained to represent Raniere in his case.
The complaint said many victims participated in videotaped ceremonies where they were branded in their pelvic area with a symbol featuring Raniere's initials.
"During the branding ceremonies, slaves were required to be fully naked, and the master would order one slave to film while the other held down the slave being branded," the complaint says.
Investigators said Raniere preferred exceptionally thin women, so "slaves" had to stick to very low-calorie diets and document every food they ate. Women who didn't follow orders were required to attend classes where they were "forced to wear fake cow udders over their breasts while people called them derogatory names," or threatened with being put in cages, court papers say.
Sources close to NXIVM and the case told Fox News Raniere and others in NXIVM also illegally detained women and have threatened those who speak out against the group, with both physical violence and legal action.
Raniere left the United States late last year after The New York Times reported the stories of women who left the group, and the government began interviewing potential witnesses. Raniere sought to cover his trail by using encrypted email and ditching his phone, court papers say.
He was ultimately found staying with several women in a luxury gated community in Puerta Vallarta, where villas can run $10,000 a week to rent.
Raniere and NXIVM have been the subject of criticism for years, dating back to at 2012, when the Times Union of Albany published a series of articles examining the organization and allegations it was a cult.
Over the years, the group has attracted a following that includes Emmy Award-winning actress Allison Mack. Authorities also say Raniere has been bankrolled by Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune. Bronfman has allegedly given Raniere and NXIVM more than $100 million to cover expenses like private air travel.
On the day that Raniere made his initial court appearance last month after being returned from Mexico, federal authorities also raided the home of NXIVM president Nancy Salzman, near Albany. A second upstate location also was searched, but authorities declined to discuss what they were looking for in either operation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.