A former television star and a self-help guru embroiled in allegations of running a sex cult within a group that purports to empower women — it sounds like the premise of a TV series, except that it’s all unfolding in a Brooklyn courtroom.
Allison Mack, best known for her role on the Superman origin series “Smallville,” pleaded guilty in Brooklyn federal court on Monday to blackmailing two women as part of an alleged sex cult within Nxivm (pronounced nex-e-um), an Albany-based organization that “seeks to empower people.” The 36-year-old actress pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges.
“Through it all, I believed that Keith Raniere’s intentions were to help people,” she said in court. “I was wrong. I now realize that I and others engaged in criminal conduct.”
Raniere, the group’s founder, and Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman, who was a Nxivm executive board member, have pleaded not guilty in the case. Their trial is expected to begin on April 29.
The array of crimes, according to the prosecutor’s office, included sex trafficking, extortion, identity theft, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. The sorority-type secret society went so far as to brand inductees with a symbol that included Raniere’s initials, according to court documents.
The salacious charges have led to many questions, including how a former television star became entangled in an alleged cult.
Here’s what else you need to know about the charges against Raniere and Mack, as well as Nxivm’s alleged role and more.
In October 2017, The New York Times published an exposé detailing a “secret sisterhood” that recruited female Nxivm members with promises of empowerment but required “collateral” in the form of compromising photos or information. There was also a branding ritual, which former member Sarah Edmonson, a Canadian actress, said she was told would be a small tattoo.
Once inducted into the group — described as a network of circles, each made up of one “master” and six “slaves” — the women were taught submission and obedience as part of a quest for character building, according to The Times. The consequences for disobeying a “master” ranged from restrictive dieting to physical punishments, per the report.
Several attempts to report the group’s questionable behavior to authorities in New York were also detailed by The Times, but no arrests were made by the time the article was published on Oct. 17, 2017.
Fast forward to March, when Raniere, 57, was arrested in Mexico on sex trafficking charges, accused of branding women with his initials, putting them on restrictive diets and forcing them to have sex with him.
Prosecutors allege Raniere used Nxivm as an elaborate front organization designed to provide a steady stream of young women to serve as sex slaves to him and others. Mack, 35, was a direct “slave” of Raniere’s, according to prosecutors, but also a “master” who recruited women.
Women in the group, known as “DOS,” were also forced to remain celibate, stay alert at all hours and perform menial tasks for Raniere and others, according to court documents.
The “slaves” suffered from severe sleep deprivation due to so-called “readiness drills,” requiring them to respond to their “masters” any time of day or night, per the documents.
“DOS slaves understood that if they told anyone about DOS, if they left DOS or if they failed to complete assignments given to them by their masters, their collateral could be released,” a court document stated.
Who is Keith Raniere?
Raniere dedicated his life to “developing tools to enhance the human experience through community, social action, science, technology and education,” the Nxivm website says.
The self-help guru, along with Nancy Salzman, founded an empowerment seminar series called Executive Success Programs (ESP) in 1998.
But Raniere also has a checkered legal history involving his businesses under the “Nxivm umbrella” and alleged pyramid schemes.
After his arrest, Nxivm posted a letter from Raniere denying the sex trafficking charges. The letter has since been removed from the website.
“Over the past months, there have been extensive independent investigations performed, by highly qualified individuals, and they have firmly concluded that there is no merit to the allegations that we are abusing, coercing or harming individuals,” the letter had said. “These allegations are most disturbing to me as nonviolence is one of my most important values.”
Raniere also insisted in the letter that the “sorority” was not affiliated with Nxivm and he was in no way associated with the group.
Marc Agnifilo, a lawyer for Raniere, said in April that he was “confident these allegations will be soundly disproved.”
What is Nxivm?
Per Nxivm’s website, the company is a consortium of smaller companies that promotes a set of “humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human.”
Nxivm has long operated Raniere’s ESP seminar series and, according to The New York Times, has chapters all over the country, as well as Canada and Mexico. ESP has been likened to other popular self-help programs such as the Landmark Forum series or Tony Robbins’ live events.
Nxivm initially stated on its website that it stood by Raniere despite the allegations against him, and its members were “working with the authorities to demonstrate his innocence and true character.” However, the company appears to have distanced itself from Raniere as more information related to the case has come to light.
Raniere’s letter of innocence is no longer on the Nxivm website and statements supporting him have been removed. The company has suspended enrollment, curriculum and events, “until further notice.”
“While we are disappointed by the interruption of our operations, we believe it is warranted by the extraordinary circumstances facing the company at this time,” a message to Nxivm’s members reads on its website. “We continue to believe in the value and importance of our work and look forward to resuming our efforts when these allegations are resolved.”
The Allison Mack connection
You may know her better as Chloe Sullivan. Starting in 2001, Mack spent roughly 10 years in the role, opposite Tom Welling’s Clark Kent on “Smallville.” Her arrest in Brooklyn on April 20, 2018, sent shock waves through Hollywood and beyond as many questioned how Mack could have been become an instrumental part of an alleged sex cult.
In pleading guilty, Mack admitted acts involving extortion and forced labor, and said she collected embarrassing and “ruinous” financial information about women she recruited and then threatened to expose it if they disobeyed orders. Mack did not admit explicitly to sex trafficking, but said she extorted “labor and services” from women.
Court documents detail how Mack’s “slaves were kept seriously sleep-deprived and emaciated to the point where they stopped menstruating.”
Mack is believed to have first encountered Nxivm and ESP seminars during her time in Vancouver, where “Smallville” was filmed. She became increasingly involved with the ESP courses and continued to move through higher levels.
The actress relocated to New York sometime during the years after “Smallville.” Prosecutors said in April 2018 that she had spent the past year living in an apartment in Brooklyn, where she was arrested. She was released on $5 million bail on April 24.
As a condition of her release from federal custody, Mack has been serving home detention with electronic monitoring at her parents’ home in Los Alamitos, California, and was barred from contact with Raniere or anyone associated with Nxivm.
Her parents, Jonathan and Melinda Mack, had to put their property up as collateral to help cover her bail.
Mack, who faces up to 40 years in prison, is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 11.
Who are Clare Bronfman, Kathy Russell, Lauren Salzman and Nancy Salzman?
The four women who were charged in a superseding indictment in July are accused of participating in various crimes along with Raniere and Mack. All of them initially pleaded not guilty, but Nancy Salzman, and her daughter, Lauren, later pleaded guilty in the case.
Bronfman and Lauren Salzman were members of Nxivm’s executive board; Nancy Salzman was Nxivm’s president; and Russell was Nxivm’s bookkeeper, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors detailed several crimes the women allegedly took part in while hiding behind the Nxivm brand, including an alleged scheme by Lauren Salzman and Raniere to confine a former sexual partner of his in a room in Clifton Park, New York, for two years as punishment. The victim was then driven to Mexico and left in the country without any identification documents, prosecutors said.
A TV show is reportedly in the works
Less than a week after Mack’s arrest, which thrust the accusations against Raniere and Nxivm further into the national spotlight, production company Annapurna Television reportedly bought rights to a television series related to the case. The company intends to turn The New York Times investigation into an hourlong scripted television show, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
With Reuters and Newsday