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Alleged NXIVM sex cult founder was a 'crime boss,' prosecutor says

Keith Raniere faces up to life in prison on charges that include sex trafficking, extortion, racketeering and more.

Members of the prosecution in the NXIVM case

Members of the prosecution in the NXIVM case arrive with documents at Brooklyn Federal Court on May 7, for day one of the trial of Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/TIMOTHY A. CLARY

The head of an alleged Albany-based cult posed as a leader but was in fact a “con man” who drew women in by promising self-help but exploiting them for sex, money and power, a prosecutor said Tuesday as the trial of NXIVM founder Keith Raniere began in Brooklyn Federal Court.

“The defendant said he was a mentor, but he was a predator,” prosecutor Tanya Hajjar told jurors in her opening statement. “He sold himself as the smartest, most ethical man in the world. He compared himself to Einstein, he compared himself to Gandhi. But all he wanted was sex, power and control.”

Raniere, 58, is charged with conspiracy, racketeering, sex trafficking, extortion, forced labor and sexual exploitation of a child for running a group that allegedly used branding rituals and blackmailed women with compromising pictures to provide him with partners.

Hajjar said the trial will include testimony about a Mexican family recruited into the group and how Raniere had sex with all three daughters, one of them 15.  

“This was organized crime and Keith Raniere was the crime boss,” Hajjar said.

Looking like a short, aging preppie with plastic-rimmed glasses and an open-necked blue shirt with a gray sweater, Raniere watched silently as his lawyer responded by telling jurors the women chose as free adults to engage in a philosophical movement that exposed their vulnerabilities and reveled in being branded with his initials as “badass.”

“This is something these people signed up for,” defense lawyer Mark Agnifilo said. “They are there to make their lives better, and they have signed on to this…. What about saying I don’t want to do this? Or I do want to do that. It’s one of the major themes of this case.”

He also said the jurors they had to “crawl inside [Raniere’s] skin and walk around in it” to understand that his intentions were teaching and not crime, and invoked Winston Churchill’s speech rallying the British people after the disaster at Dunkirk at the end of his opening.

“I will defend my island home in this courtroom,” he said. “And my island home is that man’s good faith… and at the end of that the flag of freedom will be flying above my island home.”

The government’s first witness was a woman named “Sylvie,” 32, a British horse jumper, who described her initiation into Raniere’s NXIVM group in Clifton Park, New York, after she came to the U.S. at age 18 to work for one of his acolytes, Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman, who pleaded guilty in the case last month.

Sylvie said she took a five-day course with NXIVM, which began with instruction in various rituals — including a nondisclosure agreement, a requirement that Raniere be referred to as “Vanguard.”

She said at classes, members recited the group’s 12-step mission statement — including lines like “There are no ultimate victims. Therefore I will choose not to be a victim” — and chanted “Thank you Vanguard” in a group “huddle” at the end of each session.

At first, she said, the group seemed too “touchy feely” for her taste, and she threw up at the end of the first day, but was later drawn in during a class about “suppressives” — people who tried to tear down those around them — when she began to suspect she had some of those negative traits and could improve by taking more classes.

“I became very motivated because I was afraid I might be a bad person,” she said, and later was invited by Bronfman to meet Raniere at a volleyball game at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.

Her first meeting with Raniere, she said, came when Bronfman invited her to come to a post-midnight volleyball game to meet Raniere. She described him as “short, quite creepy looking,” and said there were “tons of people hanging out” with a lot of “kissing on the lips, a lot of touchy feeliness.”

Raniere faces up to life in prison. Sylvie’s testimony is scheduled to continue on Tuesday afternoon.

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