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NXIVM sex cult case goes to the jury

The federal court jury hearing the sex-trafficking case against NXIVM guru Keith Raniere was cleared to begin deliberations.

A portrait of Keith Raniere that hung in

A portrait of Keith Raniere that hung in the NXIVM facility, entered into evidence at his trial. Photo Credit: U.S. Attorney's Office

The Brooklyn federal court jury of eight men and four women hearing the sex-trafficking case against NXIVM guru Keith Raniere was cleared to begin deliberations Tuesday after an X-rated six-week trial of allegations that he turned his Albany-based self-help group into a vehicle to control and exploit women.

Jurors got the case following a second day of closing arguments in which prosecutors portrayed Raniere as a cynical predator who used lies, blackmail and a secret “slave” sect to coerce women into sex, while his lawyer insisted his motivations were therapeutic and relationships were more consensual.

“What Keith is really after isn’t exactly sex,” argued defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo. “What Keith is going after is this special thing that happens when people are attracted to each other …. All of a sudden things change.”

But prosecutor Mark Lesko recalled testimony about Raniere’s plans to create a “slave” dungeon equipped with bondage devices. “If it’s not created for sex, what’s going to happen in the dungeon?” he said. “With the cages and the tails? Are they going to knit sweaters in the dungeon?”

Raniere, 58, created NXIVM in the 1990s to sell personal-growth courses based on his life theories, but allegedly turned it into a personality cult, going by the name “Vanguard,” enjoying sex with multiple devotees for years and eventually creating the master-slave group, known as DOS or “The Vow.”

His admirers, so-called “first-line slaves,” allegedly recruited other women by describing it as a mentoring sorority, persuaded them to give up “collateral” — such as nude photos and sex tapes — to secure vows of secrecy. Slaves were branded with Raniere’s initials, and some were ordered to “seduce” him.

The six-week trial featured testimony from four women who were part of DOS, and a fifth who was restricted to a room for a year after showing interest in a man other than Raniere. He faces up to life in prison if convicted of charges of racketeering, sex-trafficking, conspiracy, wire fraud and forced labor.

Agnifilo, in his closing argument, admitted the facts may “disgust” jurors, but has tried to soften the blow by reminding them that all of NXIVM’s members — including the prosecution witnesses — joined because they thought Raniere’s ideas were helping their personal growth.

But views of whether sex encounters were consensual or criminal shifted when later disclosure of the slave group led to a firestorm, he said. “When you’re playing with vulnerability and trust, you’re playing with fire,” he said. “As soon as something happens, there’s a tremendous change of perspective.”

Lesko derided that claim — recalling testimony from women about their fears that their “collateral” would be released, terrifying branding sessions, sending Raniere pictures of their genital areas and submitting to sex while tied to a table.

“It was illegal then, it was illegal later,” he said.

The racketeering count in the case includes claims of identity theft and taking photos of an underage girl Raniere allegedly had sex with. The sex trafficking charge requires proof that DOS served a “commercial” purpose, which prosecutors say involved “masters” ingratiating themselves with Raniere.

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis finished instructing the jury late Tuesday, and jurors were told to begin deliberating as soon as they all arrive Wednesday morning.

Five women who served as Raniere’s top aides have previously pleaded guilty to related charges.

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