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Sex cult trial witness describes NXIVM, Raniere as a 'fraud'

Former high-ranking NXIVM member Mark Vicente said the organization "has been used to harm a great many people.”

Eastern District prosecutors and other office staff members

Eastern District prosecutors and other office staff members push carts full of court documents related to their case against Keith Raniere as they arrive at U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Drew Angerer

A former high-ranking member who turned on the Albany-based alleged sex cult NXIVM described the self-help group as a sophisticated “trap” that trained adherents to mistrust themselves and rely instead on leader Keith Raniere for their “moral compass” in testimony in Brooklyn federal court on Thursday.

“If anyone had any issues, it was pointed back at you,” filmmaker and NXIVM dissident Mark Vicente told jurors at Raniere’s sex-trafficking and conspiracy trial. “You had to work with people to resolve your problem. If you spoke out, it was an indication of a problem you had.”

When he was asked to read Raniere’s 12-step “Mission Statement,” Vicente said he had chanted it with other members 500 to 1000 times at NXIVM classes and events – ending each time with the words “Thank you Vanguard,” Raniere’s title – and then grabbed a handkerchief as he cried on the stand.

“It’s a fraud, it’s a lie,” he said. “It’s a well intentioned veneer that covers horrible evil. It’s been used to harm a great many people.”

Raniere, 58, is charged with promoting NXIVM – also called ESP, or Executive Success Programs – as a path to self-improvement and happiness, but turning it into a racketeering enterprise that manipulated and controlled members and ultimately coerced women into being sexual “slaves” for Raniere, prosecutors say.

The trial began this week with testimony from a British equestrian who eventually joined a secret “master-slave” group and followed orders to “seduce” Raniere. Prosecutors’ challenge is to persuade jurors that convincing a sophisticated clientele – Vicente was a successful filmmaker – to freely participate was a crime.

Vicente, a one-time member of the group’s executive board who helped expose it in news reports when he left after 12 years in 2017, provided an inside look at the operation of the 60-plus companies under NXIVM’s umbrella and how they marketed pricey courses to adherents while insisting that questions were a sign of inner deficiencies.

“You’re the one with the nefarious intent,” Raniere aide Nancy Saltzman, who pleaded guilty last month, told him in one conversation. “You can’t accept there’s so much goodness in the world and in this organization.”

He said Raniere viewed himself in grandiose terms – as a brilliant musician, a judo master, and a mathematical genius with training in multiple scientific disciplines – and said he had been targeted by dark and powerful forces because of his massive IQ and the brilliance of the philosophy he marketed through NXIVM.

“He was dangerous to society because of his ethical ideas,” Vicente said. “He had to be careful.. because he was being watched all the time, and this conspiracy went to the highest level.”

Raniere also claimed an earlier multi-level marketing company he developed around a “buying club” was run out of business because he crossed associates of Bill Clinton in Arkansas. “He refused to give Bill Clinton money, so in retribution many, many attorney generals went after him,” Vicente testified.

Vicente said that internally, NXIVM encouraged engagement by using multi-colored sashes to signify advancement to higher states of both learning and commission earning – called the “stripe path” – with titles like “coach,” “proctor” and “prefect” – culminating in Vanguard.

No one was higher than Vanguard, who wore a long white sash and called himself “the eternal student.” But a black sash was available for anyone who “invented something that forever changed mankind.”

Along with the courses adherents took to earn new sashes, he said, adherents were required to fill out a a constant series of questionnaires that NXIVM used to develop psychological profiles of adherents. Vicente gave up deep inner secrets, and doesn’t know who has them now.

“I feel bamboozled, I feel fooled,” he said. “I feel they built a psychological profile of what I am scared of. I feel vulnerable, but I also feel stupid having gone along with it.”

Vicente said Raniere also conducted what he called “scientific research” by attaching “skull caps” with wires to the heads of some students taking NXIVM courses to record brain waves for later study, and convinced him and other members to have cameras connected to computer modems at their homes.

He was told it was part of a private communications system NXIVM was developing, but now believes it wasn’t. “My understanding is it was surveillance on us,” he said. “Members of the community.”

Vicente is expected to continue his testimony Thursday afternoon and then when the trial resumes on Monday.


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