AP NEWS

Ex-follower in case of branded women: Leader was a con man

May 9, 2019
In this courtroom drawing, defendant Keith Raniere, center, is seated between his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left, and Marc Agnifilo during the first day of his sex trafficking trial, Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Raniere, the former leader of the self help group called NXIVM, has pleaded not guilty to the charges that he turned his followers into sex slaves. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Self-help guru Keith Raniere was brilliant - so brilliant that the government considered him a threat and that his energy could impact weather.

Those myths and other oddities about the spiritual leader of the secretive upstate New York organization called NXIVM were detailed on Thursday by a former group official testifying at Raniere’s federal trial.

Filmmaker Mark Vicente also took the chance to describe his despair over learning about allegations that Raniere put his power to a darker use by assembling a harem of sex slaves branded with his initials. The NXIVM (NEX’-ee-um) defector and former board of directors member took off his glasses and appeared to wipe away tears when a prosecutor asked him to read to himself a copy of the group’s mission statement about Raniere’s prescription for enlightenment.

“It’s a fraud,” he said after he composed himself. “It’s a lie.”

Vicente’s testimony came on the third day of the trial in federal court in Brooklyn, where the 58-year-old Raniere has pleaded to sex-trafficking and other charges. His lawyers have claimed that any sexual contact he had with female followers was consensual.

Earlier in the week, a woman testifying using only her first name claimed that she was groomed by a “master” working under Raniere to become his “slave.” She testified that the man known within the group as “Vanguard” performed unwanted oral sex on her and afterward told her it meant that he was her “grand master.”

Vicente, 53, had served on NXIVM’s board along with Seagram liquor fortune heiress Clare Bronfman . He wasn’t charged in the case, but Bronfman and TV actress Allison Mack are among five co-defendants of Raniere who have pleaded guilty.

Prosecutors used Vicente to describe how NXIVM members used a “sales pitch” promising Raniere’s new age methods would help them cast off their irrational fears. He said they paid $6,000 tuition to take the first of a series of courses that would elevate them to different levels of achievement as long as they also recruited new members - what prosecutors have described as pyramid scheme.

There were various ploys and constant paranoia: Raniere cooked up new curriculums as a way to bolster finances that were kept secret. Cameras and other technology - portrayed to followers as an internal communications system - actually was used to spy on them, just as Raniere believed the government was spying on him because he knew too much.

“He told me he was being watched all the time,” Vicente said.

Members of Raniere’s inner circle spoke in hushed tones “about how he could affect the weather,” he said. Lower-level true believers who got a chance to meet him acted as if he was “some kind of god,” he added.

Asked how he feels now, Vicente didn’t mince words.

“I feel bamboozled,” he said. “I feel fooled.”