Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET
The leader of NXIVM, a group that espoused a philosophy of self-improvement but was accused of recruiting, grooming and even branding an inner circle of female sex slaves, was found guilty Wednesday by a federal jury in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Keith Raniere, who was known as “Vanguard,” was convicted on all charges, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, human trafficking and multiple counts of racketeering — including sexual exploitation of a child.
Raniere, 58, faces up to life in prison. His sentencing is set for Sept. 25.
Following the verdict, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donoghue called Raniere “a modern-day Svengali.”
“This trial has revealed that Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was in fact, a massive manipulator, a conman and crime boss of a cult-like organization involving sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion compelled abortions, branding degradation and humiliation,” Donoghue told reporters.
He said Raniere’s crime spree — which “ruined marriages, careers, fortunes and lives” — had finally ended “and his victims will finally see justice.”
Throughout the trial prosecutors argued NXIVM was a criminal enterprise that operated largely in secrecy. The Albany, N.Y.-based group operated across the U.S. and in several other countries. Its devotees included an actress, an heiress and a 15-year-old girl; several of its high-ranking members have also been charged.
Throughout the six-week trial, several women offered disturbing details of their experience with Raniere in what they said they initially believed was a women’s empowerment group. They testified that he ultimately blackmailed dozens of women into joining a secret society of “slaves” and “masters” called “DOS” or the “Vow,” that operated as a sex cult under a pyramid-scheme system in which they turned over a trove of damning “collateral” and often were left financially indebted to him.
During closing arguments Monday, prosecutor Moira Penza told the jurors that to the outside world, Raniere’s inner circle had tried to construct an image of him as a “humanitarian, leader, mentor, guru.”
“You saw him for what he was, a conman, a predator, a crime boss,” Penza said, adding that Raniere had “tapped into a never-ending flow of women and money” and calling him a “crime boss with no limits and no checks on his power.”
Newer members believed NXIVM to be a self-improvement business that offered pricey coaching and training workshops based on its philosophy of “a new ethical understanding” that enables “humanity to rise to its noble possibility,” as the group described on its now defunct website, according to court documents.
But Penza accused Raniere of building a personal fiefdom through abuse and control. He and the women in the organization’s top ranks used “tactics that destroyed his victim’s sense of self and ability to trust,” she said.
He also ordered female slaves to be branded. Several of the women who belonged to the inner circle of DOS had a NXIVM symbol seared into their flesh with a cauterizing pen — a process that took between 20 to 30 minutes to complete — while another woman was told to film the so-called ceremony. The women later learned the symbol contained Raniere’s initials.
The actress Allison Mack, best know for her role on the television series Smallville, pleaded guilty for her role as a “master” in the cult, often recruiting women who would ultimately be coerced into have sex with Raniere.
As one of Raniere’s top lieutenants, Mack sought to gather “collateral” — embarrassing or potentially criminal material — from other followers, that top NXIVM leaders could potentially leverage to keep dissenters from defecting and exposing the inner workings of the group.
She was convicted in April of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. Mack will be sentenced in September.
Agnifilo, argued throughout the trial that his client had committed no crimes and his directives were meant to spur their personal growth.
In closing arguments Tuesday, defense attorneys said Raniere had no criminal intent and that there was no sex trafficking by DOS because the sexual encounters were consensual and there was no commercial aspect to them.
Raniere did not testify in the case and his attorneys did not call any witnesses.
In an emailed statement, Agnifilo told NPR, “Keith maintains his innocence and we do intend to appeal.”
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