Keith Raniere promised a path to happiness, seducing successful and wealthy people who felt they lacked a higher purpose in life. His company, Nxivm, offered self-improvement workshops that became popular in Hollywood and business circles.
But underneath the surface, Mr. Raniere was a puppet master controlling a cultlike criminal enterprise, prosecutors revealed at his trial. Some women in Nxivm were forced to have sex with Mr. Raniere, and even branded with his initials in a secret ceremony.
On Tuesday, Mr. Raniere, 60, will be sentenced in federal court in Brooklyn for his participation in sex trafficking and other crimes. The hearing begins at 11 a.m.
Mr. Raniere’s conviction last year capped a stunning downfall for a man who was once idolized by his followers, but has since been exposed as a fraudster who exploited Nxivm’s adherents for money, sex and power.
Former Nxivm members said Mr. Raniere and his inner circle preyed on insecure people who hoped that immersing themselves in expensive self-help classes would unlock the key to fulfillment. Even highly educated people became trapped inside Mr. Raniere’s system, which he sold as the only way to overcome their fears, shaming anyone who tried to quit.
At Mr. Raniere’s trial, prosecutors lifted the veil on a sordid side to Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um). A primary focus was a secretive women-only group inside the organization. During a videotaped initiation ceremony, the women laid naked on a table, saying, “Master, please brand me,” as a cauterizing pen seared their skin without anesthesia.
Some of those women testified that they thought they were joining a women’s empowerment group, only to discover that they were directed to have sex with Mr. Raniere.
The women, referred to as “slaves,” needed permission to eat and were regularly required to hand over collateral like sexually explicit videos, which they constantly feared would be released. Prosecutors called it extortion.
A jury convicted Mr. Raniere last summer after a six-week trial. Prosecutors charged him with racketeering, applying a statute that had been used to dismantle the Mafia families in New York. Besides sex trafficking, the jury found him guilty of crimes that included child pornography, forced labor, identity theft and obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors have said in court papers that Mr. Raniere deserves a life sentence, a punishment that is typically reserved for cases involving deaths or murders.
Mr. Raniere’s lawyers have argued that nobody was “shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, slapped or even yelled at.” This was not the typical organized crime case, and Mr. Raniere should get no more than 15 years in prison, they contended.
“No one has ever testified that he or she joined a drug gang or the Genovese Family or a cartel because they thought that by doing so, they could make the world better or bring a higher level of humanity to themselves and others,” his lawyers wrote.
Prosecutors have said Mr. Raniere’s unwillingness to accept responsibility and his contempt for his victims demonstrated that a life sentence was the only way to stop him from hurting more people.
To this day, Mr. Raniere has many supporters who believe he was wrongfully convicted and insist that every activity in Nxivm was among consenting adults. Dozens wrote letters to the court urging leniency.
Mr. Raniere himself has expressed no regrets, accusing the federal judge, Nicholas G. Garaufis, of corruption and demanding a new trial.
“He is not sorry for his conduct or his choices,” his lawyers wrote in a court filing last month, adding that he “intends to fight this case with all of his might, confident that he will one day be vindicated.”
In recent months, Mr. Raniere has spearheaded a campaign to overturn his conviction. He has directed his supporters to create a podcast about his case and set up a contest to find errors in his prosecution in exchange for a $25,000 cash prize, court filings show.
The company was funded in large part by an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, Clare Bronfman, who spent more than $100 million of her inheritance to sue Mr. Raniere’s enemies and support the organization. She even bought an island in Fiji that Nxivm’s leaders used as a retreat.
One of Nxivm’s top recruiters was Allison Mack, the former television actress known for her role on “Smallville,” whose glowing testimonials helped bring Hollywood celebrities into the organization. The Dalai Lama once spoke at a Nxivm event.
Mr. Raniere was charged along with five women in his inner circle, including Ms. Bronfman and Ms. Mack. Each of them pleaded guilty ahead of his trial.
Ms. Bronfman was sentenced last month to more than six years in prison for her role in Nxivm. The others do not have sentencing dates yet.
The group’s sales pitch claimed that Mr. Raniere was a genius with one of the highest I.Q. scores in the world.
In reality, prosecutors have said, he graduated with a 2.26 grade point average from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., after failing some of the math and science classes that he later bragged about taking.
Many Nxivm members never had a sexual relationship with Mr. Raniere, but they did face pressure to pay for more and more classes, sometimes taking on debt to do so. One couple estimated they spent $300,000 on Nxivm courses and were forced to declare bankruptcy, prosecutors have said.
Since Mr. Raniere co-founded Nxivm in 1998, around 18,000 people have taken its courses in the United States, Mexico and Canada.
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