Lurid testimony wraps up in case against self-help guru
New York – After weeks of relentlessly lurid testimony, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn on Friday wrapped up their sex trafficking case against Keith Raniere, the former spiritual leader of the self-improvement group NXIVM.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers told the judge they were finished calling witnesses in a trial that has given a disturbing inside look at the bizarre world Raniere created for followers attracted to his cult-like group in upstate New York.
Closing arguments and jury deliberations will happen next week.
Since early May, jurors have been hearing testimony from what prosecutors say are former “sex slaves” who spoke about the torment of being branded with the Raniere’s initials – their “supreme master.”
The jury has also seen alleged child pornography involving a teenage girl prosecutors say Raniere coerced into sex.
Attorneys for Raniere, 58, say that he had no criminal intent and that his sexual encounters with female followers were consensual.
Some takeaways from the trial as it heads into closing arguments and deliberations:
Some of the most damning allegations against Raniere center on a Mexican teen whose family joined a NXIVM community based near Albany.
Prosecutors say Raniere groomed her for sex, starting at age 15. They introduced a series of text messages between Raniere and the now-adult woman – whose name and those of other alleged victims were withheld to protect their privacy – to show he abused and manipulated her for years as one of his original slaves.
One 2014 exchange:
“I need a vow of absolute obedience. I expect you to text me this vow now.”
“I vow to do as you say. . 100% obedience.”
In another text, Raniere wrote that he wanted to “find other virgins” for him.
Prosecutors say the defendant, known within his groups as “Vanguard,” also collected nude photos of the victim while she was still underage that were recovered from a computer during the investigation.
They gave jurors a look at the photos while keeping the images hidden from everyone else in the courtroom.
Waiting for Allison Mack
There was anticipation that the highest-profile defendant in the NXIVM case, TV actress and former Raniere loyalist Allison Mack, might testify at the trial in light of her guilty plea to conspiracy and other charges.
She didn’t, but her name came up several times in testimony identifying her as a “master” in a secret society of brainwashed sex slaves for Raniere sometimes called “The Vow.”
A former member of the sorority testified that Mack, best known for her role as a friend of a young Superman in the “Smallville” series, recruited her in 2016 and ordered her to do whatever Raniere wanted.
“Now, go be a good slave,” she testified Mack told her.
The 31-year-old witness said Raniere ended up tying her to a table while blindfolded so another woman could perform a sex act on her.
She said it left her “completely in shock.”
“Master, please brand me. It would be an honor.”
It was after reciting those words in 2017, that Lauren Salzman was held down as another Raniere devotee used a cauterizing pen to etch the initials of Raniere into an area near her pelvis, according to her testimony. It was “the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced,” she said.
The 42-year-old Salzman, a former member of Raniere’s inner circle who pleaded guilty and agreed to become a government cooperator, was one of two witnesses to testify about submitting to a barbaric ritual meant to show his slaves devotion to him.
Salzman testified that she organized other brandings, inviting women to her house, where they were required to strip naked and sit blindfolded in a circle as part of the ritual.
The first woman branded, she said, “was screaming and squealing.”
Turning the tables
Another witness testified about turning the tables on the man known as a master manipulator.
The 29-year-old witness testified that after taking NXIVM self-help courses as a way to overcome childhood traumas, she was recruited by Mack to join the sex slave subgroup. He said she was horrified when Mack gave an assignment in 2017 to “seduce” Raniere, something she should consider it an “honor.”
“It was basically my worst nightmare come to life,” she testified.
Before anything happened, she said, she came up with a story that she needed to return to California to deal with a family illness. Then she flattered Raniere by writing him a glowing note about the “bliss” she had achieved because of him, saying “You are an incredible human being.”
It was a con job, she said.
“Were you feeling more bliss?” she was asked on cross-examination.
“Yeah,” she shot back. “Because I was leaving.”