On Tuesday, NXIVM founder Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison after he was charged with racketeering, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, and human trafficking last year. His life sentence comes less than a month after NXIVM's main financier, Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman, was sentenced to 81 months in prison.
Despite the unsurprising outcome of the case, Raniere, a self-proclaimed New Age philosopher, has reportedly been “unrepentant” and has directed efforts to “cast himself as a victim” from behind bars. Raniere has been disavowed by a number of members from NXIVM while also continued to see support from others, and continues to maintain that he is "innocent."
The news of his sentence comes after multiple docuseries — including HBO's The Vow — exposed Raniere's organisation as a sex cult that was trafficking women for his own pleasure. Over two decades, NXIVM attracted nearly 20,000 people to the group’s headquarters in Albany, New York with the promise of life-changing self-help courses. Prosecutors argued that, behind the facade of peddling his teachings, was a man controlling his followers through manipulation, humiliation, and exploitation as he simultaneously ran a criminal organisation accused of racketeering and conspiracy.
In 1998, Raniere, who was also referred to as “Vanguard,” co-founded NXIVM with former hypnotherapist Nancy Salzman. Originally named Executive Success Programs, the company grew to encompass more than 60 subsidiaries, some of which were later exposed as dangerous cult-like sects that employed coercion in order to control women as Raniere’s sex slaves.
While posing as a great thinker, Raniere promised all that took his courses that he could help them break through psychological and emotional barriers. Federal prosecutors would later describe NXIVM as a deeply manipulative pyramid scheme, but it was a 2017 New York Times article that exposed the organisation as a sex cult.
Former members accused Raniere of putting together a secret inner circle of women – called DOS – which he treated as sex slaves, convincing them to adhere to strict deprivation diets and hand over damaging "collateral" that would be released should they try to leave or expose Raniere. One former member, Sarah Edmondson, disclosed details of a sordid branding ceremony using a cauterising pen over the women's pelvic area.
Once exposed, Raniere fled to Mexico to avoid the backlash of the article in late 2017. By early 2018, a warrant was issued for his arrest and he was extradited back to the United States in March. His trial began in May 2019 and in less than five hours, the jury found him guilty on all counts, which included racketeering, sex trafficking, and forced labor conspiracy. In total, he was found guilty of 11 charges. “Raniere was truly a modern-day Svengali,” said Brooklyn US Attorney Richard Donoghue outside the courthouse, reports Associated Press.
When sentenced, Raniere faced a potential sentence of 15 years to life in prison, but additional charges were made after his original conviction. On January 28, 2020, a lawsuit was filed in federal court in Brooklyn, New York under which 80 people came forward with yet another iniquitous side of NXIVM. Many of the people included in the suit said that not everyone in NXIVM was Raniere’s sex slave — some were duped by false scientific claims into paying thousands of dollars for classes in the organisation’s insidious pyramid scheme.
The lawsuit names Raniere and 14 other associates, including those who already faced criminal charges. Nearly all of the 80 plaintiffs remain unnamed in court documents to protect their identities, but have accused NXIVM and its leaders of using pyramid schemes and making it “physically and psychologically difficult, and in some cases impossible, to leave the coercive community.”
Despite the life sentence, Raniere's attorneys continue to refute all the charges and claim that he is innocent. “No one was shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, slapped or even yelled at," his attorneys said. “Despite the sex offences, there is no evidence that any woman ever told Keith Raniere that she did not want to kiss him, touch him, hold his hand or have sex with him.”