Every Major Player From The New HBO NXIVM Docuseries The Vow, Explained

PHoto: Courtesy of HBO.
Last summer, the highly secretive, self-improvement group NXIVM made international headlines after some of its most deeply involved members faced charges of sex trafficking, racketeering, and forced labor, along with a whole host of disturbing accusations from sex slaves to human branding. HBO’s new documentary series, The Vow, attempts to untangle the cult's complicated web as it takes a nuanced look at the organization and a number of its most devoted from what drew them into the shocking headlines to the conflicting claims of profound transformation and harmful abuse. 
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The downfall of NXIVM began with a New York Times exposé in October 2017 in which former members professed that they had been starved, branded, and blackmailed while part of the organization. Prior to being exposed, the organization many former members claim is a cult described itself as a multi-level marketing company offering personal and professional development seminars based near Albany, New York. On its website, NXIVM claims to be “a community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human.” Through its “Executive Success Programs,” participants sought to improve their lives and better their futures. What new members didn’t know was that beneath the guise of self-help programs and personal betterment were secret groups within the organization which was responsible for the most damning accusations. 
Documentary makers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer co-directed the series, bringing forward a point often missed in the flurry of media coverage: the emotional toll the unfolding of the NXIVM scandal had on members who originally joined the group in the pursuit of personal growth.
We’ve put together a list of NXIVM’s key players that you will see throughout the series along with a little background on who they are and how they came to be involved.
The first episode of HBO’s nine-part documentary The Vow airs on August 23 at 10:00 p.m. ET.

Keith Raniere

Keith Raniere co-founded NXIVM in 1998 with Nancy Salzman. Over the course of 20 years, Raniere attracted nearly 20,000 people to the group’s headquarters in Albany with the promise of life-changing self-help courses. He claimed that his teachings, during which many learned to refer to Raniere as “Vanguard,” could not only improve a person’s life but could possibly achieve world peace. He presented himself as a New Age philosopher who could help his students break through psychological and emotional barriers.
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Federal prosecutors would later describe NXIVM as a deeply manipulative pyramid scheme. In the 2017 NYT article, former members accused Raniere of manipulation, coercion, and forming a secret inner circle of women — called DOS — which he treated as sex slaves. Women in DOS claim Raniere forced them to adhere to strict deprivation diets and used a cauterizing pen to brand them with his initials.
Raniere fled to Mexico in February 2018 after the article came out. A warrant was issued for his arrest and he was extradited one month later. His trial began in May 2019 and it took less than five hours for the jury to find him guilty on all counts. “Raniere was truly a modern-day Svengali,” said Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue outside the courthouse, reports Associated Press.  
In June 2019, Raniere was found guilty of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and others totaling 11 charges. He faces a potential sentence of 15 years to life which will be determined on October 27, 2020. 

Mark Vicente

Mark Vicente, a filmmaker and NXIVM member for more than a decade, became one of the key whistleblowers in revealing the organization for what it really was. Vicente claims that he was contacted by NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman after the release of a documentary he co-directed in 2004. Soon, he was taking courses and rising the ranks. He was eventually considered among the group’s upper ranks. Vicente even made a documentary called Encender el CorazónIgnite the Heart — which praised Raniere’s work in Mexico.
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In May 2017, Vicente first heard about a secret society of women Raniere ordered to complete sexual favors for him. His wife, Bonnie Piesse, left NXIVM and was immediately ostracized. That is when the illusion shattered and Vicente decided to talk. 
Vicente signed an immunity agreement with prosecutors and testified against Raniere. During his testimony, Vicente described much of the inner-workings of NXIVM and how Raniere evaded his questions when he heard about the women Raniere was keeping as sex slaves.

Allison Mack

Famous for playing Chloe Sullivan on Smallville, Allison Mack joined NXIVM to “find purpose” when she was unsatisfied with her acting career in 2010. Soon, she became part of its inner circle. According to a 2018 interview with the NYT, she said that she came up with the idea to brand women in DOS. “I was like: ‘Y’all, a tattoo? People get drunk and tattooed on their ankle ‘BFF,’ or a tramp stamp,” said Mack. 
Mack was accused of playing a key role in recruiting women into NXIVM and DOS. DOS was yet another pyramid scheme within the organization that grew more successful as women were asked to bring in other women as “slaves,” becoming their “master” in the process. Those “slaves” would recruit “slaves” of their own, thus becoming a “master” themselves. It is estimated that 150 women joined in total. Mack allegedly recruited women, even tweeting at celebrities like Emma Watson, inviting them to learn more about the program. After Mack was charged, actresses and journalists like Samia Shoaib and Noor Tagouri said that Mack approached them to join her “women’s group.”
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In 2018, Mack was arrested and charged with sex trafficking, forced labor, and racketeering, reports Time. She was later released on a $5 million bail. On April 8, 2019, Mack took a plea deal to avoid being tried on some of the more severe charges levied against her. In turn, she pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy and one count of racketeering as well as admitting that she lured women into NXIVM. “I was lost,” she said in court. “I must take full responsibility for my conduct.” 
Mack faces a maximum of 40 years in prison, 20 years on each count. She was originally set to be sentenced on September 11, 2019, but the date was pushed to allow for more time to complete pre-sentencing reports. It does not appear to have been rescheduled, though some other high-ranking NXIVM members’ sentencing dates are set to occur next month.

Nancy Saltzman

In 1998, Nancy Saltzman, a former psychiatric nurse, co-founded NXIVM alongside Raniere and served as president of the organization. According to court documents, members of the group often referred to her as “Prefect.” 
As co-founder, Salzman is accused of being part of the organization’s criminal enterprise, specifically, she was accused of identity theft and altering records to influence the outcome of a civil lawsuit against the organization, reports the NYT. According to documents from the Department of Justice, Salzman is accused of conspiring with Raniere to obstruct justice. The lawsuit was initiated by NXIVM against a former student. In a countersuit, Salzman was ordered to turn over videos of courses the student had taken. Salzman allegedly edited the videos to remove materials that may have supported the former student’s claims.
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Her daughter, Lauren Salzman has also been charged in connection to NXIVM for reported involvement in DOS branding ceremonies and working with Raniere to obtain property from their “slaves” through fraud and extortion. 
When Raniere and Mack were arrested in March 2018, federal agents raided Salzman’s home seizing $523,000 in cash. She was arrested and charged with racketeering conspiracy and identity theft several months later, reports Time. Salzman pleaded guilty in March 2019 saying in court: “I accept that some of what I did was not just wrong, but criminal. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would. But I can’t.” According to a document from the DOJ, each charge of racketeering conspiracy carries a sentence of 20 years imprisonment if convicted. Identity theft carries an additional maximum sentence of 15 years.
Salzman is still awaiting sentencing.

Bonnie Piesse

Bonnie Piesse is an Australian actress who was a member of NXIVM before leaving in January 2017. She is married to whistleblower Vicente and is primarily known for playing young Aunt Beru in Star Wars: Attack of The Clones. Piesse is also a singer-songwriter.
She reportedly helped India Oxenberg, daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg, leave NXIVM after Raniere’s arrest in March 2018. In The Vow, Piesse tells her own story in depth and in detail.
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Clare Bronfman & Sara Bronfman

Heiresses to the Seagram liquor fortune, Sara and Clare Bronfman got involved in NXIVM early on when it was still called Executive Success Programs. In 2002, Sara was introduced to the program by a family friend. She took a $7,500 intensive course and later encouraged Clare to take a course herself. According to a blog post from Sara, she was “in search of finding ways to bring peace to the world.”
As both sisters got more involved in the organization, they became massive financial backers in its expansion. Legal filings show that as much as $150 million was taken out of the Bronfmans’ trust and bank accounts. Additionally, $66 million allegedly covered Raniere’s failed investment bets, $30 million was spent on buying real estate in Los Angeles and Albany, $11 million for a 22-seat jet, $6.5 million on an apartment in the Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York for Salzman to use, and millions more to pay for lawsuits against NXIVM’s enemies.
Though both Sara and Clare were named by Vicente as part of Raniere’s “trusted group,” Sara was never formally accused of a crime, whereas Clare now faces charges of racketeering as a member of NXIVM’s executive board. In the DOJ indictment, she is accused of conspiring with Raniere to commit identity theft. She is also accused of helping someone gain illegal entry into the United States by making wire transfers to make it fraudulently appear that they had financial resources to obtain an investor visa.
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“I am truly remorseful,” said Clare in court, reports the NYT. “I wanted to do good in the world.” She pleaded guilty to conspiring to conceal and harbor an undocumented immigrant for financial gain and for fraudulent use of identification in April 2019. According to the U.S. Justice Department, Clare, faces between 21 and 27 months in prison and is awaiting sentencing.
Sara was never charged, but did agree to give up her ownership interests in NXIVM’s properties in exchange for a 20 percent share of their sale following federal forfeiture proceedings, reports the Telegraph

Sarah Edmondson

Sarah Edmondson joined NXIVM in the early 2000s to take some self-help courses. The Vancouver-based actress eventually rose through the ranks over the course of a decade to a star recruiter who brought in approximately 2,000 people. Edmondson also founded the cult’s first and only Canadian chapter. Eventually, Lauren Salzman, daughter of the group’s co-founder, came in January 2016 to teach workshops in Vancouver.
“Lauren was someone I really looked up to as a rock star within the company,” Edmondson told the NYT in a 2017 interview. During her visit, Salzman confided in Edmondson about a top-secret group created to empower women, DOS; however, in order to hear more about it, Salzman asked Edmondson to provide collateral to ensure her silence. Other women who joined were asked to provide similar revealing information such as nude photographs, letters detailing past indiscretions, anything compromising that could later be used to keep them from speaking about the group. Prospective members were warned that this “collateral” might be publicly released if they disclosed the group’s existence.
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In March 2017, Edmondson and four other women went to Mack’s home in Albany to join DOS by participating in an initiation ceremony. Edmondson says she was told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. In reality, these women were asked to hold each other down as they were individually branded with a cauterizing pen. The mark was a symbol that resembled both Raniere’s and Mack’s initials, depending on its orientation. According to another woman who came forward, Salzman instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”
In May 2017, Edmondson pulled away from NXIVM and filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Health against Danielle Roberts, a licensed osteopath and follower of Raniere, who she claims performed the branding. She also spoke with a state police investigator with two other women who left the group. Both said they wouldn’t pursue an investigation. In the case of Roberts, the agency declined to pursue it because Roberts was not acting as Edmondson’s doctor when the branding took place. State police said they would not pursue their criminal complaint against NXIVM because their actions appeared to be consensual.
In response, NXIVM filed criminal complaints of its own with Vancouver police against Edmondson and the other two women accusing them of mischief and other crimes in connection with the now-closed Vancouver chapter.

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