Churchill Invoked During Start of NY Sex-Cult Trial

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – A defense attorney invoked Winston Churchill and Atticus Finch in his opening statement Tuesday on behalf of cult founder Keith Raniere, hours before a woman testified that she had been extorted into sending nude photos to the leader of the purported self-help group NXIVM.

NXIVM leader Keith Raniere is depicted second from right in this April 2018 courtroom sketch. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Raniere, 58, faces charges including forced labor, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, wire fraud and violations of federal anti-racketeering law. Many of those charges revolve around a secretive group DOS that prosecutors say operated within NXIVM (pronounced Nexium). His federal trial in Brooklyn is expected to last about six weeks.

“We will defend our island home,” defense attorney Marc Agnifilo said, paraphrasing a 1940 Churchill speech before the British Parliament during World War II.

“And I will defend my island home in this courtroom,” Agnifilo continued. “And my island home is that man’s good faith. My island home is that man’s good intentions.”

The first witness in the trial, who took the stand Tuesday after opening statements by Agnifilo and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar, was a woman identified only as “Sylvie.” Over the course of the afternoon, Sylvie described a years-long process by which people involved in NXIVM – particularly Raniere and his co-defendant, Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, who pleaded guilty last month – reeled her in through an intricate process of manipulation.

After what she described as an “enchanted” childhood in England, Sylvie left high school to pursue a career as a competitive horse show jumper. She was first connected to Bronfman through an event in Europe, she said. At 18, she moved to New York to take a job at Bronfman’s farm upstate, thinking it would help her career. She testified she quickly got involved in NXIVM courses through Bronfman, who paid for them, and though she was off-put at first, Sylvie eventually worked her way up in the organization.

At one point Raniere became her running coach, though she said she didn’t think he had any experience with running. He was “presented as able to … teach anyone in anything,” she said at one point.

Sylvie, who had struggled with anorexia as a girl, noticed early on that the other women in the community had disordered relationships with food. Her anorexia eventually returned, and at one point she said she weighed about 90 pounds. She reported to Bronfman and Raniere every day and did not seek medical help until she developed a fistula, she said, and was on the verge of sepsis.

The direct examination, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza, ended for the day on a tense note.

Sylvie said that around the fall of 2015 she was recruited by a woman named Monica Duran, whom she considered a big sister figure, into something called a “master-slave project,” which appears to be DOS. Duran called it an exciting new project and collected collateral from Sylvie: a stamped, addressed letter to her parents that explained she wanted to be a prostitute.

Sylvie’s first assignment in the project was to seduce Raniere.

“I was like, oh, God, this is not what I want to do,” Sylvie said. “But my understanding was this was an assignment from my master and I didn’t have a choice.”

At the time, Sylvie was married to a fellow NXIVM member named John in an effort to get a green card. Raniere had instructed the couple not to have sex for two years, she said, so they were celibate.

Sylvie sent Raniere a WhatsApp message telling him he looked hot in his glasses, she told the jury, but said that wasn’t enough for him. He asked for photos. She sent one of her face, but then at his urging, she said, she gradually started to move the camera down.

“In the end, I was sending him naked pictures,” she said, “just photos of my vagina, basically … I think at times he gave me actual poses that would be good to do.”

Sylvie described herself holed up in the bathroom she shared with John, taking photos to send to Raniere.
The photos stopped, Sylvie said, when her father messaged her on Facebook. She said both her father and John were in the gallery.
“I found your medical pictures,” she said her father wrote to her. Their iCloud accounts had been shared, she said, and as she deleted the photos they must have gone to a folder where he could see them.

“So I was absolutely horrified,” Sylvie said.  

Duran told Sylvie she would have to get Raniere’s permission to stop sending photos. So she went to the vanguard, she said. She began to cry on the stand, and U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, who is presiding over the trial, stood up to bring her a box of tissues.

“He said I could stop sending the photos,” Sylvie said, “and the next thing would be in person.”

Then jurors were excused for the day.

At one point during his opening statement, as he discussed the photos of nude women likely to be entered into evidence, Agnifilo took a piece of paper and made a Mobius strip. NXIVM sees people like that strip, he said.

“Your insides are your outsides; there’s no distinction,” he said. “It’s all one side…It’s just a body in its natural state, and it should be celebrated.”  

Raniere, who allegedly went by “vanguard” in NXIVM circles, wore a blue collared shirt and taupe sweater, listened attentively, and took notes at the defense table. He was flanked by the rest of his defense team, which includes Paul DerOhannesian, Danielle Smith and Teny Geragos.

In his opener, Agnifilo also paraphrased a quote by Atticus Finch, the fictional defense attorney in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Finch says of his fictional client, accused rapist Tom Robinson. “Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Agnifilo asked jurors to do the same.                                                                      

“From the jury box,” he said, “you will walk through Keith Raniere’s life.”

During her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hajjar focused on a Mexican family that had come to the U.S., recruited by Raniere in the early 2000s. There were three daughters and one son, she said. Raniere had sex with the youngest daughter, Camilla, when she was 15 and he was 45, Hajjar said. He also allegedly forced another daughter, Daniela, to stay in a room for two years with just a mattress, paper and pen after she developed feelings for another man. The door was unlocked, Hajjar said, but Daniela thought that if she left, Raniere would have her deported.

“This was organized crime, and Keith Raniere was a crime boss,” Hajjar said, later adding, “What the defendant wanted had nothing to do with empowering women and everything to do with enslaving them.”

At the end of the day Agnifilo moved for a mistrial, claiming the government practice of referring to some people and witnesses by only their first names but others by their full names was confusing and would bias the jury into thinking that some people were victims even though Raniere is presumed innocent. The judge did not rule from the bench.

The trial is set to resume Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.

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