BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – A former member of the purported self-help group NXIVM’s executive board testified Monday that its ex-leader Keith Raniere tried to “break” women in the organization by putting them on very stringent diets.
Mark Vicente, a 53-year-old filmmaker, said he was a member of the Albany-based organization for 12 years and once served as its chief videographer before raising concerns about the group’s practices and eventually leaving in 2017.
Raniere, 58, was known as “Vanguard” within the organization, which is widely described as a cult. Raniere now faces federal charges including forced labor, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, wire fraud and violations of federal anti-racketeering law and is expected to be on trial for about six weeks.
Much of the case against Raniere revolves around a secretive group he’s alleged to have created within NXIVM (pronounced Nexium), called DOS, in which women were said to have been branded with his initials, served as slaves and forced to have sex with him.
Vicente is the second witness in the trial, following a woman named Sylvie who testified she was a member of DOS and was sexually assaulted by Raniere.
He told jurors Monday he started having serious doubts about the organization in 2015, around the same time prosecutors allege DOS was taking shape.
Prosecutors say women in DOS were on highly restricted diets, which Vicente described as one of his early red flags.
“I began to see a lot of the women just looking rake thin,” he said. “Skeletal.”
The women ate things like cucumbers and squash, Vicente
said, to the extent that their fingers turned the colors of the food.
“My gravest concern back then was Allison Mack,” he said.
Mack, 36, is a Teen Choice award winner and former actress on “Smallville” who was indicted alongside Raniere and pleaded guilty last month to several charges. She’s accused of being a “first-line master” within DOS.
Vicente, who ranked high within NXIVM as a member of its executive board and at one point one of Raniere’s trusted companions, said he addressed the problem with Raniere on multiple occasions.
“She looks broken,” Vicente told jurors he’d said to Raniere.
“Well, I’m trying to break her,” Raniere reportedly responded. “She’s still getting her period.”
There was also a “club” of women gathering around Mack, said Vicente, and none of them looked healthy.
One of them was a woman named India, identified in court only by her first name but likely India Oxenberg, daughter of “Dynasty” actress Catherine Oxenberg, who has long been public about her efforts to get her daughter out of NXIVM. India was “in love” with Mack, Vicente testified.
Raniere was trying to break the women’s pride, Vicente understood. This typically would have been considered a good thing within NXIVM, which purported to encourage humility.
“But I couldn’t understand why somebody withering away was going to fix that,” Vicente said Monday.
On another occasion, possibly in April 2017, Vicente said he told Raniere, “I’m really worried about these women — they look like zombies.”
Using what Vicente called a “practice of deflection,” Raniere allegedly responded: “You have to define what a zombie is.”
Vicente, who first took the stand last Wednesday, has largely served as a bird’s-eye view explainer of NXIVM and what he said were about 60 additional companies under its umbrella.
Raniere carefully cultivated a shadowy persona of untouchable intelligence, Vicente explained, assisted by his inner circle, which included his co-defendant Nancy Salzman, known within NXIVM as “Prefect.” She pleaded guilty in March to racketeering conspiracy charges.
“By the time you saw [Raniere], it was a little bit like you were seeing some kind of god,” Vicente said last week.
Salzman espoused Raniere’s power to heal and even affect the weather, Vicente told the jury last week — to which one juror, hand over his mouth, stared at Raniere across the courtroom and chuckled to himself, looking incredulous.
Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko, questioning
Vicente, focused heavily last week on a 2008 incident in which Vicente and the
rest of NXIVM’s video team, at Raniere’s request, altered videotapes that were
to be used in a court case against a critic of the organization.
The indictment includes a racketeering act of “conspiracy to alter records for use in an official proceeding” between February 2008 and March 2018.
Vicente and several other members spent hours in the summer of 2008 inserting glitches into more than 10 tapes and then aging the tapes themselves using sandpaper and rocks to make them look like they had not been altered, he said.
Lesko asked Vicente if he thought at the time that what they
were doing was illegal.
“Yes and no,” Vicente said, explaining that his mindset had been that NXIVM and Raniere’s ethics were superior to those of the government or the courts.
“This must be for a higher good,” he said. On Monday, jurors saw his immunity letter, which excuses him from prosecution as long as he doesn’t lie on the stand.
Vicente also discussed plans by the two men for a couple of collaborative film ideas. Raniere, apparently a climate denier, wanted to make a film called “Carbon Crimes,” which would show that global warming was a scheme perpetuated by people like Al Gore in order to make money, Vicente said.
Not a fan of the press, Raniere also had an idea for a cult-busting film that would pay a family a million dollars to pretend like they were a cult, and then reveal the truth at the end, to prove that cults were a myth created by the media, Vicente said.
At one point before 2010, Vicente recalled, NXIVM members made a donation to a Clinton campaign, though he said he could not recall Monday which campaign or even which Clinton received the money. Clare Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune and high-ranking member of NXIVM, wanted to make a donation but was barred by campaign contribution limits. So Vicente wrote a check for two or three thousand dollars and Bronfman paid him back, he said.
NXIVM affiliates donated nearly $30,000 to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, according to election records. Bronfman and her sister also donated $20,000 to the state Republican Senate Campaign Committee in the early 2000s, according to the New York Post. Bronfman, indicted alongside Raniere, pleaded guilty last month.
Vicente also testified that Emiliano Salinas, son of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas, was a high-ranking member of NXIVM and helped lead the group’s Mexico City programs.
As his former colleague spoke and even cried on the witness stand over several days, Raniere, wearing brightly colored sweaters over dress shirts, took notes with a yellow pencil in his left hand and shoved his thick-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose.
A series of bizarre videos played for jurors Monday afternoon showed Raniere in his study, which NXIVM members called the “executive library,” posing for a photo shoot with Vicente and several others.
The room has by now been searched by federal authorities, who say they found child pornography there and that Raniere essentially used it as a sex den for several of his slaves. It includes a set of stairs that led to a lofted bed with a hot tub underneath.
The six videos depict a graying Raniere with the mannerisms of a prepubescent boy — giving the middle finger; telling the others he gets “sleepy or horny” when he takes his glasses off; pretending to answer his phone by saying “lick me”; referring to a “woman’s piggy,” which was not described; and making multiple jokes about bestiality with goats and sheep.
Vicente also photographed Raniere frowning at a complex grouping of symbols and numbers on a whiteboard, presumably meant to be some kind of mathematical problem.
Prosecutor Lesko is expected to wrap up his lengthy direct examination of Vicente on Tuesday, to be followed by cross-examination by the defense team.