BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – In February 2016, two young actresses met up at The Ace Hotel in Manhattan to talk. One of the women, Nicole, had just told the other she was depressed and feeling suicidal. Her acquaintance, Allison Mack, had a suggestion.
“She said she thought she had something that would fix how I was feeling,” Nicole, identified only by her first name, testified Thursday in the Brooklyn trial of Keith Raniere, former leader of the purported self-help group NXIVM (pronounced Nexium).
That “something” was what Mack described as a secret women’s empowerment and mentorship organization, Nicole testified. She would learn later that the group was actually DOS, or “The Vow,” a secretive sex cult within NXIVM that is said to have trafficked women as slaves, branded them with Raniere’s initials, and sometimes forced them to have sex with him.
Raniere faces charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, and sexual exploitation of a child, among others. The indictment accuses him and Mack of soliciting Nicole for sex trafficking and forced labor. This is the fifth week of his trial.
“I think [I agreed to join] because I wanted something to be hopeful for, and I thought maybe what she was talking about would help,” Nicole told Raniere’s jury through tears Thursday.
She also thought Mack could be a good career mentor for her.
“Looking back, I don’t think I was thinking rationally,” she said.
Though the group’s lifetime commitment and demand for “collateral” scared her, Nicole handed over the collateral to Mack, including a letter falsely accusing her father of sexually abusing her.
“Compared to where I was at mentally, yeah, [the group] sounded pretty good,” she said.
Mack, Raniere’s co-defendant, reportedly served as one of eight “first-line” slave masters in DOS. She pleaded guilty in April to racketeering charges and forced labor. It’s not yet clear whether she will testify against Raniere.
For Nicole, it was a slow buildup
to DOS. She had big career goals and explained to the jury she was “always”
taking acting classes. So when her then-boyfriend, Canadian actor Mark
Hildreth, suggested an acting class called “The Source,” she agreed to try it. She took her first course in April 2015, she
The Source curriculum was developed by NXIVM and taught in Nicole’s case by Mack, who had starred in a 10-season stint of the hit TV show “Smallville.”
While underwhelmed by NXIVM courses themselves and wary of the group’s reverence of Raniere — its claim that he was the smartest man in the world “just sounds like bullshit to me,” Nicole testified Thursday, to resounding laughter from the courtroom — she was impressed by Mack.
Co-defendant Lauren Salzman, a fellow first-line master who also pleaded guilty, testified last month that Mack had given her slaves “seduction assignments … it turned out the assignment was she had tasked them to seduce Keith,” Salzman said.
When she joined DOS, Nicole testified she didn’t know sex was involved or that Raniere had anything to do with the group.
Nicole would remain in DOS for over a year, she said. Her first assignment from Mack was to stop sleeping with Hildreth, whom she’d been casually seeing. Her second assignment was to be celibate for three months, she testified, and her third was to “reach out to” Raniere.
Jurors on Thursday saw a professional, networking-style email from Nicole to Raniere, to which he did not respond. Mack pushed her to get an answer from him, Nicole testified. In a Facebook message shown to jurors, Mack asked Nicole, “How do you get the attention of the smartest man in the world?”
Nicole’s direct examination will resume Friday morning.