BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – The fate of accused sex-cult leader Keith Raniere is now in the hands of a jury in Brooklyn.
Raniere was known as “Vanguard” within NXIVM, the purported self-help group headquartered near Albany that operated like a multi-level marketing scheme. He’s accused of creating a secretive sex cult called “The Vow” or DOS within NXIVM that trafficked women as slaves and branded them with his initials. Raniere faces charges of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, forced labor, sex trafficking, and creating and possessing child pornography, among other charges.
A notorious womanizer, Raniere slept with all five of his indicted co-defendants: Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, “Smallville” actress Allison Mack, NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell, and mother-daughter NXIVM duo Nancy and Lauren Salzman. All five pleaded guilty before the trial began on May 7, and Lauren Salzman testified against him.
Raniere’s lawyer Marc Agnifilo conceded in his closing statement Tuesday that some of the evidence in the case was “repulsive,” “disgusting” and “offensive.”
“But we don’t convict people in this country for being repulsive or offensive,” he said.
Agnifilo also said Raniere was not abusive to women. On rebuttal, Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko disagreed with his opponent.
“What room has he been in for the past six weeks?” Lesko asked incredulously, referring to Agnifilo.
Female witnesses have testified that Raniere pulled their pants down without their consent, put his genitals on one woman’s face as she pretended to sleep, photographed his partners naked in ways they did not want, physically assaulted them, monitored their weight and others’ and once rigged up a security camera in front of a refrigerator so he could mock one of his partners for eating. He also stands accused of sexually assaulting one witness and orchestrating the sex assault of another.
Over the course of their approximately six-week case, prosecutors including Assistant U.S. Attorneys Moira Penza, Tanya Hajjar and Lesko brought well over a dozen witnesses to the stand, including FBI agents, a chiropractor, a psychologist, former NXIVM members and DOS slaves, and even an employee of an online BDSM sex toy shop.
The most potentially damaging charges are those that allege sexual exploitation of a woman named Camila, now nearly 30, whom the government said was 15 when the defendant started having sex with her and photographed her naked. The jury saw those photos from 2005 last week, just before the government rested its case.
Camila’s older sister Daniela testified last month that she was held in a room for two years on Raniere’s orders after she kissed another man. She had been performing oral sex on Raniere regularly since she turned 18, she said, and had been illegally brought across the U.S.-Canada border in 2004. Daniela learned about Camila’s sexual relationship with Raniere in 2006, when Camila would have been 16.
Daniela and Camila, part of a family of six Mexican nationals who were all once deeply involved with NXIVM and who play heavily into the prosecution’s case, have an older sister named Marianna who is the mother of one of Raniere’s children. Raniere forced all three sisters to have abortions after they became pregnant from having sex with him, Daniela testified, backed up by a former employee of the clinic and medical records for her abortion and Camila’s. Afterward, Daniela said, Raniere told her that Olympic athletes “get abortions as part of training.”
As a cooperating witness who appeared on the stand to have conflicting feelings about her longtime lover Raniere, co-defendant Lauren Salzman testified that she was a “first-line master” in DOS who, alongside seven other women including Camila and Mack, served directly under Raniere as his slave and recruited women to serve under her. Mack gave her slaves “seduction assignments,” Salzman recalled. Later, two of Mack’s slaves, named only as Nicole and “J,” testified that they had been given such assignments.
Nicole felt she had no choice but to comply, as she had handed over the collateral DOS required of its members, which prosecutors say is extortion. Nicole was driven, double-blindfolded, to an apartment leased by Kathy Russell and occupied by an adult Camila, where Nicole was allegedly tied to a table. Camila performed oral sex on her while Raniere circled the table, filmed and asked questions about Nicole’s sexual history, prosecutors say.
“J” received a similar assignment, but smelled danger and decided to leave DOS, she testified.
Several jurors have vacations planned this month, including one beginning June 23, so they are under some pressure to turn around a quick verdict. If they do not reach a verdict before jurors have to depart for their trips, an alternate will step in and the panelists will have to start over in their deliberations.