Lawyer for Accused Cult Leader Says No Crime Took Place

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – In his last opportunity to defend the NXIVM cult leader in front of a federal jury, an attorney said Monday afternoon that Keith Raniere might be a philanderer but that having multiple intimate partners is not a crime.

“That’s the key,” Marc Agnifilo told jurors as Raniere looked on, clad in his typical gem-tone sweater and thick glasses. “I think that people were making choices. … It’s imbalanced – Keith lives a lifestyle that is in some ways inconceivable. … But he did, and they agreed.”

This still from a video in the YouTube series “Keith Raniere Conversations” shows the NXIVM leader who will begin trial May 7 on sex-trafficking and other charges.

Raniere, who founded a purported self-help group headquartered in the Albany suburbs, stands charged in Brooklyn with violating federal anti-racketeering law, sex trafficking, forced labor, and creation and possession of child pornography, among other charges.

Prosecutors say he created a secretive sex cult styled as a women’s empowerment group, called “The Vow” or DOS, within NXIVM, that trafficked women for sex and labor and branded them with his initials. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.

In her closing arguments Monday morning, the beginning of the trial’s seventh week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza asked the jury to convict Raniere on all counts.

“The ‘whys’ in this case are as old as time,” she said. “Sex, money, power.”

Raniere “used tactics that destroyed victims’ sense of self,” created financial dependence, and isolated them from their friends and family, Penza told jurors, scrolling through a detailed PowerPoint presentation as she spoke.

Several of his alleged victims, including former DOS slaves India Oxenberg and two women identified only as Nicole and J, the latter two of whom testified against Raniere in the trial’s final weeks, were in the courtroom for the prosecution’s closing statement.

Fellow government witness and former NXIVM member Mark Vicente sat in the back row of the gallery as well. Oxenberg’s mother, “Dynasty” actress Catherine Oxenberg, was also in attendance.

Penza clicked through addresses and photos of various homes prosecutors say housed nefarious activities, such as Nicole’s alleged sexual assault by Raniere’s then-grown child pornography victim, Camila, at Raniere’s direction.

“The closed doors of these cookie-cutter homes could seem straight out of a horror movie,” Penza said. “But for the defendant’s victims, they were all too real.”

Agnifilo contended to the jury that while Raniere, whom NXIVM members called “Vanguard,” could be a “pain in the neck” and even a little full of himself, DOS was merely a “social group” that he wanted the women to run by and for themselves.

Some of the activities DOS members engaged in, like branding each other with Raniere’s initials – which prosecutors say was Raniere’s idea and instruction – were “pretty out there,” Agnifilo said. “That doesn’t make it a crime.”

DOS was not for everybody, Agnifilo said.

“It’s strong medicine — it has to be used under the right circumstances, on the right people, at the right time,” the defense attorney said.

Agnifilo also said Raniere was sleeping with so many women pre-DOS that he didn’t need to create the group to funnel in more partners, one of the prosecution’s claims.

“There’s no shortage,” Agnifilo said. “There has been no shortage of intimate partners for Keith Raniere … for better or worse, this is his lifestyle.”

He also downplayed Raniere’s role at what prosecutors say was the head of the criminal enterprise, emphasizing that Raniere preferred to stay out of the nitty gritty of NXIVM and DOS. Agnifilo tried to frame Raniere’s ex-partner Kristin Keeffe, who mothered his first son, as the vindictive one.

Prosecutors say Raniere often made demands of his underlings without explaining why, and they followed his orders without asking. But Agnifilo framed this differently, saying there was no proof Raniere had, for example, ordered Vicente to alter videotapes the group turned over in the discovery process of a federal trial.

As for the charge that Raniere used extortion to keep women in DOS through the collection of collateral, Agnifilo said such extortion was “purely theoretical” and “not in anybody’s heart.”

Penza, though, was unequivocal.

“The defendant can’t hide anymore,” she told jurors. “A light had been shined into the darkness…the victims are thriving … and he’s being held accountable to you.”

Agnifilo is expected to conclude his closing arguments Tuesday morning, followed by the government’s rebuttal. Jurors should get the case by the afternoon.

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