BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – The founder of international professional-development group NXIVM was arrested Monday on federal charges of running a cult-like organization in which female members were branded and considered sex slaves.
Deported from Mexico on Sunday, Keith Raniere, 57, is scheduled for arraignment in the Northern District of Texas at 2 p.m. Tuesday. He is expected to be transferred then to the Eastern District of New York where the complaint against him was unsealed Monday afternoon.
Headquartered in Albany, NXIVM conducts training, coaching and ethics programs in more than 32 countries. As noted in the complaint, the group, whose name is pronounced as Nexium, has features of a pyramid scheme, but Raniere’s alleged conduct involved his position at the top of a cult-like secret society within the group called DOS.
“DOS operates as a pyramid with levels of ‘slaves’ headed by ‘masters,’” FBI special agent Michael Lever wrote in an affidavit supporting Raniere’s indictment. “Slaves are expected to recruit slaves of their own (thus becoming masters themselves), who in turn owe service not only to their own masters but also to masters above them in the DOS pyramid.” (Parentheses in original.)
NXIVM did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday afternoon, though an undated note purportedly from Raniere called “Letter from Keith Raniere on Current Situation” was posted on the group’s website.
“The picture being painted in the media is not how I know our community and friends to be, nor how I experience it myself,” the statement says. “Over the past months, there have been extensive independent investigations performed, by highly qualified individuals, and they have firmly concluded that there is no merit to the allegations that we are abusing, coercing or harming individuals. These allegations are most disturbing to me as non-violence is one of my most important values.”
In the statement, Raniere also claims that the “sorority” is not part of NXIVM and that he is not associated with the group.
The complaint says some of the women recruited by DOS were dissatisfied “with the pace of their advancement at NXIVM.” In exchange for “an opportunity to join an organization that would change her life,” each new slave was forced to provide collateral, like sexually explicit photographs or other personal information, according to the complaint.
It also says at least one woman described the society as a “women’s mentorship group.” This collection of collateral turned into a monthly pattern of extortion, according to the complaint.
Prosecutors say Raniere forced the women to have sex with him and no one else while being lectured under “NXIVM curriculum” that men should have many sexual partners while women should be monogamous.
Many slaves were allegedly branded in their pubic regions with Raniere’s initials, using a cauterizing pen. Some were deprived of sleep or kept on low-calorie diets, because Raniere preferred women to be “exceptionally thin,” according to the complaint.
Prosecutors say they also were made to edit Raniere’s articles, refer to him as “The Vanguard, take ice-cold showers and perform difficult physical exercises. If they did not, they believed their collateral would be released.
Raniere, of Waterford, N.Y., was arrested in Mexico after he was found Sunday outside Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in a luxury villa.
This is not the first time NXIVM has faced accusations of cult-like activity. Raneiere filed a defamation claim in 2009 against parents who, citing a 2003 Forbes article, said their son had been involved in a “cult-like program” led by Raniere. Heiresses to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, Clare and Sara Bronfman, were both reported in 2010 to follow Raniere; Clare Bronfman is alleged to be his current financial backer.
In May 2017, a woman who claimed to be a former DOS slave defected publicly and The New York Times published a story about the alleged cult. In January 2018, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Pollak signed an order for a search warrant of an email account believed to be Raniere’s.
U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue requested in a detention memo Monday that Raniere be permanently detained pending trial.
“This Office and our law enforcement partners are committed to the prosecution of those who break the law by preying upon and violating members of our community,” said Donoghue in a statement Monday.
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. used stronger language.
“These serious crimes against humanity are not only shocking, but disconcerting to say the least, and we are putting an end to this torture today,” he said.
If he is convicted, Raniere would face 15 years to life in prison.