BROOKLYN (CN) — A federal judge ordered the leader of an Albany-based sex cult to pay victims nearly $3.5 million in restitution on Tuesday, to cover medical and mental health expenses, legal fees and the cost of removing the brands that cult “masters” burned into the skin of their so-called “slaves.”
Keith Raniere, founder of self-help organization NXIVM (pronounced Nexium), ran a secret subgroup called DOS that recruited women — who in turn brought in others — to have sex with Raniere and perform around-the-clock unpaid labor.
Before joining the group, the women had to provide “collateral” like naked photos and false allegations against family members to ensure their secrecy.
Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison last October on charges including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, racketeering, extortion and creation and possession of child pornography.
At a hearing in the Eastern District of New York, which Raniere attended by video from an Arizona federal prison, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis added financial damages to that sentence, ordering Raniere to pay a total of $3.46 million — though it was a heated argument between the judge and one of Raniere’s attorneys that would later eclipse the multimillion dollar payment and steal the show.
Before reading his decision, Garaufis asked Raniere to confirm on the record that it was his choice not to be brought to Brooklyn for the hearing.
“I objected to being transported down here, and I am also objecting to being transported back,” Raniere replied. “So yes.”
Wearing a navy blue short-sleeved button down shirt, Raniere doodled on a sheet of paper while the judge spoke. His salt and pepper hair grazed his shoulders and he appeared clean-shaven, before putting on a loose-fitting, court-issued white cloth mask.
In his yet-unpublished order, Garaufis also ordered the return of the victims’ collateral, instructing Raniere to assist with that effort, although he stayed that portion of his order until Raniere’s Second Circuit appeal has been decided.
The restitution money was split between 21 defendants, 17 of whom were entitled to damages under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and 4 under the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act.
Receiving the largest sum was Camila, a woman who at Raniere’s sentencing described being blackmailed with a nude photo when she was just 15 years old. Raniere “made her completely dependent on him,” abusing her since childhood, Garaufis said. She will receive $507,997.45.
Camila’s older sister Daniela — with whom Raniere began a sexual relationship when she was 18 — was awarded $249,200. Daniela was held captive for two years after she kissed a man other than Raniere, according to her trial testimony, during which time she spent six weeks with a toothache as Raniere ignored her pleas for medical attention. He “only relented when part of her tooth broke off,” Garaufis noted.
The forced labor restitution amounts were calculated to include the 24-hour shifts victims worked, as they were required to participate in middle-of-the-night “readiness drills” and to be available at all hours.
Several victims who had been branded with Raniere’s initials as members of DOS received restitution that included reimbursement for the cost of past or future surgery to remove the scar.
During Tuesday’s hearing, tensions between Raniere’s attorney Marc Fernich and Garaufis escalated into a shouting match after Garaufis brought up a letter from the lawyer — which he denied — requesting to delay the proceedings by at least an hour so that Fernich could attend a family friend’s funeral.
Fernich raised the issue after the decision was read, saying that granting his request was “human decency and professional courtesy.”
Garaufis, who insisted that Fernich could have attended the 11:45 a.m. funeral in Queens and still made it to Brooklyn for the 2 p.m. hearing, did not take kindly to Fernich’s admonition.
Holding up a box of tissues, Garaufis sarcastically told his law clerk to “give him this to go cry,” then ordered Fernich to “be seated or I’ll have you arrested.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Garaufis said.
“Nor have I,” Fernich replied.
A staring contest between the two men ensued, and for 30 minutes, the courtroom sat in near silence. Garaufis began to look around the room, gently swiveling in his chair. Fernich took a swig from a Poland Spring bottle.
At one point, Fernich’s co-counsel, Jeffrey Lichtman, asked to approach the bench. Softly, Garaufis replied, “no.” Some time later, Fernich asked to approach the bench and was denied.
“This is a criminal matter,” Garaufis said. “Everything’s on the record.”
Finally, Fernich stood and spoke, addressing the judge.
“Your Honor, I apologize for disrespecting the court’s institutional authority. It’s an emotional time,” he said, adding that the deceased, a Long Island defense attorney, was a “quasi-father figure.”
“I apologize for losing my head with the court,” Fernich said.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Garaufis replied calmly, saying he knew the deceased, and asking Fernich to “please extend my condolences to the family.”
While Raniere sat for a six-week trial in 2019, the other defendants indicted along with the cult’s founder all pleaded guilty to their involvement.
Among them was “Smallville” actress Allison Mack, who recruited members by inviting them to join a “women’s mentorship group,” and together with Raniere devised the branding ceremony for “slaves” within DOS. She instructed members to “seduce” Raniere and provide photographic evidence of their success.
Mack was sentenced to three years in prison, with Garaufis acknowledging that she was both a front-line leader of the scheme and one of its victims.
Next week a sentencing hearing is scheduled for Lauren Salzman, the daughter of former NXIVM president Nancy Salzman, who is also set to be sentenced later this year.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.