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NXIVM sex cult leader loses appeal, will be imprisoned for life

Victims testified that they were brought into a sex-slavery pyramid scheme with self-help guru Keith Raniere at the top.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The Second Circuit refused Friday to overturn the sex-trafficking convictions that landed the leader of an upstate New York cult 120 years in prison

For years Keith Raniere was the face of a self-help business called NXIVM. But there was a pyramid within the pyramid called DOS or the Vow. It was billed as a women’s empowerment group, but once women were brought in they were made to have sex with Raniere and then blackmailed with sexually explicit photographs.

At Raniere’s direction, the women would sear his initials on one another with a branding iron, without anesthesia. 

Witnesses described sexual abuse, control and manipulation during a six-week trial that ended with Raniere’s conviction on all criminal counts encompassing 11 different racketeering acts including the creation and possession of child pornography, conspiracy to commit identity theft, extortion, trafficking, and document servitude. 

In addition to his life sentence, the Albany-based cult leader must pay victims nearly $3.5 million in restitution to cover the cost of removing the brands as well as medical and mental health expenses.

Attorneys for Raniere, 62, argued this spring at the Second Circuit that the sex-trafficking convictions could not stand because the government defined commercial sex act too broadly. The three-judge panel disagreed, affirming Raniere's conviction in a 24-page opinion

“[Raniere] principally argues that to qualify as a ‘commercial sex act,’ there must be a monetary or financial component to the ‘thing of value’  that is given or received, and the sexual exploitation must be for profit. We conclude that the statute has no such  requirement,” U.S. Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes wrote for a three-judge panel.

The ruling recounts trial testimony by Nicole, a DOS survivor who said Raniere took her to a house blindfolded in May of 2016, instructed her to undress, and then tied her to a table where he watched as a third person unknown to her at the time performed oral sex on her. 

Nicole said she was recruited into DOS by another woman who was considered a first-line master in the organization's hierarchy. This "master" was Allison Mack, a former actress best known for a supporting role in the television show "Smallville." Nicole said Mack told her to do anything Raniere asked.

Friday's ruling notes that sexual exploitation on the scale of what Nicole and others described transcends financial terms.

“For example, the government presented evidence that Mack was able to maintain and strengthen her privileged position in the DOS hierarchy because of the relationship between Raniere and one of Mack’s ‘slaves,’ Nicole,” Cabranes wrote. 

In an accompanying summary order, the panel tossed other arguments from Raniere as well as a bid from Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman, who was given a nearly seven-year sentence for her major role in financing Raniere’s cult. 

Raniere’s attorney Joseph Tully called the decision a threat to sexual freedom.  

“With the ruling today, almost any sex act between two consenting adults can be treated as sex trafficking,” Tully wrote in an email to Courthouse News. “It is a terrible precedent for American liberty.” 

The Second Circuit appeal isn’t Raniere’s only bid to get out of his life prison sentence. Back in Brooklyn, he’s seeking to vacate his convictions by accusing the FBI of fabricating child pornography and planting it on his computer. 

Tully, of Tully & Weiss in Martinez, Calif., previously told Courthouse News he can prove those claims with “scientific certainty.” He said three experts found “massive amounts of digital anomalies” in the government’s evidence, which refute testimony that Raniere took nude photographs in 2005 of a 15-year-old DOS member named Camila. In order to frame Raniere, the attorney claims, the government fudged the dates of the images.

With the Second Circuit appeal dead and gone, Tully said his focus is now to prove those claims. 

“Just as DNA has been used to prove someone innocent, the digital footprints of the tampering here is irrefutable and 100% provable,” the attorney wrote via email.

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