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Prison time for woman in command at NXIVM cult

“She wasn’t the victim that she is pretending to be," one former member testified in court Wednesday of Nancy Salzman, a nurse and hypnotist who started a self-help organization with a secret sex ring.

BROOKLYN (CN) — The former president of NXIVM will spend three and a half years in prison after more than two decades at the top of the Albany area cult-like self-help organization that she co-founded with Keith Raniere. 

Created in the late 1990s, NXIVM (pronounced "Nexium") was a pyramid scheme with Nancy Salzman at second in command. Together with Raniere, she charged members thousands of dollars to take courses that promised personal and business success, but within that pyramid lay another.

Raniere, 61, is serving a life sentence for coercing sex from women in NXIVM and using a cauterizing pen — without anesthesia — to brand them with his initials. Women in the secret sex cult called DOS, or The Vow, would blackmail new recruits for Raniere with nude photos or other compromising material. In the lexicon of the hierarchy, there were slaves and first-line masters. Raniere was known as Vanguard, and Salzman was Prefect. 

While prosecutors painted Raniere as the mastermind behind the scheme, victims who testified Wednesday said none of it would have been possible without Salzman, 66, enforcing his teachings and using therapy sessions to quell dissent. 

“She leveraged my every weakness and vulnerability,” former NXIVM member Mark Vicente said in a recorded video statement played Wednesday at the sentencing hearing. “With these weapons, she crushed my increasingly destabilized psyche. 

Other victims spoke via video, audio tape and in person, while Salzman, who wore a white blouse, pearls and black dress pants, listened. 

Trained as a nurse with a background in hypnosis, Salzman developed a curriculum with Raniere and taught NXIVM members toxic philosophies, like that women experience “freedom” when they are raped and that kids as young as 12 can consent to sex. 

Salzman also conducted “exploration of meaning” sessions with members, urging them to delve into childhood memories and find new meaning in their experiences — a practice that some victims said retraumatized and helped group leaders maintain control over them. 

“It was implied she could see and understand more about morality and human behavior, making her actions morally superior,” said a woman named Camila, who previously told the court she met Raniere when she was just 13 years old. Two years later, she was still a minor when the then-45-year-old Raniere had sex with her. 

When she was 15, Camila, originally from Mexico, also began working as an around-the-clock maid for Salzman, who she said showed no concern over having a young girl from a foreign country working for her, separated from her parents. 

“She had a responsibility and a duty to the minors in her care, and she let us down,” Camila said. 

Camila’s two sisters, brother and both parents were all involved with NXIVM. Her mother, Adriana, told the court on Wednesday that her eldest daughter remains “indoctrinated.” Her middle daughter, Daniela, was held captive in a room for two years under Raniere’s orders because she had a crush on someone else — an “ethical breach,” in Raniere’s terms. 

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis shook his head as he noted that Salzman had exploited and betrayed the trust of Camila.

“What mother does that to a child?” Garaufis said. “I — it’s just unspeakable.” 

Salzman’s own daughter, Lauren Salzman, joined the organization her mother led right out of college, and later became a first-line master in Raniere's sex ring. She pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, and was sentenced in July to five years of probation.

Another first-line master, "Smallville" actress Allison Mack, was sentenced to three years in prison in June. Apart from Raniere, every member of NXIVM to face charges quickly pleaded guilty. Of them, the longest prison term at  nearly seven years went to Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman. The final defendant to be sentenced is bookkeeper Kathy Russell. A date has not yet been set.

Nancy Salzman took some credit in her sentencing memo for encouraging her daughter’s guilty plea, which followed her own pleading as guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy, related to her efforts to spy on perceived enemies of NXIVM and alter videos before they were produced during discovery. The brief emphasizes that Salzman is her elderly mother’s caretaker, and also struggles with health problems of her own. 

Prosecutors asked in their memo meanwhile that Salzman face a sentence on the "high end" of the range, between 33 months and 41 months. Judge Garaufis exceeded that, giving a 42-month sentence. Salzman additionally must pay a $150,000 fine and forfeit six properties, a Delaware-based corporation, more than half a million dollars and a Steinway grand piano. 

The 12-page defense memo had pushed for a sentence of two years home confinement, arguing that Salzman accepts responsibility for enabling Raniere but was exploited by his manipulative tactics.

“How such a path could be taken by an intelligent, talented woman who, until meeting Raniere, had led a scrupulously law-abiding and productive life, is mystifying,” David Stern with the firm Rothman Schneider wrote. “But her particular weaknesses combined with Raniere’s undeniable powers of control over the human will of certain people and uncanny ability to neutralize the judgment of these individuals, took Ms. Salzman on a terrible decades-long journey which even today she struggles to fully understand.”

Speaking in court Wednesday, however, former NXIVM member Susan Donnes called it inaccurate to portray Salzman as a victim of Raniere when she “shows no remorse” for her role and made other women into criminals. 

“Keith Raniere never could have done what he did without Nancy Salzman. She was his number two,” Donnes said. “She wasn’t the victim that she is pretending to be.”

Salzman’s attorney Stern did not immediately return a request for comment. 

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Categories / Criminal, Entertainment, Trials

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