FORT WORTH, Texas (CN) – The founder of professional-development group NXIVM was arraigned Tuesday afternoon in Texas federal court, sensationally accused of heading a secretive cult that branded female followers with cauterizing pens and keeping them as sex slaves.
Keith Raniere, 57, appeared dazed and subdued as he was brought before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey L. Cureton in Fort Worth. Shackled and flanked by U.S. Marshals, Raniere wore a blue T-shirt, black shorts and appeared unshaven. He was arrested Sunday near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in a luxury villa and deported back to the United States.
In a criminal complaint unsealed Monday, federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York accused Raniere, also known as “The Vanguard,” of heading a cult-like secret society within the Albany-based multi-level marketing company that does business in over 32 countries. NXIVM is pronounced as Nexium.
Facing several counts of sex trafficking, Raniere faces 15 years to life in federal prison if convicted.
The indictment pertains to Raniere’s alleged conduct with a secretive group within NXIVM called DOS. Federal officials claim Raniere kept a “rotating group” of up to 20 women to have sex with.
“These women are not permitted to have sexual relationships with anyone but Raniere or to discuss with others their relationships with Raniere,” the 22-page complaint states. “Some of the NXIVM curriculum included teachings about the need for men to have multiple sexual partners and the need for women to be monogamous.”
Prosecutors claim DOS operates as a pyramid with “levels of ‘slaves’ headed by ‘masters.’” They claim the slaves are expected to recruit slaves of their own, who then service their master and masters above them in the pyramid.
“Many of the DOS victims were branded in their pubic regions with a cauterizing pen in a process that took 20 to 30 minutes,” the complaint states. “During the branding ‘ceremonies,’ slaves were required to be fully naked, and the master would order one slave to film while the others held down the slave being branded. Some DOS victims were told that the brand stood for the four elements (the lines represented air, earth, and water and that cauterizing pen represented sealing with fire). Based on information obtained during the course of the investigation, however, it is clear that the brand in fact consisted of Raniere’s initials.”
Prosecutors claim Raniere preferred women that are “exceptionally thin,” resulting in some being deprived of sleep or being kept on low-calorie diets.
During Tuesday’s brief arraignment hearing, Judge Cureton informed Raniere of his right to make a statement, which he declined to do.
Raniere waived his right to a hearing to determine his identity under Rule 5.1 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Raniere’s attorney, Brian Pope, of Fort Worth, requested his preliminary and detention hearings take place when federal marshals return him to Brooklyn federal court.
Appearing at the hearing were Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alex Lewis, of Fort Worth, and Moira Penza, of Brooklyn.
NXIVM did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday. An undated note purportedly written by Raniere was posted on the group’s website that denies the allegations.
“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.”