BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – One member of a Mexican family with deep ties to the New York-based purported self-help group NXIVM testified Thursday that its former leader, accused of leading a secretive sex cult within the organization, had sex with her younger sister when the girl was 16.
The witness, identified only as Daniela, took the stand Thursday morning in the Brooklyn trial of former NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, 58. He faces charges of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor, and sexual exploitation of a child, among others.
Daniela, now 33, told jurors Raniere had had sexual relationships with her, her older sister Marianna, and her younger sister Camila. Daniela said she found out about Camila’s relationship with the defendant in late 2006. Camila, born in March 1990, was 16 at the time. Raniere was about 30 years her senior.
It’s a devastating allegation against Raniere and will be difficult for his defense team to refute, as prosecutors say they have nude photos of a teenage Camila.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza timed her direct examination for a powerful conclusion to the week. At the very end of the day, jurors saw several photos of a younger, beaming Camila on a beach in Mexico with her family followed by a final, cropped photo of the girl lying back on a bed, neck and shoulders bare. On that note, jurors were dismissed for the long weekend and will not sit again until Tuesday.
Raniere called Camila “Virgin Camila” or “VC,” Daniela said. Camila had come to Albany to be a maid for former NXIVM president Nancy Salzman, though the family lived a comfortable life in Mexico and she was still in high school. Daniela said she confronted Raniere about his relationship with her little sister in 2006. Years later, Camila would become a “first-line master” in DOS, the secret sex slavery group within NXIVM allegedly headed by Raniere.
“He told me that there were some women — girls — that were more emotionally mature than others,” Daniela told the jury. “I never spoke to Keith again.”
She described feeling concerned but also jealous, which she said she is ashamed of.
“I was thinking, oh, he made me wait until after my 18th birthday [to have sex],” she told jurors, choking up on the stand. “I deeply regret that I didn’t at that moment get my sister out of there.”
Daniela, her sisters, and their brother, Hector Adrian, had an “idyllic” childhood in Mexico, she told Raniere’s jury. Exceptionally bright, Daniela was enrolled in an international baccalaureate program and had plans to attend an elite boarding school in Switzerland on a scholarship when NXIVM came to town.
Her parents had attended some of the group’s self-help courses in Monterrey, and as a farewell gift before Daniela left for Switzerland, her father bought her a package of classes. Then-16-year-old Daniela decided to forego Switzerland and fly to Albany to learn from NXIVM and its storied leader. She never got a high school diploma.
When Daniela was 17, Raniere kissed her unexpectedly, she said. It was her first kiss. She characterized what happened next as a setup. She stole $6,000 in cash from the NXIVM administrative office, where she was working without pay. Wracked with guilt, she put it back a day later, but then confessed to Raniere, who held it over her head, she said.
“He set me up like a little deer. He set the trap and then when I fell, he was like, ‘Oh, you fell in the trap!’” she told the jury.
She testified that just days after her 18th birthday, a 40-something Raniere took her to an old office building to have sex, on what she described as a mattress on the floor with dirty sheets. He performed oral sex on her, she said, and “then he took off his clothes and climbed on top of me for a little while, and he gave me a hug — a long hug is what it was,” Daniela said.
She was sure Raniere had not gotten an erection or ejaculated, she told the jury. She hadn’t felt him penetrate her. But then Raniere tried to convince her he had.
“I am very sure of what I felt,” she told jurors Thursday. “I was there. It’s my body.”
“Why do you think you didn’t feel anything?” she said Raniere asked her. Later, he added, “The reason you didn’t feel it is you were too in your head.”
It was the start of a sexual relationship that mostly involved Daniela giving Raniere oral sex in secret, him in a chair watching the surveillance cameras he kept positioned outside his home. Describing a level of control other witnesses have also said Raniere enjoyed, Daniela said he wouldn’t let her take birth control pills because he already thought she was too fat and the hormones would cause weight gain, she told the jury. He made her stop masturbating. He made fun of how little pubic hair she had, she said, and called her “Norelco” in public, after a brand of electric shaver.
The first time she performed oral sex on Raniere, Daniela said, was the first time she had ever done it. When it ended, she said he asked her, “Did you see a blue light?”
“No,” she told him.
“Some women see blue lights when they have my semen,” Raniere reportedly told her.
Eventually Daniela found out Raniere was also having sex with her older sister, Marianna. Marianna is now the mother of one of Raniere’s two sons.
Daniela described one incident in which Raniere tried to initiate a threesome with the two of them, which ended in both women crying and Daniela feeling “dirty.”
Daniela was on a tourist visa in the U.S. from 2002 to 2004, she said. It was withdrawn in late 2004 when she tried to fly back to Albany from Mexico.
Raniere arranged for Daniela to get a fake ID and come over the land border with Canada, she said. His co-defendant Kathy Russell, who pleaded guilty in April, came to pick her up, and they successfully made it back to Albany.
But now Daniela was in the country illegally and she felt she owed them, she said, so she reluctantly participated multiple times in group sex with Raniere and Russell. Eventually she ended up doing more unpaid labor for the group, including writing “book reports” — essentially personal Sparknotes — for Raniere on books of his choosing.
“I think it was pretty evident that I was — extremely uncomfortable is an understatement,” Daniela said of the first sexual encounter with Raniere and Russell. She mostly just lay there, she said.
Another co-defendant, Lauren Salzman, divulged on the witness stand Wednesday that Raniere had also had sex with her mother and fourth co-defendant, Nancy Salzman. It was the first admission that Raniere has slept with all five of his female co-defendants, who also include Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman and “Smallville” actress Allison Mack. Raniere is the only one not to plead out in the case.
Daniela’s direct examination will continue Tuesday morning. Lauren Salzman this week testified to conspiring with Raniere to holding Daniela in a room alone for two years, from 2010 to 2012, under threat of deportation.