(CBS)–The former spiritual leader of a purported upstate New York self-improvement group that’s been called a cult and a pyramid scheme has been found guilty on seven counts including sex trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy charges, CBS New York reported. Jurors began Wednesday morning and announced they had reached a verdict about four hours later.
They were handed the case following a trial in Brooklyn federal court that has given a disturbing inside look inside the group, NXIVM.
Since early May, jurors have been hearing testimony from what prosecutors say are former “sex slaves” who spoke about the torment of being branded with Raniere’s initials — their “supreme master,” often referred to as “Vanguard.” The women said they were duped into a joining a secretive NXIVM sub-sect known as DOS under the pretenses that it was a women’s empowerment group. But, they said they were forced by other women who were their “masters” to turn over “collateral,” including nude photographs, and groomed for sex with Raniere.
“For seven weeks, this trial has revealed Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was in fact a master manipulator, a con man, and a crime boss,” said U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue. Donoghue said Raniere and others “ruined marriages, careers, fortunes and lives,” calling him a “modern-day Svengali.”
“Keith Raniere’s crime spree has ended, and his victims will finally see justice,” Donoghue said.
Former members of the group were emotional outside the federal courthouse Wednesday afternoon, expressing joy and relief that Raniere has been held accountable.
Susan Dones, a part of the “NXIVM Nine” group of former members who raised alarm bells, said the verdict is “justice for all of us that were duped by this entire gang of criminals.”
“It’s an amazing day,” said Dones, who left the group in 2009.
Barbara Bouchey, Raniere’s former girlfriend and another whistleblower, said she’s been relentlessly harassed by the group since she defected in 2009. She cried as she described a newfound “feeling of freedom and safety.”
“To me, it’s a new day, to live unencumbered by the threat of what he might do next,” Bouchey said.
During closing arguments this week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza recounted testimony that Raniere had some of his brainwashed female followers starved, forced one to have sex with another woman and confined a third to a room for nearly two years for defying his orders. The jury has also seen alleged child pornography involving a teenage girl prosecutors say Raniere coerced into sex.
Penza on Monday said Raniere used the organization to “tap into a never-ending flow of women and money.” DOS, she said, was formed “to satisfy the defendant’s desire for sex, power and control.”
But attorneys for Raniere, 58, say he had no criminal intent and that his sexual encounters with female followers were consensual.
Raniere’s lawyer Marc Agnifilo said Raniere had a “disgusting lifestyle,” the New York Daily News reported, but that the government has not proven its case that he is guilty of sex trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy. Agnifilo argued that the so-called collateral wasn’t meaningful because it was never released.
“Keith maintains his innocence. It’s a very sad day for him,” Agnifilo told reporters after the verdict. “I think he’s not surprised, but he maintains that he didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”
Agnifilo said Raniere has told him that he has regrets, but Agnifilo wouldn’t detail what Raniere told him. He said Raniere plans to appeal.
Raniere stood trial alone after five former members of his inner circle negotiated plea deals, including TV actress Allison Mack and Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman. Last year, after a New York Times exposé on the group and reports that investigators were interviewing some women who had defected from DOS, Raniere fled to Mexico. He was found staying with Mack and other women in a luxury villa and taken into custody on a U.S. warrant.
Mack was initially indicted on sex trafficking charges for allegedly recruiting women into DOS, but pleaded guilty to racketeering in April, admitting she collected “collateral” from two women at Raniere’s direction and threatened to make it public if they didn’t perform “so-called acts of love.”
Bronfman, who bankrolled Raniere and his program of intense self-improvement classes, admitted she harbored someone who was living in the U.S. illegally for unpaid “labor and services” and that she committed credit card fraud on behalf of Raniere. Both Bronfman and Mack, who await sentencing, said they wanted to help people through NXIVM and apologized for their actions.
Raniere faces life in prison. His sentencing was set for September.