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Suspected Cult Leader Charged With Branding Women Arraigned in Brooklyn
Victims tell Oxygen.com they finally feel safe, "My only disappointment was that he wasn't in an orange jumpsuit."
Keith Raniere, who prosecutors say led a sadistic sex cult that branded and enslaved women, was arraigned today in Brooklyn Federal court on sex-trafficking, conspiracy and forced labor charges. He was ordered held without bail.
"I’m relieved,” said Toni Natalie to Oxygen.com. Natalie was Raniere’s live-in girlfriend throughout most of the 1990s, and says she has been sued and harassed by him ever since. "My only disappointment was that he wasn’t in an orange jumpsuit," she added.
According to the criminal complaint against Raniere, his cult, NXIVM, included “over 50 female slaves,” some of whom were branded with an electronic cauterizing tool and forced to work and have sex with Raniere and others. Investigators, prosecutors said, found “more than a dozen women who have been victimized by the defendant …. Their statements have been corroborated, including by the defendant’s own emails and electronic communications.”
In addition to Natalie, other women who said they were victimized by Raniere attended the arraignment, some accompanied by friends. They lined the first row of seats in the courtroom, they said, so that Raniere could easily see them and know they were there. They conversed with one another and smiled easily. Their collective mood appeared celebratory.
Among the women was the actress Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter India was a NXIVM member. Oxenberg told Oxygen.com that she too was relieved to see Raniere in custody, and said “that’s where he belongs for the rest of his life.”
Federal prosecutors filed the charges against Raniere on Valentine’s Day, but by that time he had already fled the United States. He spent the next month-and-a-half hiding out “with several women” in a luxury $10,000-a-week villa in Mexico. When the Mexican Federal police caught up with Raniere, the women - including "Smallville" actress Allison Mack – chased the police car “in their own car at high speed,” according to prosecutors.
On Thursday, the Albany Times Union confirmed that Mack is the woman referred to in the criminal complaint against Raniere as a “co-conspirator.”
The complaint also refers to a woman called “the Heiress.” She is identified in court filings as Clare Bronfman, “an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune.” Bronfman, prosecutors say, “financed the defendant repeatedly over the years.”
Raniere and NXIVM have long been accused of sexual abuse and criminal activity, dating at least as far back as 1996. It was only after the group’s former publicist, Frank Parlato, exposed the group’s sadistic branding ritual in June 2017 that Federal law enforcement began to focus on the group.
Through it all, Raniere presented himself to be a sincerely motivated self-help guru, even publishing “Keith Raniere Conversations,” a collection of 45 YouTube videos (see screenshot of Raniere talking above); and a statement on NXIVM’s website says it is “currently working with the authorities to demonstrate his innocence and true character."
"We strongly believe the justice system will prevail in bringing the truth to light,” the NXIVM statement says.
U.S. Marshalls returned Raniere to Brooklyn on Wednesday, where Federal prosecutors say at least one of his victims lives and where NXIVM recruited women. Today, in court, Raniere wore a khaki-colored shirt and pants as well as glasses. When Federal Magistrate Judge Steven L. Tiscione asked him if he understood the charges against him, Raniere answered in a low, soft voice that belied the vicious nature of the crimes he is accused of, “Yes your honor.”
Judge Tiscione ordered him held without bail, “in light of the nature of the charges and evidence laid out in the government’s letter.” Raniere faces a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Another victim, Barbara Bouchey, who said she was Raniere’s live-in lover for much of the aughts, and who, like Natalie, was allegedly stalked and sued for years after she left him, said: “I’m immensely relieved. It’s been a nightmare. I feel safe for the first time in a decade.”
[Photo: Screengrab Keith Raniere Conversations YouTube; Catherine Oxenberg and Toni Natalie, JB Nicholas]