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Suspected Cult Leader Who Branded Women Caught In Mexico As Investigation Deepens

Prosecutors say Keith Raniere was bankrolled by Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman and others.

By JB Nicholas

Keith Raniere, a suspected cult leader from upstate New York and target of a month-long manhunt has been found in Mexico and brought back to the United States to face prosecution. He is expected to be returned to New York City this week, where he is charged by Brooklyn Federal prosecutors with sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and forced labor conspiracy.

Mexican police delivered Raniere to American authorities in Texas on Monday and he was arraigned in Federal Court in Ft. Worth, where he waived his right to fight extradition to New York.

He was ordered held without bail, according to John Marzulli, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn.

Also on Tuesday, the investigation into Raniere and his group, NXIVM (pronounced Nex-e-um), widened, as FBI agents searched the upstate New York home of NXIVM co-founder and president, Nancy Salzman, according to the Albany Times Union. The search, according to the newspaper, may have been meant to seize a large amount of cash believed to be stored in a safe there.

Raniere is en route to New York, but has not yet "arrived in the district," according to a government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Raniere, known to his followers as “The Vanguard,” lead NXIVM, based around Albany, New York. NXIVM’s website says it is “a community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human,” but the Federal criminal complaint against Raniere alleges an entirely different kind of operation.

According to that complaint, Raniere created a secret society within NXIVM called DOS or “The Vow.” DOS, prosecutors say, is “an organized criminal group,” structured like a pyramid, “with levels of ‘slaves’ headed by ‘masters.’ Slaves are expected to recruit slaves of their own … who in turn owe service not only to their own masters but also to masters above them in the DOS pyramid.”

Raniere, prosecutors say, is at the top of the pyramid, “as the highest master,” who regularly had sex with NXIVM slaves. 

“Raniere has maintained a rotating group of fifteen to twenty women with whom he maintains sexual relationships,” the complaint alleges. “These women are not permitted to have sexual relationships with anyone but Raniere or to discuss with others their relationship with Raniere.”

Some slaves were branded near their genitals with an electronic cauterizing pen in elaborate “ceremonies,” while they were naked and held down by other slaves. Slaves were told the brand stood for the elements, but in fact the brands were Raniere’s initials, according to prosecutors.

Raniere and NXIVM have long been accused of abuse and criminal activity, dating at least as far back as 1996, when Raniere signed a legal agreement with New York’s Attorney general promising to pay a $40,000 settlement and not to operate a "chain distributor scheme,” according to the Albany Times Union.

Then, in August 2011, Toni Natalie (then Toni Foley) wrote a letter to a federal judge alleging that she had been “raped repeatedly by Raniere.” Natalie also alleged that Raniere was “a compulsive gambler, a sex addict with bizarre desires and needs, and a con man that specializes in Ponzi schemes.”

In 2012, the Albany Times Union published “Secrets of NXVIM,” an investigation of the group that revealed what it described as “troubling details about a man once considered a boy subgenius.”

Yet, through it all, Raniere held himself out to be a sincerely motivated, if eccentric, self-help guru, even publishing “Keith Raniere Conversations,” a collection of 45 YouTube videos.

Then, the New York Times reported the group’s inner workings, including the branding ritual, in October 2017. That’s when, prosecutors say, Raniere fled upstate New York and relocated to Mexico with an “heiress” and other NXIVM slaves.

The Associated Press has identified the heiress as Clare Bronfman, inheritor of part of her father’s Seagram’s liquor fortune. According to prosecutors, Bronfman bankrolled Raniere’s flight and other expenses, giving him millions of dollars. 

An open letter posted on the NXIVM homepage attributed to Raniere concerns the “recent situation.” The letter, in part, reads “there is no merit to the allegations that we are abusing, coercing or harming individuals.”

[Photo: Screengrab Keith Raniere Conversations YouTube]