When sex cult leader Keith Raniere was arrested in Mexico, he was hiding in a closet, leaving one of his devoted followers to face authorities on her own.
“The whole arrest scene is really an example of everything we know about Keith Raniere because here is this renunciate and where is he? He’s in a villa. What is he doing? Is he being brave? Is he this leader? No, he’s hiding in a closet,” Robert Gavin, a reporter for the Albany Times Union said on the latest episode of CNBC's “American Greed,” airing Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT, which profiled the rise and fall of a man believed to have manipulated and coerced countless women for decades as the leader of the cult-like organization NXIVM.
It would be Raniere’s last few moments of freedom before the purported self-help guru would be taken into custody and transported back to the United States, where he later stood trial on charges including sex trafficking, racketeering and sexual exploitation of a child.
Raniere had promised his followers a better life, promoting expensive self-improvement courses he claimed would help participants reach their highest potential. His teachings drew celebrities including “Smallville’s” Allison Mack and “Battlestar Galactica” actress Nicki Clyne into the fold in what appeared to be a close-knit community. Many moved to the same suburban Albany neighborhood to be closer to Raniere, played in late night volleyball sessions and would celebrate the leader they called “Vanguard” in a 10-day celebration for his birthday.
“I felt like I met the people I was going to be working with to change the world,” former member Sarah Edmondson told “American Greed” of the group’s allure.
But authorities would discover that there was also a much darker side to the organization—including a secret society for a select group of women known as DOS that carried a high price of admission.
Women who belonged to the group were forced to give up damaging collateral including nude photos and information about their own lives. They were considered “slaves” to higher-ranking women in the group, known as their “masters,” who required complete devotion.
To show their commitment to the group, women were branded without anesthesia in a disturbing ceremony inside Mack’s home—which Raniere had helped orchestrate behind the scenes.
“And the person should ask to be branded,” Raniere told Mack in a recorded conversation obtained by “American Greed” discussing the ceremony in January 2016. “And they should probably say that before they are held down. So it doesn’t seem like they are being coerced.”
While they were initially told the symbol seared into their pelvic area was meant to represent the elements, the women soon discovered the symbol contained the initials of Mack and Raniere.
“It’s not okay to hurt a woman’s body. It’s not okay to carve someone else’s initials into someone else’s flesh. Branding means you are owned by another person,” Edmondson later reflected after enduring the horrific ordeal herself.
The experience would ultimately turn out to be the breaking point for Edmondson, who blew the whistle the disturbing details about the secretive group in a front-page story in The New York Times. The exposé quickly sparked a federal investigation into Raniere’s activities.
“We began interviewing witnesses within days,” Moira Penza, a former assistant U.S. attorney, told “American Greed.”
But Raniere didn’t plan to stick around. He headed to Mexico with a group of his most devoted female followers, including Mack, Clyne and Lauren Salzman, daughter of NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman.
“Once he’s in Mexico, there’s a concern that he really will go off the grid,” Penza said.
Authorities tracked the self-help guru to a $10,000-a-week villa in Puerto Vallarta where he was “surrounded by these women,” she said.
On the day Raniere was arrested, he had been planning to have a recommitment ceremony with the women, which was later described in court as more of a planned orgy. However, he’d never get the chance.
As Mexican authorities stormed into the resort, Raniere cowered in a closet leaving Lauren Salzman in the room alone to face the armed agents.
“It never even crossed my mind that I would choose Keith and Keith would choose Keith,” Salzman would later testify in court of the stunning betrayal, according to Rolling Stone.
In 2019, after a six-week trial, Raniere was found guilty of seven counts including racketeering, sexual exploitation of a child and sex trafficking.
In October, he was sentenced to 120 years behind bars.
To learn more about Raniere and the inner workings of NXIVM, tune into “American Greed” on CNBC on Monday, Jan. 25 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
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