When a cult expert criticized the practices of NXIVM, the controversial organization spent millions trying to silence him.
Rick Alan Ross is a cult expert and reprogrammer who got on the bad side of NXIVM, a self-help group that has been described as a cult, after he conducted some research on it.
NXIVM's core fell apart in 2017 after several former members blew the whistle on a sex ring within the group called DOS. It was essentially a pyramid scheme of "masters" and "slaves" with NXIVM leader Keith Raniere leading as the “grandmaster” from the top. Former NXIVM "slave" India Oxenberg claimed in the new Starz docuseries “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult” that anyone who left the group, disagreed with it, or criticized it was labeled “the enemy.”
Ross seemingly agrees with that statement.
"To them, I was evil incarnate," Ross told Oxygen.com.
Ross has run the Cult Education Institute, a nonprofit database dedicated to providing information on controversial groups and movements, since 1996. Ross told Oxygen.com that his career path began after members of the Jewish Voice Broadcast sect infiltrated his grandmother's nursing home staff and allegedly tried to recruit his grandmother in an aggressive way in 1982.
Ross was first introduced to NXIVM, though, when he was contacted by Morris and Rochelle Sutton, wealthy owners of a clothing company, in 2002. They were concerned after their children, Stephanie Franco and Michael Sutton, joined the group and began taking Executive Success Programs, or ESP. NXIVM advertised itself as a self-help group that offered workshops and classes aimed at unlocking participants' potential. One such option was its ESP courses, which NXIVM promoted as a way to improve business and communication skills.
The Suttons reached out to Ross and gave him some ESP material, VICE reported last year, and after speaking with the Suttons' children, he determined that the group had some “eerily similar” tactics to Scientology.
“My feeling was that this was a destructive program, that it was hurting people and it had the potential to hurt more people,” Ross later testified in 2019 during Raniere’s trial, VICE reported.
Ross worked with the Suttons to hire mental health experts to examine ESP course material. Ross published the findings on the Cult Education Institute website which referred to NXIVM’s classes as “expensive brainwashing,” the Niagara Falls Reporter reported in 2015.
It was those findings that prompted NXIVM to file a lawsuit and alleged harassment campaign against him. Ross told Oxygen.com that NXIVM spent $5 million alone suing him, a "conservative" estimate his lawyers determined by looking at billing records.
The lawsuit led to a legal battle that went on for 14 years. Ross said that Raniere dragged it on by stalling, changing lawyers frequently, and by moving from state to state.
“That’s what Keith Raniere's strategy was, was to break people through excessive legal fees,” Ross told Oxygen.com.
Ross wasn't the only critic who was tied up in court with NXIVM. Raniere dated Toni Natalie before they became embroiled in multiple court battles together. The group also sued former member Susan Dones, with whom they engaged in a nine-month court battle.
“It was shocking, the extent in which NXIVM will go to silence their critics,” Dennis Yusko, who reported on NXIVM for the Times Union, said about the ordeal in “Seduced.”
Ross' legal battle ended in 2017 when the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge, but he claimed the group harassed him outside of the courtroom as well.
“Later I found out that not only did they spend millions on lawyers suing me but they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with private investigators basically stalking me, going through my garbage," he told Oxygen.com. He said he frequently felt "harassed" by the group.
Some of Ross' claims mirror that of Natalie, who alleged in HBO’s docuseries “The Vow” that the group stole her mail. Natalie also claimed they were behind a home break-in, Vanity Fair reported in 2010.
Ross told Oxygen.com that the retaliation campaign was funded by Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman, who was sentenced to more than six years behind bars last month for racketeering and other charges. In a filing previously obtained by Oxygen.com, prosecutors stated Bronfman used her “extraordinary wealth and social status” to fund NXIVM for more than a decade. They wrote that she spent “millions of dollars” to undercut anyone she felt betrayed the organization.
After the lawsuit against Ross was dismissed in 2017, he said he countersued a surveillance company for its alleged role in his surveillance and they settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. He also testified about the ordeal at Raniere's 2019 trial. The trial ended with Raniere being convicted for racketeering, sex trafficking, and other charges.
Ross told Oxygen.com that at times, he feared for his life.
"They set up a phony client to retain me for an intervention to get me out on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean. What their intention was regarding that, I’ll never know,” he alleged in "Seduced."
He also told Oxygen.com that he feels Raniere would have tried to have him, as well as others like Natalie, killed if the group continued to grow in power. But Ross said it wasn't the first time he feared for his life, adding that other groups he has researched have also threatened him for his work.
"It comes with the territory," he said.
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