NEW YORK — Disgraced self-improvement guru Keith Raniere, whose NXIVM followers included millionaires and Hollywood actors, was sentenced to 120 years on Tuesday for turning some adherents into sex slaves branded with his initials and sexually abusing a 15-year-old.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis called Raniere “ruthless and unyielding” in crimes that were “particularly egregious” because he targeted girls and young women in the sex-trafficking conspiracy that resulted in Raniere’s conviction last year.
He handed down the unusually stiff sentence in Brooklyn federal court after hearing 15 victims call for a long prison term to reflect the nightmares and anguish they’ll confront the rest of their lives.
As he announced the sentence, Garaufis noted that Raniere labeled some of the victims’ claims lies. The judge told a woman who Raniere ordered to be kept in a room for two years when she was 18: “What happened to you is not your fault.” He said that went for the other victims too.
Raniere, who looked at victims as they spoke in the courtroom, maintained his defiant tone, although he said he was “truly sorry” that his organization led to a place where “there is so much anger and so much pain.”
“I do believe I am innocent of the charges … It is true I am not remorseful of the crimes I do not believe I committed at all,” Raniere said.
Prosecutors had sought life in prison, while a defense lawyer told the judge Raniere should face 20 years behind bars.
The sentencing was the culmination of several years of revelations about Raniere’s program, NXIVM, which charged thousands of dollars for invitation-only self-improvement courses at its headquarters near Albany, New York, along with branches in Mexico and Canada. Adherents endured humiliation and pledged obedience to Raniere as part of his teachings.
NXIVM has been the subject of two TV documentary series this year, HBO’s “The Vow,” and the Starz series “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult.”
Prosecutors said Raniere, 60, led what amounted to a criminal enterprise, inducing shame and guilt to influence and control co-conspirators who helped recruit and groom sexual partners for him. Raniere was convicted on charges including racketeering, alien smuggling, sex trafficking, extortion and obstruction of justice.
After victims spoke for 2 1/2 hours, the judge grew impatient and a bit angry when defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo sought to portray his client’s organization as “doing good” for women before things turned bad for some.
“I’ve heard enough about Mr. Raniere’s theories,” Garaufis snapped.
The judge said Raniere groomed a 13-year-old girl so that “two years later he’s having sex with a 15-year-old girl.”
At another point, he cut Agnifilo off as the lawyer tried to argue victims were not always factually correct.
“You’re starting to tire me out here,” the judge said. “It’s pretty clear he took advantage of people sexually.”
Earlier, India Oxenberg, the daughter of “Dynasty” actor Catherine Oxenberg, called Raniere an “entitled little princess” and a sexual predator and lamented that she “may have to spend the rest of my life with Keith Raneire’s initials seared into me.”
Another victim said she had the initials removed from her body by a plastic surgeon.
Other victims labeled him a liar, a parasite, a terrorist, a sociopath, a racist, a sadist and “a toddler with too much power and zero accountability.”
And the woman who was sexually abused beginning at age 15 said Raniere groomed her by telling her she was mature for her age.
“It is false. I was a child,” she said.
She said that when Raniere saw blood running down her arm after a botched suicide attempt, he revealed his self-obsessed attitude, asking her: “Do you know how bad that could have been for me if you killed yourself?”
The likelihood of leniency had seemed to dissipate with the recent sentencing of Clare Bronfman, 41, an heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, for her role in NXIVM, which has been described by some ex-members as a cult. Bronfman was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison. Prosecutors had only sought five years.
Ex-followers told the judge that Bronfman for years had used her wealth to try to silence NXIVM defectors.
Reniere’s followers called him “Vanguard.” To honor him, the group formed a secret sorority comprised of female “slaves” who were branded with his initials and ordered to have sex with him, the prosecutors said. Women were also pressured into giving up embarrassing information about themselves that could be used against them if they left the group.
Along with Bronfman, Raniere’s teachings won him the devotion of Hollywood actors, including Allison Mack of TV’s “Smallville.” Mack also has pleaded guilty to charges in the case and is awaiting sentencing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar told the judge only a life sentence would protect the public because Raniere otherwise “would be committing crimes today, tomorrow and in the future.”
Outside court afterward, Barbara Boucher, who described herself as the first whistleblower of Raniere’s scam when she left the group 11 years ago, said the sentencing left her “enormously relieved.”
“I loved Keith for many years. I really thought he was my soulmate,” said Boucher, who recalled her role in helping to build the organization when she first viewed it as a kind of Camelot where people could be empowered to be more loving and compassionate and live better lives.
“A lot of people today in this room will carry their wounds with them for life. You don’t recover fully from something like this. It’s deep,” she said. Still, the once-successful financial planner sees a future.
“This is a 20-year book and this is the last chapter of the book and when I leave here today, that book is closing,” Boucher said.
The brave ‘slaves’ who signed Keith Raniere’s prison death warrant: How harrowing testimony from 15 sex abuse victims helped banish ‘vile monster’ cult leader to 120 years behind bars
Fifteen of Keith Raniere’s former ‘slaves’ confronted him in court on Tuesday to eviscerate him as a ‘parasite’, ‘monster’ and ‘psychological terrorist’ before he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Raniere, 60, was sentenced to 120 years behind bars for running the cult from 1998, during which time he sexually enslaved women, brandished them and starved them. He maintains he is innocent and misunderstood.
The court heard that he recruited 17,000 people to NXIVM in total. Fifteen of them spoke at the hearing.
Among them was Toni Natalie, the girlfriend he was dating when he founded the cult, India Oxenberg, the daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, and a woman who gave her name just as Camila. She was his first known victim and told the court how he raped her when she was 15 and he was 45 in 2005.
Others include Angela Ucci and Barbara Bouchey. They are among a group known as the ‘NXIVM 9’ – some of the first to have been targeted by Raniere.
Ucci described the day as the ‘finale’ to his reign of terror. Catherine Oxenberg spoke to GMA on Wednesday morning to call Raniere a ‘vile monster’. She tried for years to extract her daughter from the cult.
Raniere had been facing a maximum sentence of life in prison after being convicted of sex trafficking of children, conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor in June 2019.
As the founder of NXIVM, the court had heard how the cult-like group kept women on starvation diets, branded them with his initials, and ordered them to have sex with him.
His sentencing was delayed on Tuesday because so many people had shown up to attend it. India Oxenberg, the daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, was one of those who spoke.
She said Raniere treated her like his ‘human science experiment’, calling him an ‘entitled little princess’ and a sexual predator. She lamented that she ‘may have to spend the rest of my life with Keith Raneire’s initials seared into me.’
Raniere’s lawyers asked that he be sentenced to 15 years. But after telling the judge he had ‘no remorse’ for the crimes because he ‘didn’t commit them’, Judge Nicholas Garaufis handed down the sentence that means he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Branding Raniere ‘ruthless and unyielding’ in crimes that were ‘particularly egregious’ because he targeted girls and young women, Judge Garaufis said: ‘To him, the brave victims… are liars. Mr. Raniere remains unmoved. … [He] has therefore failed to demonstrate remorse.’
He handed down the unusually high sentence in federal court in Brooklyn after hearing anguished statements by victims of a sex-trafficking conspiracy that resulted in Raniere’s conviction last year, along with unrepentant remarks from the defendant himself.
‘I do believe I am innocent of the charges. … It is true I am not remorseful of the crimes I do not believe I committed at all,’ Raniere said.
Because of social distancing rules, fewer people are allowed in courtrooms now than before. More than an hour after Raniere’s scheduled hearing time, court officials were trying to determine whether or not they should open a second courtroom for the overspill of media and victims who had shown up at Brooklyn Criminal Court on Tuesday.
Eventually, it got underway with the statement of a woman who called herself Camila. Raniere moved her and her sister to the US from Mexico in 2005. She called him a ‘monster’.
Fifteen women gave victim impact statements on Tuesday. Among them were former girlfriends of Raniere and former victims. They labeled him a ‘parasite’ and a ‘psychological terrorist’.
‘He screwed with my mind for so long. It is difficult for me to utter his name, so I will only refer to him as ‘he’.
‘I can still hear his voice in my head — it continues to be a daily struggle,’ Camila said.
She also told the court that she was 15 and he was 45 when he raped her. He denies it.
‘I can still hear his voice in my head — it continues to be a daily struggle
‘Camila’ – Raniere’s first victim who says he raped her in 2005
‘He manipulated me for what he wanted.
‘I became unreachable to my parents, my brother, my friends until I had nobody to worry about me. He knew the things that mattered most to me and what I feared and used that against me,’ she said
Raniere was convicted of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and attempted sex trafficking but not rape.
‘He told me to keep it a secret, and he would ask me to sneak out of the home to meet in a place where we were isolated from everyone.
‘He took naked pictures of me — the experience of being photographed is seared in my memory,’ she said.
She also told the court that he forced her to weigh less than 100lbs and that he once made her get an abortion.
The likelihood of leniency had seemed to dissipate with the recent sentencing of Clare Bronfman, 41, an heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, for her role in the cult.
Bronfman was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison. Prosecutors had only sought five years. Ex-followers told the judge that Bronfman for years had used her wealth to try to silence NXIVM defectors.
Former NXIVM member and supporter of Raniere, Marc Elliot, said: ‘We all should be fighting for due process no matter how much you don’t like it or how inconvenient it is. Because if someone or society ever turns on you, you better hope to God that due process and laws are still standing to protect you.’