Prosecutors described Keith Raniere as the manipulative master of a Nxivm subgroup known as "DOS," where he was the top of a pyramid of female "slaves"

By Adam CarlsonChris Harris and Greg Hanlon
August 14, 2018 12:06 PM
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Keith Raniere, founder of the controversial self-help group Nxivm, faces federal charges of sex trafficking and related crimes that could send him to prison for life.

Prosecutors have described him as the manipulative master of a secretive Nxivm subgroup known as “DOS,” where he was the top of a pyramid of female “slaves” — who were branded and some of whom were forced into sex.

Raniere and five other top-ranking Nxivm members, including Smallville actress Allison Mack and heiress Clare Bronfman, have been charged with a racketeering conspiracy “in which [they] committed a broad range of serious crimes,” prosecutors said last month — “all to promote and protect Raniere and Nxivm.”

Mack and Raniere are charged with sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy and racketeering conspiracy, among other counts.

The other members, also each charged in the alleged racketeering conspiracy, are not all accused of the same criminal acts within the conspiracy. For example, Bronfman and Nancy Salzman, the Nxivm president, are accused of identity theft conspiracy while Salzman also allegedly conspired to alter records for use in an official proceeding.

The six suspects have pleaded not guilty and all but Raniere have been released on bond, with a trial tentatively set for early next year.

Last week, Raniere’s attorney appeared on NBC’s Dateline where he recast the accusations against Nxivm, DOS and its members as lies and the stuff of fantasy.

Raniere, said lawyer Marc Agnifilo, was not the domineering mastermind as portrayed by federal prosecutors.

“I don’t know why anyone could feel that they’re physically threatened by Keith Raniere or anyone in Nxivm,” Agnifilo, who did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment, told Megyn Kelly in a Dateline episode that aired on Aug. 6.

“Keith Raniere is a remarkably — he might get mad at me for saying this — soft man.”

“No collateral’s been released, period,” said Agnifilo, referring to potentially incriminating or embarrassing material that authorities allege DOS members were made to turn over to their “masters” to ensure obedience.

“There was no threat, he never threatened it,” Agnifilo said. “Keith never threatened anybody about anything, and I defy any witness to get on a witness stand and say otherwise.”

Keith Raniere

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Raniere’s attorney was equally emphatic about the various other crimes of which he stands accused. The alleged sex trafficking is “not true on every conceivable level,” he said on Dateline, and the women were not made to have sex with Raniere. “It is all nonsense,” he said.

While it has been described by a former member as a “cult,” Nxivm’s members were there entirely of their own volition, Agnifilo contended.

DOS, he said, was a separate group — a defense Raniere himself has offered publicly, describing it as a consenting “sorority,” though prosecutors say otherwise.

“If I could brainwash myself, I would go to the gym every day,” Agnifilo said. “These are choices that adult, smart, educated women are making. I don’t buy brainwashing. If that is the government’s theory, they are going to lose.”

However, Agnifilo said that Raniere was aware both of DOS and its internal rules, including the branding of its members with Raniere’s initials. (The brand also appears to include Mack’s initials, and she has reportedly said the branding was her idea.)

“I think he knew about every part of it,” Agnifilo said, adding, “I don’t think he enjoyed it [the branding]. I think that it was something that the women wanted to do and that he thought was not inappropriate if that’s what they wanted to do.”

“These women wanted to be part of DOS,” he said. “It was a little extreme, it was a little dangerous, it was a little edgy, it was all those things. That’s why they wanted it.”

Prosecutors have, at times forcefully, argued the opposite.

Allison Mack (left) on Smallville
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Smallville‘s Mack is accused of recruiting women to join DOS, which “was purported to be a female mentorship group” to address their weaknesses but was actually a group created by Raniere, though his involvement was kept hidden.

“The victims were then exploited, both sexually and for their labor, to the defendants’ benefit,” Richard P. Donoghue, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a previous statement.

A criminal complaint against Raniere, obtained by PEOPLE, outlines how authorities believe the women in DOS were forced to turn over their collateral — identified as potentially-damaging personal information or materials, such as nude photographs — with which they later could be blackmailed.

The women allegedly victimized by Mack and Raniere believed their “collateral” would be released if they did not engage in sexual activity with the Nxivm leader, prosecutors have said.

FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Sweeney previously said in a statement that the case has “brought to light an inconceivable crime,” referring to Nxivm as a “pyramid scheme” at which Raniere stood alone at the top, with a level of female “slaves” underneath him.

According to that statement, Mack was allegedly “one of the women in the first level of the pyramid immediately below Raniere.”

As such, she allegedly had “slaves” beneath her, according to the statement, which claims Mack “directly or implicitly required” two women “to engage in sexual activity with Raniere.”

“In exchange, for this, Mack received financial and other benefits from Raniere,” the statement alleges.

Authorities suspect Mack forced DOS slaves, including a woman identified as Jane Doe 1, to have sex with Raniere and that Mack “groomed DOS slaves for sex with Raniere by requiring [them] to adhere to extremely restrictive diets and not remove their pubic hair (in accordance with Raniere’s sexual preferences) and by requiring them to remain celibate and not to masturbate.”

According to arguments prosecutors made in court documents, Mack allegedly demanded that the group’s slaves partake in “readiness” drills requiring them to respond to their masters at any time of night. Mack’s slaves were also allegedly “kept seriously sleep-deprived and emaciated to the point where they stopped menstruating.”

Prosecutors claimed that during ceremonies in which her slaves were branded, Mack “placed her hands on the slaves’ chests and told them to ‘feel the pain’ and to ‘think of [their] master,’ as the slaves cried with pain.”

Attorneys for the six accused have not responded to PEOPLE’s requests for comment.

Nxivm, which likewise has not responded, suspended operations earlier this year amid news of the various arrests.