Accused New York sex cult founder targeted victims as young as 15 - prosecutor

by Reuters
Tuesday, 7 May 2019 15:33 GMT

Paul DerOhannesian, legal council representing Keith Raniere, arrives at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse for opening arguments in the sex trafficking and racketeering charges related to the Nxivm cult case in New York, U.S., May 7, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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By Brendan Pierson and Joseph Ax

NEW YORK, May 7 (Reuters) - Former self-help guru Keith Raniere was a "predator" who preyed on young women, including a 15-year-old girl, and turned them into sex slaves as part of a cultlike organization, a federal prosecutor told a jury at the start of his trial on Tuesday.

"The defendant took advantage of them emotionally and sexually," Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar said in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. "He sold himself as the smartest, most ethical person in the world. ... He compared himself to Einstein and to Gandhi."

Raniere, 58, is accused of recruiting women to join his group, Nxivm, and then exercising total control over them - forcing them to have sex with him, restricting their diets and branding them with his initials.

He has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking, child pornography and other crimes. His defense attorney was scheduled to deliver an opening statement later on Tuesday.

Several of his alleged "slaves" will testify over the course of the trial, which could last up to six weeks. While prosecutors have not said who will take the stand, former "Smallville" star Allison Mack and Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman have already pleaded guilty to playing supporting roles in the scheme, as well as three other women accused of involvement in Raniere's crimes.

Prosecutors said on Tuesday that Raniere's victims included three Mexican sisters, one of whom was only 15. The government plans to introduce explicit photographs of the youngest sister seized from Raniere's computer as evidence.

Another sister was confined to a room for two years, Najjar said.

The trial caps a bizarre saga for Raniere, who was arrested in March 2018 after fleeing to Mexico with Bronfman.

Nxivm, which started under another name in 1998 and is pronounced "Nexium," was based in Albany, New York, and at one time operated numerous self-improvement centers across North and Central America.

In 2015, prosecutors say, Raniere established a sorority within Nxivm known as DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly means "master of the obedient female companions."

The subgroup included "slaves" who were expected to obey "masters" in a pyramid-like structure, with Raniere standing alone at the top.

The slaves were required to submit "collateral" to win acceptance that could then be used as blackmail material: Nude photos, rights to their financial assets or damaging information about friends and relatives, prosecutors said.

If convicted, Raniere faces up to life in prison. (Reporting by Brendan Pierson and Joseph Ax; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

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