How NXIVM, a so-called self-help company, crumbled after former members exposed it as a cult that abused sex slaves

Summary List PlacementWhen NXIVM first formed in the 1990s, it was billed as a self-help multi-level marketing company that offered professional development seminars. But over the three years, the organization has fallen apart after a New York Times exposé alleged that female members were branded and used as sex slaves by the group's founder, Keith Raniere. The exposé prompted a federal investigation and the arrests of several members, including Raniere and "Smallville" actress Allison Mack. A number of defendants ultimately pleaded guilty and admitted to allegations made in The Times' piece, including blackmail and enslaving members. NXIVM has since shut down, and Raniere was...

allison mack

Summary List Placement

When NXIVM first formed in the 1990s, it was billed as a self-help multi-level marketing company that offered professional development seminars.

But over the three years, the organization has fallen apart after a New York Times exposé alleged that female members were branded and used as sex slaves by the group’s founder, Keith Raniere.

The exposé prompted a federal investigation and the arrests of several members, including Raniere and “Smallville” actress Allison Mack.

A number of defendants ultimately pleaded guilty and admitted to allegations made in The Times’ piece, including blackmail and enslaving members.

NXIVM has since shut down, and Raniere was found guilty of sex trafficking and sentenced to 120 years in prison. Aeveral other former members have also been sentenced.

Here’s everything you need to know about NXIVM and the criminal case against the organization.

SEE ALSO: How a cult-recovery therapist helps former NXIVM members regain their independence: ‘There’s a huge amount of fear and loss’

Keith Raniere launched NXIVM as a self-help company in the 1990s.

NXIVM — pronounced like “nexium” — is a self-help multi-level marketing company in Albany, New York. A self-help guru named Keith Raniere, and a former psychiatric nurse and consultant named Nancy Salzman, founded the business in 1998.

Over the next twenty years, some 16,000 people enrolled in courses through NXIVM, which describes itself as “a community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human.”

Most people enrolled in NXIVM through its Executive Success Programs (ESP), a series of workshops designed to “actualize human potential” that cost up to $7,500.

Founder Keith Raniere was born in 1960 in Brooklyn. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York in 1982. The second founder, Nancy Salzman, was born in 1954 in Newark, New Jersey, and later obtained a nursing license.

Raniere’s website describes him as a “the conceptual founder of NXIVM” as well as a prolific inventor and writer. Salzman’s website touts her “thirty years of intensive study and practice in the fields of healthcare, human potential and human empowerment” and her “incredible wealth of knowledge, wisdom and experience.”

Forbes named several members in a 2003 report, including businesswoman Sheila Johnson and the daughter of former Mexican President Vicente Fox. Others who reportedly attended ESP sessions include Dynasty star Linda Evans and Virgin founder Richard Branson, according to Macleans.

Seagram’s liquor heirs Clare and Sara Bronfman lost more than $100 million investing in the organization, according to Vanity Fair.

The meaning of the company’s name, which is pronounced like the heartburn medication Nexium, is unclear.

Last year, a whistleblower offered the theory that it refers to nexum, a type of contract used in the Roman Republic in which a person agreed to offer their body as collateral for a loan.

If they defaulted, they became a slave of the person who loaned them money.

Journalists started labeling the company as a pyramid scheme in the early 2000s.

Before launching NXIVM, Raniere ran an alleged pyramid scheme that brought in $33 million in a year, Forbes reported in 2003.

Raniere had signed 250,000 people up for Consumers’ Buyline, another multi-level marketing company. This one claimed to obtain products and services at a significant discount.

In 1993, the New York Attorney General filed a lawsuit that accused Consumers Buyline of being a pyramid scheme. Raniere never admitted wrongdoing, and instead settled for $40,000.

Forbes’ 2003 article, titled “Cult of Personality,” investigated whether or not NXIVM also portrayed pyramid-scheme-like tendencies.

Seagram’s late CEO, Edgar Bronfman Sr., who had previously taken courses with NXIVM, told the magazine: “I think it’s a cult.”

Raniere, Salzman, and Bronfman’s daughter Sara were reportedly upset about his remark, according to Vanity Fair.

Cult experts told local media that Raniere was probably running a cult in 2012.

The Times Union, a local paper that serves the upstate New York area surrounding Albany, published an article in 2012 in which it questioned NXIVM’s motives.

“Some experts say Keith Raniere, the guru behind the unusual training business, is really a cult leader,” the article said.

The article said Raniere was called the “Vanguard” within the group, while devotees called Salzman “Prefect.”

The Times Union reported that within NXIVM, there was a “close knit” group of women who “tended to [Raniere], paid his bills,” and “satisfied his sexual needs.”

Cult Tracker Rick Ross told the paper that NXIVM was “one of the most extreme groups [he had] ever dealt with in the sense of how tightly wound it is around the leader, Keith Raniere.”

October 17, 2017: The New York Times published an exposé about NXIVM’s branding ritual and sex slave allegations.

The New York Times exposé featured an interview with former NXIVM member Sarah Edmondson and her experience with the organization.

Edmondson claimed that Salzman’s daughter, Lauren Salzman, had recruited her into a secret organization within NXIVM in the mid-2000s.

She claimed she had to turn over damaging information before joining that was held by NXIVM leaders as “collateral.”

Several women who were in the group told The Times that the organization inside NXIVM consisted of distinct circles, each led by a “master” who would control a number of sex slaves.

The name of the organization was later revealed to be called Dominus Obsequious Sororium, which loosely translates from Latin to “lord over the obedient female companions” according to a later feature on NXIVM by The New York Times. The group was called DOS for short.

Edmondson showed The Times a scar resembling Raniere’s initials, and said every woman in the group had one.

Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg also spoke to The Times, claiming her daughter had been initiated into the group.

The exposé prompted an investigation by the Department of Justice.

Two months after The New York Times released its report on NXIVM, the Justice Department started investigating the group.

March 26, 2018: Raniere was arrested and charged with sex trafficking after fleeing to Mexico following The Times’ exposé.

Raniere was arrested in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and brought to Texas on March 26, 2018, the Brooklyn US Attorney’s office said at the time. He had fled to Mexico after The Times story published the previous October.

“Keith Raniere displayed a disgusting abuse of power in his efforts to denigrate and manipulate women he considered his sex slaves,” FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney said in the press release announcing Raniere’s arrest.

He was charged with sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and forced labor conspiracy.

Prosecutors alleged that Raniere “created a secret society of women whom he had sex with and branded with his initials, coercing them with the threat of releasing their highly personal information and taking their assets.”

According to a criminal complaint, prosecutors alleged that Raniere told followers that men need multiple sex partners while women need to be monogamous.

The also claimed Raniere had “over 50 sex slaves,” NBC News reported

March 30, 2018: “Smallville” actress Kristin Kreuk explains reports that she was part of NXIVM.

“Smallville” actress Kristin Kreuk told Elle in March 2018 that she had taken self-help classes through NXIVM, but she was never part of the DOS inner circle.

“I took an Executive Success Programs/NXIVM ‘Intensive,’ what I understood to be a self-help/personal growth course that helped me handle my previous shyness, which is why I continued with the program,” she said in a statement last year.

She said she was 23 when she took courses with NXIVM, which would have been in 2006.

“The accusations that I was in the ‘inner circle’ or recruited women as ‘sex slaves’ are blatantly false,” she added.

April 20, 2018: “Smallville” actress Allison Mack was arrested and and charged with sex trafficking and forced labor.

Mack was arrested on April 20, 2018 on charges of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and forced labor conspiracy.

The actress was accused by two unnamed women of requiring them to engage in sexual activity with Raniere, CNN reported at the time.

Prosecutors alleged that Mack received financial benefits in exchange for the women’s cooperation. The women claimed they were blackmailed into performing sexual favors.

Insider previously reported that Mack sent cryptic messages to prominent feminists on Twitter, trying to recruit women for “an organization that focuses on empowering women from the inside out.”

The women she reached out to include actress Emma Watson, parenting expert Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, and singer Kelly Clarkson.

Mack pleaded not guilty to charges.

Mack pleaded not guilty to the charges shortly after her arrest. She was released on a $5 million bond

April 21, 2018: The New York Post reported that NXIVM moved its operations to Brooklyn.

NXIVM moved its operations from Albany, New York, to Brooklyn, in April 2018, the The New York Post reported.

As Raniere faced criminal charges, longtime member Clare Bronfman — a multimillionaire heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune — took control of the organization, The Post said.

An insider told The Post that the organization went into “crisis mode” as Raniere and Mack faced charges.

May 4, 2018: Raniere pleaded not guilty and his attorney said “everything was consensual.”

Raniere pleaded not guilty all all charges on May 4, 2018.

After the hearing, his lawyers told NBC News that “everything was consensual” within NXIVM.

“There are well-known groups of men who brand themselves,” attorney Marc Agnifilo said. “A group of women do that and suddenly they’re victims.”

Following his not guilty plea, Raniere was held without bail.

May 30, 2018: Mack told The New York Times that she instituted the branding ritual.

Allison Mack told the New York Times Magazine that it was her idea to brand members of the alleged sex cult.

She said tattoos weren’t intense enough and wanted a stronger brand that would be more meaningful.

“I was like: ‘Y’all, a tattoo? People get drunk and tattooed on their ankle ‘BFF,’ or a tramp stamp,'” she told the Times. “I have two tattoos and they mean nothing.”

The Times said hundreds of NXIVM members were branded with a symbol that resembled a “K” and “R,” which stands for Keith Raniere.

According to The Times, Mack was once one of Raniere’s sex slaves. When she acquired a slave of her own, the slave was branded with both the “KR” symbol as well as an “AM” symbol.

June 12, 2018: NXIVM suspended all operations.

NXIVM announced it was suspending all operations on June 12, 2018. 

The organization said in a statement on its website:

It is with deep sadness that we inform you we are suspending all NXIVM/ESP enrollment, curriculum and events until further notice.

We will be in touch with more information for anyone currently enrolled in upcoming events/programs.

While we are disappointed by the interruption of our operations, we believe it is warranted by the extraordinary circumstances facing the company at this time. We continue to believe in the value and importance of our work and look forward to resuming our efforts when these allegations are resolved.

July 24, 2018: Four more people, including heiress Clare Bronfman were arrested and charged with racketeering and conspiracy for their roles in NXIVM.

Federal authorities arrested Clare Bronfman, Nancy Salzman, Lauren Salzman, and Kathy Russell on charges of racketeering conspiracy for their alleged involvement in NXIVM.

Prosecutors alleged that all four women recruited and groomed women into being sexual partners for Raniere.

The women are accused of using “harassment, coercion and abusive litigation to intimidate and attack perceived enemies and critics,” according to the indictment, published by The Daily Beast

The indictment accused the women of a number of crimes, including identity theft, harboring of aliens for financial gain, extortion, forced labor, sex trafficking, money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.

It described Bronfman as “a member of the Enterprise and a high-ranking member of Nxivm” who served on the organization’s board from 2009 to 2018. 

March 13, 2019: Nancy Salzman pleaded guilty, saying in court that she tracked and monitored women as part of NXIVM.

Nancy Salzman pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy in federal court on March 13.

Salzman admitted to hacking emails of NXIVM critics, and said in court that she had monitored women as part of her role within the organization.

She said in court that she had obtained passwords and usernames of people who were suspected of leaking NXIVM secrets.

“I want you to know I am pleading guilty because I am, in fact, guilty,” she told the court, according to The Post. “I accept that some of the things I did were not just wrong, but sometimes criminal.”

March 14, 2019: Prosecutors alleged that Raniere had sex with a 15-year-old girl and charged him with child pornography.

Hours after Nancy Salzman pleaded guilty, federal prosecutors charged Raniere with child pornography.

In a superseding indictment seen by Reuters, prosecutors accused Raniere of coercing a child into sexual conduct to produce visual depictions of it and of possessing child pornography between 2005 and 2018.

At a Brooklyn hearing, prosecutors alleged that Raniere had sex with a 15-year-old girl who later became a “sex slave,” The Cut reported at the time

March 27, 2019: Bronfman fainted in court after being asked if Michael Avenatti was her lawyer.

During court hearing on March 27, Bronfman fainted in court after a discussion about whether she was being represented by lawyer Michael Avenatti.

According to The New York Post, Judge Nicholas Garaufis had asked Donna Newman, one of Bronfman’s lawyers: “Did she retain Mr. Avenatti to represent her in this case, yes or no?”

The question came days after Avenatti was charged with trying to extort more than $20 million from Nike.

Newman requested a sidebar discussion with the judge, and on Bronfman’s way back to her seat after the conversation, she fell forward and fainted.

Paramedics were called, but Bronfman was not taken to a hospital for treatment.

April 2, 2019: Lauren Salzman pleaded guilty, admitting she enslaved a woman for just over two years.

Lauren Salzman — the daughter of NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman — became the second defendant to plead guilty on April 2. 

The 42-year-old pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy and admitted in court to keeping a personal slave locked in her home for two years, according to the New York Post.

“I knowingly and intentionally harbored Jane Doe 4, a woman whose identity is known to me, in a room in the home in the Northern District of New York,” Salzman said in court, according to The Post.

She also admitted to being a member of NXIVM’s inner circle, DOS.

April 8, 2019: Mack reverses her not guilty plea and pleads guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy and one count of racketeering.

Mack reversed her plea on April 8, nearly a year after she pleaded not guilty charges including sex trafficking, identity fraud, and money laundering for her role in NXIVM’s alleged sex ring.

Mack entered a plea agreement on racketeering charges, according to the Associated Press.

Prosecutors alleged that Mack helped procure women for a cult-like group within NXIVM that recruited sex slaves for its leader in upstate New York.

“I know I can and will be a better person,” Mack said at her hearing.

April 19, 2019: Bronfman pleads guilty for conspiring to conceal and harbor an undocumented immigrant and for fraudulent use of identification.

Bronfman pleaded guilty on April 19, 2019 to two criminal counts in connection with NXIVM’s alleged sex ring.

Bronfman admitted to harboring a woman who came to the US with a fake work visa, to use the woman’s labor for herself and the organization, according to Reuters. She also helped Raniere use a dead woman’s credit card.

She has agreed, as part of her plea, to forfeit $6 million and not appeal any prison sentence that is 27 months or less.

“I wanted to do good in the world and help people,” she said in court. “However, I have made mistakes.”

Kathy Russell, who served as NXIVM’s bookkeeper, also pleaded guilty to one charge of visa fraud, according to CNN, and faces between six and 12 months in prison.

May 7, 2019: Raniere’s trial begins in Brooklyn’s Federal District Court.

Raniere’s high-profile trial kicked off on May 7, 2019 with opening arguments in Brooklyn’s Federal District Court.

He stood trial for a slew of crimes including racketeering, extortion, sexual exploitation of a child, and possession of child pornography, according to court filings.

In her opening statements, Assistant US Attorney Tanya Hajjar described Raniere as a “crime boss” and “predator who preyed on young women,” relying on tactics of shame and humiliation to break down his followers, reported Robert Gavin of The Times Union.

A US District Judge ruled before the trial began that prosecutors could present images of suspected child porn — two nude images of a girl who was around 15 years old at the time, and who authorities believe Raniere had sex with — that were discovered on a computer last year, according to court filings.

Throughout Raniere’s trial, several of his expected “slaves” testified. He had pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer has described the relationships as “consensual.”

June 19, 2019: Raniere was convicted in the sex-trafficking case against him.

Raniere was found guilty in June 2019 on all counts of sex-trafficking and forced labor charges.

Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, told the Associated Press that his client planned to appeal.

“Keith maintains his innocence. It’s a very sad day for him,” Agnifilo said. “I think he’s not surprised, but he maintains that he didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”

January 28, 2020: More than 80 people filed a lawsuit against NXIVM, accusing the group fo operating a Ponzi scheme.

In a federal lawsuit filed in New York on January 28, 2020, more than 80 people accused Raniere and 14 NXIVM associates of operating a criminal enterprise that “functioned as both a Ponzi scheme and a coercive community,” according to CNN.

The lawsuit also alleged NXIVM leadership of “sex trafficking, peonage, forced labor, and human trafficking offenses.”

Some members said they were part of a psychological experiment in which they were “subjected to scenes of escalating violence including actual, extremely graphic footage of the brutal beheading and dismemberment of five women in Mexico,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks financial relief and a jury trial.

September 30, 2020: Clare Bronfman was sentenced to nearly 7 years in prison for her role in NXIVM.

Clare Bronfman, a multimillionaire heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, was sentenced to 81 months in prison for her role in NXIVM on September 30, 2020. 

She pleaded guilty last year to charges of racketeering and conspiracy in connection to the NXIVM sex-trafficking case.

Prosecutors, who said Bronfman gave tens of millions of dollars to NXIVM and was a leader in the organization, had sought a five-year sentence.

US District Court Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis decided on a longer sentence, which would put her behind bars for nearly seven years.

As part of her plea agreement, Bronfman will also forfeit $6 million, pay a $500,000 fine, and give $96,605 to a victim, the judge ruled.

October 27, 2020: Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison.

Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison on October 27, 2020, after being convicted of sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and racketeering for his role in DOS, the secret sorority within NXIVM in which women said they were were branded with his name and were groomed and raped.

Raniere had pleaded not guilty, and in an NBC News interview published days before his sentencing, he maintained his innocence.

“Yes, I am innocent,” he said. “And although it is, this is a horrible tragedy with many, many people being hurt — I think the main thrust of this has been the oppression but really a different issue, which is hard for me to express.”

“There is a horrible injustice here. And whether you think I’m the devil or not, the justice process has to be examined,” he added.

June 30, 2021: Allison Mack was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

Mack was sentenced to three years in prison on June 30, 2021, for manipulating women into becoming sex slaves for Raniere.

The “Smallville” actress said in a letter filed in with the court ahead of her sentencing that she will “forever regret” her actions and told the judge she was filled with “remorse and guilt,” according to the Associated Press.

“I am sorry to those of you that I brought into NXIVM,” she wrote. “I am sorry I ever exposed you to the nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes of a twisted man.”

Mack has to surrender to prison by September 29.

July 28, 2021: Former high-ranking Nxivm member Lauren Salzman avoided prison time at her sentencing.

Former high-ranking Nxivm member Lauren Salzman was sentenced to time served, five years of probation and 300 hours of community service for her role in the organization.

Salzman, who pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges in the Nxivm case and testified against leader Keith Raniere, had spent several years in home confinement after being charged in the case.


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