Keith Raniere ran NXIVM's Executive Success program for years, guaranteeing participants that they would learn how to topple any obstacles in their path on the road to finding their true north in business and in life.
Though the self-improvement courses attracted some big names in business and entertainment over the years, there was a far more disturbing operation taking place behind the scenes.
In June 2019, Raniere was found guilty of sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, racketeering and racketeering conspiracy for presiding over a trafficking ring in which women were recruited as "slaves" by other female members, or "masters," and manipulated into having sex with the NXIVM co-founder.
And today, in proceedings postponed multiple times, including earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for his crimes.
Raniere has insisted he's innocent, telling Dateline earlier this month in his first interview from jail that he was sorry for the hurt people had suffered, but that he had been the victim of an unfair trial.
"I apologize for my participation in all of this—this pain and suffering," he said. "I've clearly participated. I've been the leader of the community. And it has come to this. Even if it is by oppression, I am absolutely sorry and pained. This is a horrible situation."
He continued, "This is a horrible tragedy with many, many people being hurt. There is a horrible injustice here. And whether you think I'm the devil or not, the justice process has to be examined."
On Friday, the judge denied his latest request for a new trial.
Earlier last year, five women, including Smallville actress Allison Mack, pleaded guilty to lesser charges, leaving Raniere as the only one who went to trial following a months-long federal investigation into NXIVM and DOS—a secret sorority that included 15 to 20 women recruited primarily to be sex partners for Raniere, a commitment (for the women) that included a ceremony in which they were branded with a symbol incorporating Raniere and Mack's initials.
DOS was said to be an acronym for the Latin "Dominus Obsequious Sororium," which reportedly roughly translates into "Master of the Obedient Female Companions."
"Over the last seven weeks, this trial has revealed that Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was in fact, a master manipulator, a con man and the crime boss of a cult-like organization involved in sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion, compelled abortions, branding, degradation and humiliation," said Richard P. Donoghue, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, shortly after the verdict was handed down.
"His crimes, and the crimes of his co-conspirators, ruined marriages, careers, fortunes and lives. The evidence proved that Raniere was truly a modern-day Svengali."
Neither Raniere nor Mack ended up taking the stand, but multiple women did—some identified only by their first names—to testify to the abuses perpetrated by Raniere and those he enlisted to carry out his sordid vision.
In a motion to have the charges dismissed that was filed in December 2018, Raniere's legal team argued that NXIVM was a "wonderful humanitarian organization" whose members have "sought to end the violence in Mexico, have introduced tools useful to people with difficult conditions, such as Tourette's syndrome, have pioneered multi-linguistic schools for young children, who would become proficient in multiple languages and later multi-cultural adults, and have developed approaches to help people lead happier, more productive, more enriched lives."
A gated villa in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was where FBI agents had tracked Raniere down to arrest him that March, following a months-long investigation into the allegations raised against him and NXIVM.
Prosecutors alleged, meanwhile, that NXIVM—a purported self-help organization based in Albany, N.Y., that since its establishment in the late 1990s had attracted more than 16,000 people, including actors and corporate leaders, to its Executive Success Programs and other seminars—was a pyramid scheme in which participants could only move up the ladder by paying more and recruiting more people. To even get the chance to meet Raniere, participants usually had to complete a 16-day course that cost $7,500.
Mack, who once called Raniere "a wonderful teacher and mentor" was also originally charged with sex trafficking before pleading guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy.
One former DOS member, Nicole, testified that she was ordered to address Mack as "Madame Mack," and was asked to sign a waiver releasing NXIVM from liability in the case of incidents such as "disfigurement" or "physical and psychological injuries." But Nicole didn't want to sign and, eventually, Mack seemed to forget about it.
Another woman, Sylvie, testified that she signed similar papers.
A third woman, Jay, testified that Mack would also refer to DOS as "The Agency," because "her slaves were all actresses and models and were beautiful, so it was as if she was running an agency."
Incidentally, multiple women testified that Raniere had erectile dysfunction issues.
Nicole said in court that she was first drawn to NXIVM's self-help program as an aspiring actress looking to jump-start her career after moving to New York in 2014. An ex-boyfriend had told her about all the rich and famous people, including several actors, associated with the organization.
From the beginning, Nicole said, she thought that the general fawning over Raniere—his annual birthday celebration was "V-Week," referring to his nickname "Vanguard"—was strange. After a week-long program, she was urged by her ex and Mack to sign up for more classes. She ended up teaching classes to supplement her income. When she told Mack that she was worried she was making the wrong choices, Mack told her about a society within NXIVM for women called "The Vow," Nicole recalled.
The Vow was DOS.
"[Mack] said that she couldn't let me out no matter how hard I cried because it would show me that if I cried hard enough, I could get out of anything," Nicole testified. She ended up remaining in DOS for over a year. When she finally got Raniere's attention after sending him multiple emails (at Mack's command, she said), Nicole said that Raniere took her to a cabin in the woods one day where he blindfolded her, had her lie on a table, tied her to the table, and had another woman perform oral sex on her. Nicole said she didn't realize another person was in the room till it was happening and Raniere started talking at the same time.
Prosecutors said the entire encounter was videotaped.
Nicole said she finally extricated herself from NXIVM in 2017. She never got her collateral back. "Once I'd gotten enough separation, there's not been one moment that I am not grateful that I am no longer in that situation," she said on the stand.
The defense didn't call any witnesses during the trial. Raniere's attorney Marc Agnifilo told the jury, "You may find him repulsive, disgusting and offensive. We don't convict people in this country for being repulsive or offensive. Unpopular ideas aren't criminal. Disgusting ideas aren't criminal."
Until his arrest, Raniere had been running NXIVM for years in plain sight, touting his programs as key stepping stones for people who wanted to harness their best selves and realize their true potential. Here's a primer of some of the key players and the roles they played in creating—and unraveling—this tangled web:
Following sentencing, FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement, "Raniere's reign of control over the women he scarred, both physically and emotionally, is the making of a horror story. It is inconceivable to think of the sexual exploitation, abuse, seclusion, and mind control his victims suffered—at his direction.
"Today the judge has given him 120 years to think about whether or not the torture he inflicted on others for more than a decade, and the distress he brought to their families, was worth it in the end.
(Originally published April 27, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)