by Sarah Grossbart | Sat., Apr. 27, 2019 7:00 AM
To those in the know, it was clear she was unraveling.
Allison Mack's social media had always trended toward the uplifting, her page littered with quotes from the likes of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and the Dalai Lama, or this thought from Catholic Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast: "I always say joy is the happiness that doesn't depend on what happens."
Her goal, as she shared in an unearthed YouTube video from 2013, was to spread that sense of optimism. "I want to be remembered for my joy. I want to be remembered for the way I impacted people. I want to be remembered as a woman who was honest and true and joyful."
But in the summer of 2017, entries on her blog read more like a cry for help. "Cold sweats. Constantly. The anxiety of being caught makes my heart thrum like a hummingbird," she wrote. "Someday I will be discovered. I will be found out!"
Scanning through her litany of posts, one woman she hired as a consultant shared with The Hollywood Reporter, "You could see her mind shattering over time."
It was her entire world that came crashing down on Apr. 20 of last year. That's when the 36-year-old Smallville alum was arrested on federal sex trafficking charges and conspiracy to commit forced labor nearly a month after Keith Raniere, founder of the purported self-help organization NXIVM (pronounced nexium) was nabbed near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. According to the federal criminal complaint filed against him, Raniere, known as "The Vanguard" to his acolytes in the Albany, N.Y.-based group, had "a rotating group of 15 to 20 women with whom he maintains sexual relationships."
The women, continued the complaint, weren't permitted to sleep with anyone but Raniere, nor could they discuss their relationship with him. They were also forced to run errands and complete seemingly arbitrary tasks such as holding a plank position, severely cut calories to maintain Raniere's preferred slim body shape and undergo a branding ceremony that left a 2-inch by 2-inch mark of Raniere and Mack's initials seared into the skin near their pubic region.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Mack was the alleged brainchild and overseer of such rituals for the group, which at one point boasted as many as 50 members.
In a statement about the star's arrest, United States Attorney Richard Donoghue asserted, "Allison Mack recruited women to join what was purported to be a female mentorship group that was, in fact, created and led by Keith Raniere. The victims were then exploited, both sexually and for their labor, to the defendants' benefit." (An initial statement posted to NXIVM's website said they were "currently working with the authorities" to demonstrate Raniere's "innocence and true character," but they have since suspended operations.)
On Monday, Mack's yearlong wait for a trial, came to an end when the former actress pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and racketeering acts of state law extortion and forced labor. As she stood in the Brooklyn federal court, Mack said she had looked back at the decisions she made and the people she trusted and is prepared to take responsibility. (E! News has reached out to Mack's attorneys, who declined to comment.)
"Through it all, I believed Keith Raniere's intentions were to help people," she said, while admitting to being a member of a secret society and founding DOS, as well as holding property as collateral and concealing Raniere's role as the alleged head of DOS. "I was wrong."
Continued Mack, fighting back tears, "I must take full responsibility for my conduct and that is why I am pleading guilty today. I am and will be a better person as a result of this."
Keith Ranere Conversations/Youtube
What that route will actually entail remains to be seen. After the judge accepted her plea, he set her sentencing for Sept. 11. And the punishment could be steep. According to the U.S. attorney, Mack faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison, or 20 years per count.
Friends remain torn on how Mack's involvement in NXIVM should be viewed. Raniere's brainchild existed under the guise of a self-help organization, offering guidance and life coaching. But it's main purpose, Feds charged, was as a pyramid scheme. Women paid to absorb his teachings and were only able to move up the ladder towards their own personal growth by spending increasingly more cash. (A five-day workshop could cost them upwards of $5,000.)
Within NXIVM, according to court filings, existed an even more sinister organization. Marketed to members as a women-only secret society designed to eradicate weakness, DOS derived its initials from a Latin phrase translating loosely to "Master Over Slave Women," or "The Vow."
The organization was comprised of different levels of slaves expected to recruit others so that they could move up to master status, the filings detail. To join, members had to provide collateral, in the form of embarrassing photos, videos or information about themselves or relatives, and were then told they owed services not only to their direct master but anyone above them.
At the top of the heap was Raniere with his second-in-command, Mack, allegedly sitting in the pyramid just below.
But those who know Mack can imagine a scenario where she didn't fully absorb her wrongdoings. "I don't think she was thinking she was actually trafficking girls," a former roommate told The Hollywood Reporter. "It doesn't mean she doesn't deserve punishment, but I think she had drunk enough Kool-Aid to really believe that these girls were going to save the world with [Raniere's] super-sperm."
When Mack first turned up for a two-day introduction to Jness, a program billed as a "women's movement" within NXIVM, in late 2006 she had spent some two decades of her life in show business, a commercial for German chocolate she shot at age four leading to roles in 7th Heaven, Disney's Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves and Camp Nowhere before she landed her star-making part on Smallville.
The CW Television Network/Warner Bros. Television Productions, Inc.
"She was so hungry for something bigger, some kind of sign [that would show] the purpose and meaning of life," Step by Step alum and fellow former 90s child actor Christine Lakin explained to THR.
She had turned up to the event at a nondescript hotel conference room in Vancouver, where she was five seasons into filming Smallville, with costar Kristin Kreuk. (Then a new member, Kreuk has long since severed ties, tweeting after Mack's arrest that she never "experienced any illegal or nefarious activity. I am horrified and disgusted by what has come out.")
Former member Susan Dones recalled to THR how Mack accepted an invite to fly back to company headquarters in Albany on Seagram heiresses Sara Bronfman and Clare Bronfman's jet for a meeting with the man himself and was still there weeks later when Dones arrived at the corporate offices. "She said she was having a great time," she remembered.
Truthfully, Mack had never envisioned her existence as a sitcom star. Born to American parents in Preetz, German, where her father Jonathan was an opera singer, she took classes at the Young Actors Space in Los Angeles, where the likes of Keri Russell and Leonardo DiCaprio had trained, when her family relocated to California. And she intended to follow up high school by heading to London for theater school. But at 18, a casting director convinced her to audition for a new WB drama documenting Superman's teen years. "My life was going in a very specific direction," she recalled in a 2011 interview, "and it wasn't a TV show that filmed in Vancouver!"
And yet she scored the role as wholesome school newspaper editor Chloe Sullivan, best friend of a young Clark Kent, and relocated to Canada. From the outside, she seemed to have it made, collecting a steady paycheck and scores of fans, but pals told THR she had insecurities about forgoing the more traditional schooling route.
"I have a tendency to say I am stupid. I [have become] very comfortable chalking things up to the fact that I don't have a 'proper education,'" she wrote on her blog in 2007. "The truth is…I am an eternal student, and I am loving all the opportunities I have to grow."
And nowhere did she feel more encouraged to expand than in the NXIVM intensives she began taking on the regular. Her former roommate credits Barbara Bouchey, a senior exec who once dated Raniere, with drawing her in. "It was really Bouchey that put her under her spell," the roommate told THR. "I heard three years of how wonderful Barbara Bouchey was and how she was so great with business. Allison had such a desire to be a strong businesswoman and have a mentor." (Bouchey left the organization in 2009 and ha since spoken out about what she witnessed.)
In NXVIM, Mack quickly became a star pupil. One former member told THR the group made a strong push in 2009 to replicate the impressive outreach of Scientology, a religion that counts a cadre of celebrities, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta as devotees. "The group's leaders were studying Scientology and saying they wanted to be more like them—more visually appealing, more streamlined, more like the cool kids," said the former member. "And they wanted people who were attractive and compelling; that's why they went after people like Allison Mack."
Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage
But Mack provided more than just the right look. An enthusiastic member, she committed herself to recruiting more followers, even convincing her parents to take courses. "She told me about Jness and ESP within 30 or 40 minutes of meeting her," the former consultant told THR. She also tried to get former 7th Heaven pal Beverley Mitchell to try out a Jness seminar and reached out to other stars such as Kelly Clarkson and Emma Watson via Twitter.
As her decade on Smallville drew to a close, she doubled-down on her commitment. Though she continued to notch smaller parts, including a recurring role on FX's Wilfred in 2012, she admitted to feeling a bit adrift in life. "I realized that I kind of grew up on a TV show and didn't really know where to go afterwards," she recounted to Fine Magazine in March 2017. "I was 28 and I felt not quite sure where I was going or who I was. I think that was probably the most bumpy transition."
Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Amazon Studios
So she purchased a house in Clifton Park, near NXIVM's Albany headquarters and devoted herself to Jness. "She really believed that teaching the difference between men and women was good, that it was pure and noble," her former consultant told THR. "I don't think any of us saw where it was going, that it was teaching women to be subservient."
Still, the consultant began noticing not-so-subtle changes in Mack's behavior, with the actress berating her for even the smallest of infractions. Another former member said a chance meeting with Mack after a 2010 yoga class left her certain that she had entered Raniere's harem. Her appearance showed signs that she had committed to his rigid standards, with multiple insiders saying he forced his women to consume just 900 calories a day. "I took one look at Allison, and I knew she was involved romantically and sexually with Keith," the woman told THR. "She had a gray pallor that was common to Keith's women because they all start to get a little sickly. I know I did."
With a presence in New York, Mack certainly had the opportunity to dive deeper into Raniere's circle. And as he lost some of his most trusted allies (confidante Barbara Jeskie passed in 2013, another, Pam Cafritz, succumbed to cancer in 2016 and adviser Kristin Keeffe left the group in 2014), Mack seemed to be the next woman up. "She had the ability to bring women to Raniere's bed," theorized Frank Parlato, a publicist who briefly worked with NXIVM and was the first to expose the sinister dealings of DOS on his blog. "She procured some startling beauties."
And thus began the most disjointed period of Mack's double life. While one insider, who spoke with two of Mack's alleged DOS slaves, told THR, "These slaves said Mack was incredibly intimidating, cruel and punitive," often berating them and threatening to release their collateral if they didn't sleep with Raniere, refused orders or dated other men, another close friend said she noticed nothing strange when they met up for coffee at The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills shortly before Raniere's March arrest.
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"I didn't think she was part of a cult because you think of cult members as cutting themselves off from family and friends," she said, noting their daily phone conversations. "She didn't do that [with me.]"
Her former roommate chalked that up to her years of training. "Allison's an actress," she told the outlet. "Even when she's been in pain, she's good at pretending things are OK. It doesn't surprise me that she could make it seem like things were fine."
The facade crumbled for good after Raniere's March arrest. When FBI investigators hunted him down in a lavish $10,000-a-week Mexican compound, Mack and Lauren Salzman, daughter of cofounder Nancy Salzman, chased after the blue sedan that drove him away. Though THR reported she texted an inquiring friend, "I'm home and I'm safe," after his capture, she herself was arrested at her Brooklyn home just a month later.
Initially Mack pled not guilty to charges, and released on $5 million bail was allowed to wile away most of her days inside her parents' home in Orange County, Calif., able to attend classes and religious services and complete some errands as her legal team worked to fight the charges.
In November, they argued in court papers that the federal indictments should be erased because they are a "wonderful humanitarian organization," not a mob. "If there was a polar-opposite of an organized-crime family, NXIVM would be it," read the motion asking for charges to be dropped against Raniere and his associates, noting they "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."
The next month, lawyers tried a new tact, arguing that threats to release the disparaging collateral doesn't equate the "serious harm" required to prove someone is guilty of inducing forced labor. Citing a 2009 case in which a couple unsuccessfully sued the Church of Scientology for forced labor, the motion stated, "the court did not find that plaintiffs were compelled to remain in the organization even though, if they chose to leave, they would be 'excommunicated' from their friends and family and labeled a 'dissenter.'"
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And if that threat of reputational harm didn't cut it with the courts, this shouldn't either. "The government argues that Ms. Mack obtained forced labor through 'threats of serious harm,' with serious harm being the embarrassment that would result from the exposure of one's collateral," the court document said. "Courts have found, however, that such an outcome, albeit embarrassing, does not amount to serious harm under the statute."
By mid-March, though, after Nancy Salzman pleaded guilty to a single charge of racketeering conspiracy, it became clear that Mack's team were working to avoid a trial with the New York Post reporting she was in plea negotiations.
And with just hours to go before jury selection was to start Apr. 8, Mack turned up in court to tearfully take responsibility for her actions and apologize for all that she'd hurt along the way. "I am very sorry for my role in this case," she said per the New York Post. "I am very sorry to my family and to the good people I hurt through my misguided adherence to [Nxivm leader] Keith Raniere's teachings."
For her part, Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter India Oxenberg was involved in Nxivm is sympathetic to her position, but is still interested in seeing justice carried out. "Alison Mack's life is in ruins and I can't help but feel sadness for her," the actress shared in a statement to People. "At the same time, she had to be stopped. What she participated in was dangerous and criminal."