NXIVM was an organization from Albany, New York that claimed to be a business and lifestyle program that could help its members actualize and achieve their full potential, along with happiness and fulfillment. NXVIM was widely reported to be a “cult-like” group where members were referred to as “slaves” belonging to its founder, Keith Raniere. The women were taught to revere Raniere and were forced to maintain calorie restricted diets to appear attractive to him. The women were also required to provide collateral which included embarrassing and incriminating information, including photographs that were threatened to be released to the public if the members told anyone about the group. Many of the women were also forced to perform sex acts on Raniere at his command. It was discovered that at one point he had a group of 15 to 20 women on a rotation that were “assigned” to perform sex acts on him. In 2017, former NXIVM members sought an investigation into the group from New York State authorities. Later that same year, a report about the women being branded appeared in the New York Times. Federal authorities began a criminal investigation at the end of 2017 which led to the FBI arresting Raniere in February of 2018.
Following the federal investigation, six people were convicted of crimes relating to their participation in NXIVM. The trials took place in the Eastern District of New York, with District Judge Nicholas Garaufis presiding over each case. Keith Raniere, the co-founder and leader of NXIVM, was sentenced to 120 years in federal prison for sex trafficking, racketeering, and possession of child pornography. Nancy Salzman, the co-founder and president of NXIVM, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges which involved conspiracy to commit identity theft and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Clare Bronfman, who was a high-level member of the group, plead guilty to money laundering and identity theft. She was sentenced to 81 months in prison, forfeited $6 million, and paid more than $96,000 in restitution to an unnamed victim. Alison Mack was also a high-level member and recruiter of NXIVM who plead guilty to racketeering charges and was sentenced to 3 years in prison. Lauren Salzman, Nancy Salzman’s daughter, plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy and was sentenced to 5 years of probation and 300 hours of community service.
The NXIVM saga has not ended. Authorities seem to be sending a clear message that sex trafficking will not be tolerated by targeting not only the masterminds behind the operation, but also those who were aiding those at the top of the organization. Health officials in New York have now revoked the license of Danielle Roberts, a doctor who was involved with NXIVM and branded 17 of the victims with the Keith Raniere’s initials. The revocation of her license came after a health department hearing committee sustained multiple counts of professional misconduct for her actions within the group. The counts included the allegation that Roberts used a cauterizing device to brand “KAR” on the women in their pelvic region without anesthesia in order to intentionally cause them pain. The brandings were also meant to symbolize the women belonging to Raniere.
The committee found that Roberts deviated from the standard of care and dangerously operated the branding device on the women. It also reported that Roberts was evasive and defiant during her testimony. She “denies being brainwashed, yet she expressed no real remorse, which represented to the committee her distorted reality and the very real concern that others remain vulnerable to her future brandings.”
Federal prosecutors also convicted Kathy Russell, a bookkeeper for NXIVM, for committing visa fraud. The prosecutors say that her “blind loyalty” to Raniere facilitated the abuse of his victims. They cited Russell for transporting a teenager across the Canadian border with a false identification card and defrauding United States immigration authorities by signing and presenting false documents in support of a visa application. Kelly was further prosecuted for signing a fake letter at the U.S. Consulate in Mexico in which claimed she hired a NXIVM member as a management consultant for the operation. Russell also leased a home under a fake name where Raniere engaged in an abusive sexual relationship with a Mexican woman that he had been sexually exploiting since she was 15 years old.
Russell first became involved with NXIVM by attending a retreat in Alaska, which led to a sexual relationship with Raniere. Several months into this relationship, she took the bookkeeping job with the group. Russell argued to the court that she was yet another victim of Raniere’s. Her attorneys argued for a lenient sentence in a memorandum with the court, saying that she is on a “positive trajectory” and working through her trauma. The memorandum also states that Russell has endured a lifetime of abuse, which began when she was a child. Both of her parents suffered from psychological disorders that only got worse over time. As she got older, she was in multiple abusive relationships. Russell’s traumatic experiences made her vulnerable to Raniere’s manipulation. He took advantage of her shortly after she joined the group by controlling her and their relationship. The memorandum points out that while other members of the group had fame and money, Russell did not have the means to escape Raniere.
Russell’s situation is an example of a victim-offender intersectionality. Victim-offender intersectionality occurs when victims are forced by their traffickers to engage in in the trafficking of other victims. Since individuals, like Russell, are oftentimes both victims and offenders, it is a nuanced legal dilemma that criminal justice stakeholders need to handle through careful balancing. The CSE Institute holds the opinion that the victim identity of the victim-offender should be prioritized in the criminal justice system. Victim-offenders argue that their victimization is a product of physical violence, emotional manipulation, and life-threatening abuse. While federal prosecutors requested six months to one year of prison time, the judge ultimately sentenced Russell to two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service. The CSE Institute commends federal prosecutors for zealously prosecuting those who have caused harm to victims through NXIVM, however, we hope that prosecutors are educated on victim-offender intersectionality in order to adequately pursue true justice for all involved.