Disgraced self-improvement guru Keith Raniere, whose NXIVM followers included millionaires and Hollywood actors, was sentenced to 120 years in prison on Tuesday for turning some adherents into sex slaves branded with his initials.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis called Raniere “ruthless and unyielding” in crimes that were “particularly egregious” because he targeted young girls and young women.
He handed down the unusually stiff sentence in Brooklyn federal court after hearing the words of 15 victims call for a long prison term to reflect the nightmares and anguish they’ll confront the rest of their lives.
As he announced the sentence, Garaufis noted that Raniere labelled some of the victims’ claims as lies. The judge told a woman who Raniere ordered to be kept in a room for two years when she was 18: “What happened to you is not your fault.” He said that went for the other victims too.
Raniere, who looked at victims as they spoke in the courtroom, maintained his defiant tone, although he said he was “truly sorry” that his organization led to a place where “there is so much anger and so much pain.”
“I do believe I am innocent of the charges. … It is true I am not remorseful of the crimes I do not believe I committed at all,” Raniere, 60, said.
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Prosecutors had sought life in prison while defence lawyers said he should face 15 years behind bars.
The sentencing was the culmination of several years of revelations about Raniere’s program, NXIVM, which charged thousands of dollars for invitation-only self improvement courses at its headquarters near Albany, N.Y., along with branches in Mexico and Canada.
Adherents included millionaires and Hollywood actresses willing to endure humiliation and pledge obedience to the defendant as part of his teachings.
Judge impatient with defence
After victims spoke for two and a half hours, the judge grew impatient and a bit angry when defence lawyer Marc Agnifilo sought to portray his client’s organization as “doing good” for women before things turned bad for some.
“I’ve heard enough about Mr. Raniere’s theories,” Garaufis snapped.
The judge said Raniere groomed a 13-year-old girl so that “two years later he’s having sex with a 15-year-old girl.”
At another point, he cut Agnifilo off as the lawyer tried to argue victims were not always factually correct.
“You’re starting to tire me out here,” the judge said. “It’s pretty clear he took advantage of people sexually.”
Earlier, India Oxenberg, the daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, called Raniere an “entitled little princess” and a sexual predator and lamented that she “may have to spend the rest of my life with Keith Raniere’s initials seared into me.”
The likelihood of leniency had seemed to dissipate with the recent sentencing of Clare Bronfman, 41, an heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, for her role in what has been described by some ex-members as a cult.
Bronfman was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison. Prosecutors had only sought five years.
Ex-followers told the judge that Bronfman for years had used her wealth to try to silence NXIVM defectors.
Raniere’s followers called him “Vanguard.” To honour him, the group formed a secret sorority comprised of female “slaves” who were branded with his initials and ordered to have sex with him, the prosecutors said. Women were also pressured into giving up embarrassing information about themselves that could be used against them if they left the group.
Along with Bronfman, Raniere’s teachings won him the devotion of Hollywood actors including Allison Mack of TV’s Smallville. Mack has also pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar told the judge only a life sentence would protect the public because Raniere otherwise “would be committing crimes today, tomorrow and in the future.”
Outside the court afterward, Barbara Boucher, who described herself as the first whistleblower of Raniere’s scam when she left the group 11 years ago, said recovering from her time in the organization was traumatic and the sentencing left her “shell shocked” and “enormously relieved.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Boucher, who recalled her role in helping to build the organization when she first viewed it as a kind of Camelot.
“This is a 20-year book and this is the last chapter of the book and when I leave here today, that book is closing,” she said.