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Former sex cult leader gives jurors inside view of the group

In this courtroom drawing, defendant Keith Raniere, center,

In this courtroom drawing, defendant Keith Raniere, center, is seated between his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left, and Marc Agnifilo on Tuesday during the first day of his sex trafficking trial. Credit: Elizabeth Williams via AP

 The meetings of the secret women’s master-slave society allegedly started by NXIVM guru Keith Raniere occurred three times a week. They began with all the women stripping. Then they posed for a group picture to be sent to him. 

“The photo had to be fully frontal naked,” former “first-line slave” and NXIVM leader Lauren Salzman told jurors Friday at Raniere’s sex-cult trial in Brooklyn federal court. “Our brands had to show, and we had to look uniform and happy.”

The testimony from Salzman, a cooperating government witness, gave jurors their first inside look at DOS, the secret “sorority” Raniere allegedly used to turn his Albany-based self-help group into a sex-trafficking enterprise that branded women and collected blackmail to provide sex partners for him.

Raniere, 58, who founded NXIVM in the 1990s to sell human-potential courses, faces up to life in prison on conspiracy, racketeering and other charges. Five ex-leaders have pleaded guilty, including Salzman, her mother, Nancy; actress Alison Mack and Seagram's heiress Clare Bronfman.

Salzman said she met Raniere, known inside NXIVM as “Vanguard,” when she was 21 through her mom, a NXIVM co-founder, and had a decade-long romantic relationship with him that ended before formation of DOS, which has been described as an acronym referring to male dominance.

The group, she said, was also known as “The Vow,” and Raniere was called “grandmaster.” Salzman said she and seven other women were “first line slaves” who became masters of other women they recruited — keeping Raniere’s role secret while collecting collateral like nude photos to force obedience.

Sometimes, Salzman testified, Raniere attended the group’s meetings. He would sit in a chair, clothed. The women had to strip naked and get on the floor, looking up at him, while he delivered lectures on matters ranging from his “vision” for DOS to writing a book, recruitment and “a dungeon.”

 “He would talk about a number of things,” she testified. Before Salzman took the stand, prosecutors introduced records from an online firm about various S&M toys sold to one of the DOS first-line slaves, but the items have not yet been connected to Raniere. 

Salzman, dressed in a black pantsuit and occasionally halting in her answers, spent much of her time on the witness stand explaining the origins of her involvement. After first meeting Raniere, Salzman said, she idolized him. “I considered him an authority on almost everything,” she testified.

But the romantic affair they began in 2001 was difficult, she said — monogamous for her but never him, and kept secret from her mother and the NXIVM community at Raniere’s insistence. Raniere, she said, liked three-way sex, and she named a half-dozen other women she said the two of them had sex with.

Raniere made her let him take nude photographs, Salzman testified, told her what weight she should reach on a diet, and even after he stopped having sex with her made her feel too guilty to get involved with other men.

As Salzman aged, she said, she pressed to have children. Raniere agreed at one point, but after she became excited about a play during a NXIVM volleyball game and jumped on a man, he accused her of being “easy” and said they couldn’t ever have children. 

Guilt-stricken, she testified, she prepared a seven-page, single-spaced plan for him with bullet points on all the things that were wrong with her, and what she would do to try to correct them.

As a play on her name, Salzman said, Raniere nicknamed her “Forlorn” because she was always “sad and suffering” — characteristics which in his philosophy were a ploy for attention. “Suffering was something indulgent,” she said. 

Raniere believed he could use sexual relations as a tool of “personal growth” for women, Salzman said, and used her to lure back women who wanted to end relationships with him by preaching that people’s emotions were reactions to inner issues, not outside events.

“If you left, you would be covering up that issue and your opportunity to work it through,” she explained. “…Stay and be happy. Be joyful.”

Salzman’s testimony is scheduled to resume Monday.

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