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Sex cult trial witness: I was involved in another sect

Mark Vicente, a documentary filmmaker, was hesitant to talk about Ramtha, saying he feared repercussions from talking about the group.

A courtroom sketch of defendant Keith Raniere, center,

A courtroom sketch of defendant Keith Raniere, center,  seated between his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left, and Marc Agnifilo on May 7. Photo Credit: AP/Elizabeth Williams

Before Vanguard, there was Ramtha.

Mark Vicente, a former top official in the Albany-based alleged sex cult NXIVM and a key government witness at the Brooklyn federal court trial of its leader Keith Raniere, testified Thursday that before he became an adherent of NXIVM he was a devotee of another sect.

For about 10 years before joining NXIVM, Vicente admitted during cross-examination, he followed a Washington state-based group led by a woman named JZ Knight, who claimed to be able to channel the teachings of a “35,000-year-old warrior” named Ramtha.

Vicente said he actually was a true believer in the “enlightenment school” based on the teachings of the “spiritual entity” for a “few years,” but it wasn’t the scientific proof the group claimed to have.

“It was belief, not evidence,” he said.

He eventually concluded Ramtha was bogus — “It didn’t make much sense in the end” — and wrote a letter criticizing the group, which got him into hot water. The leader, Vicente testified, gave a speech in front of 1,000 “zealous” followers denouncing him and predicting that “I’m going to die a horrible death.”

Vincente was asked if that scared him.

“You could say that,” he said. “The organization turned against me.”

Raniere, 58, is charged with promoting NXIVM as a self-help group that offered courses to an estimated 17,000 students after its 1990s founding, but using it to psychologically abuse members and coerce women into joining a “master-slave” group, giving up nude pictures and having sex with him.

Known in the group as “Vanguard,” Raniere is charged with racketeering, conspiracy, sex trafficking and forced labor, and faces up to life in prison. The trial started last week. Vicente, a former member of the NXIVM executive board, spent five days on the stand before completing his testimony Thursday.

Testimony is expected Friday from Lauren Salzman, a member of the group’s inner circle and leader in the master-slave group as well as the first cooperating witness to appear. She pleaded guilty last month along with her mother Nancy, Raniere’s lieutenant, along with Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, actress Alison Mack and a bookkeeper.

Vicente said he joined NXIVM in 2005, right after losing faith in Ramtha, and became a believer in Raniere, who “teased” him about Ramtha and vowed to “deprogram” him. But Vicente lost faith again over time, and eventually went to the FBI in 2017 when he learned of the master-slave group.

He said one step in his disenchantment occurred when his wife became alienated from NXIVM in 2016 and took a walk with Raniere to discuss her issues. Raniere, Vicente recalled, urged her not to be a “squeaky wheel,” told her she was creating too many boundaries, and suggested a solution.

“He wanted her to run toward a tree and run into it,” Vicente testified.

Vicente was followed on the stand Thursday by Stephen Herbits, a longtime top lieutenant to the late Seagram’s CEO Edgar Bronfman, who described the “problems and disappointment” by the involvement of daughters Clare and Sara in bankrolling a group that their father considered a “cult” created for the billionaire.

Herbits, a former top federal official, said Clare Bronfman regularly asked to seek help for NXIVM with officials from former President Bill Clinton to governors and state attorneys general. Herbits said she also asked him to intervene with reporting by the Hearst-owned Albany Times-Union, comparing herself to heiress Patty Hearst, who claimed she was “brainwashed” to rob a bank after her kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

She said the Hearst empire carried a “grudge” against groups like NXIVM as a result, but Clinton had pardoned Patty Hearst and brainwashing had been “scientifically debunked,” Herbits recalled.

“We haven’t been brainwashed,” she told him.

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