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Closing arguments underway at trial of self-improvement group founder

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Defendant Keith Raniere, center, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, is seated between his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left, and Marc Agnifilo during the first day of his sex trafficking trial on May 7. After weeks of relentlessly lurid testimony, federal prosecutors have wrapped up their case against Raniere, a former self-improvement guru accused of sex trafficking.

NEW YORK >> A secret society billed as a “sisterhood” that would empower women instead was a scam used to put them under the control of the sex-crazed leader of a purported self-help group, a federal prosecutor said today in closing arguments at a New York City trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza said graphic testimony showed how Keith Raniere used women known as “masters” to demand nude photos from “slaves” under threat that the material would be made public if they didn’t obey orders to have sex with him.

The group, sometimes known as “The Vow,” was formed “to satisfy the defendant’s desire for sex, power and control,” Penza told the Brooklyn jury.

The prosecutor called the former leader of the self-help organization based in upstate New York a “con man” and a “crime boss.”

An attorney for Raniere was to give his closing later today. He’s said his client had no criminal intent and that his sexual encounters with followers were consensual.

Raniere, 58, is a former leader of the upstate New York group known as NXIVM that once had thousands of members worldwide. He was arrested last year on conspiracy and other charges accusing him of coercing victims into unwanted sex and other servitude.

His co-defendants included TV actress Allison Mack, best known for playing a young Superman’s friend on the “Smallville” series, and liquor fortune heiress Clare Bronfman. The women, both described by prosecutors as members of Raniere’s inner circle, have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

In her closing argument, Peza recounted testimony by other former insiders and alleged victims about how some women were branded with Raniere’s initials to prove their devotion; how one follower was banished to a bedroom without leaving for 705 days; and how he groomed that same follower’s younger sister for sex starting at age 15.

Raniere used his organization to “tap into a never-ending flow of women and money,” the prosecutor said. “He was a ruler with no limits and no checks on his power.”

Watching in the courtroom today were TV actress Catherine Oxenberg of “Dynasty” fame and her daughter India, who defected from NXIVM after her mother became an outspoken critic of the group.

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