Keith Raniere, the self-appointed "self-help" guru who stands accused of branding women and forcing them to trade various sex acts for entry into his alleged cult, would prefer not to await trial behind bars. Raniere has requested release on a $1 million bond in an elaborate plea penned and submitted by his lawyer, Marc Agnifilo.
The last time Raniere attempted to secure a similar bail arrangement, Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis shot him down, on the grounds he presented a high flight risk. (Authorities first tracked him down in Mexico, and as Judge Garaufis noted, his utter lack of personal wealth meant Raniere had nothing to lose.) Still, Agnifilo laid out his renewed argument in 13 pages of footnoted court filings, with an evidence appendix for additional support. Basically, it boils down to this: Nxivum and Raniere, its purported "Vanguard," have been fundamentally, even willfully, misunderstood.
"Just as Socrates challenged the young people of Athens to question sacrosanct beliefs of the time, and indeed was executed for his disruption of a closed-minded system of government, Nxivm challenges participants to question, rather than blindly accept, the fundamental content of their lives," Agnifilo writes. "Nxivm is interesting to certain people because it challenges their existing belief systems, and even what it means to believe something."
If you read that damning NY Times article from 2017—which probed what sounds like a practice of dangling a program of professional advancement in front of women, brainwashing them, and inducting some into a secret sub-sorority wherein "slaves" were branded with a symbol resembling Raniere's initials, and often coerced into sex—then you might be inclined to believe that Raniere is dangerous. You might also view his post-Nxivm relocation to Mexico as somewhat suspicious. Agnifilo has explanations: Raniere moved to Mexico with the mother of his child when her U.S. visa ran out. And as for the sex stuff, all that was consensual, he told Gothamist.
"The branding was something that some women in DOS chose to do as a gesture of their commitment to it. It wasn't required," Agnifilo wrote in an email. "Some women joined DOS and chose to not brand themselves." Additionally, he continued, "There was never sexual servitude or sex trafficking in DOS. The government has heard from multiple women in DOS that the group had nothing to do with sex whatsoever." Further, he explained in the filing, Raniere isn't violent: "There are no physical injuries, no black eyes, no bloody noses, no fists, punching, slaps or pulling hair," he argued, painting Nxivm as an essentially peaceful operation. "However, there is one feeling that apparently has afflicted a certain number of people: regret."
Yet some former Nxivm members left with physical scars. Sarah Edmondson showed the Times her brand, situated near her pelvis, and recalled: "I wept the whole time. I disassociated out of my body." While Raniere has denied that his group qualified as a cult, experts roundly disagree, noting the way Raniere allegedly used sex to cement his self-imposed power and exert control over his followers.
Raniere was arrested in March, and indicted on charges of sex trafficking and forced labor conspiracy in April. His reported right-hand, Smallville actor Allison Mack, faces the same charges. In July, authorities took Raniere's cofounder—Nancy Salzman—and her daughter into custody, along with Seagram's heiress Clare Bronfman (who allegedly bankrolled the group) and bookkeeper Kathy Russel, on a raft of racketeering charges.
Agnifilo contends that, however wealthy his acquaintances (Bronfman posted $100 million in bail), the defendant himself has no personal assets. He does, however, have three unnamed benefactors willing to front the $1 million for a bond that would let him await trial in home confinement in Clifton, New York. Agnifilo has promised Garaufis that his client would submit to electronic monitoring, surrender of passport, and minimal computer access.
Judge Garaufis now gets to decide what he wants to do with this very philosophical plea. Either way, Raniere and Mack will be tried in March.