Keith Allen Raniere (born August 26, 1960) is an American cult leader and convicted sex trafficker. He is the founder of NXIVM, a multi-level marketing company and sex cult based near Albany, New York.
Between 1998 and 2018, NXIVM developed a following primarily through its personal development seminars, recruiting several celebrities and socialites. The organization faced multiple accusations of systemic sexual abuse of female members by Raniere and members of his inner circle, leading to the arrests of Raniere and other NXIVM members in early 2018.
On June 19, 2019, Raniere was convicted of federal crimes including sex trafficking of children, conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor, all related to a secret society within NXIVM known as DOS, or the Vow. On October 27, 2020, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Early life and career
Childhood and education
Keith Raniere was born on August 26, 1960, to James Raniere (1932–2020), a New York City advertising executive, and his wife Vera Oschypko (1931–1978), a ballroom dancing instructor. Raniere's father recalls that Vera "drank more than she should have," and in adulthood, Keith himself privately described his mother as an alcoholic. When Raniere was five, he and his family relocated from Brooklyn to Suffern, New York. When he was around eight years old, his parents separated.
Raniere attended Suffern High School for ninth grade before transferring to Rockland Country Day School in Congers. He graduated in June 1978, two months prior to his eighteenth birthday. As an adult, Raniere reported that he read Isaac Asimov's mind control-themed work Second Foundation at age 12 and credited the novel with inspiring his work in NXIVM.
Raniere's former partner, Barbara Bouchey, has shared stories about his childhood which she claimed to have been told by his father, James: "What we did is we told Keith about how gifted and how intelligent he was. And he said it was almost like a switch went off. And suddenly overnight he turned into like Jesus Christ. And that he was superior and better than everybody, like he was a deity. He said it was that dramatic and that profound. He said it went right to his head."
Bouchey herself likewise recalled a story about a 13-year-old Raniere's relationships with girls: "[D]ozens of young girls were calling the house and [Raniere's mother] was overhearing his conversations with them where he was telling every single girl the same thing: 'I love you. You're the special one. You're important. You are the only one in my life and I love you.' And she says, he's saying this to all these girls. He's clearly lying 'cause all of them are not special!'" In 1982, Raniere graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a 2.26 GPA "having failed or barely passed many of the upper-level math and science classes he bragged about taking."
In 1984, according to reporting by the Albany Times Union, 24-year-old Raniere allegedly had a sexual relationship with 15-year-old Gina Melita after the two met in a theater group. After ending their relationship, Melita introduced him to her friend Gina Hutchinson, also 15, with whom he also became sexually involved. After Gina's sister Heidi found Raniere climbing into her bedroom window and confronted the pair, Raniere told her that Gina was a "Buddhist goddess meant to be with him."
Gina dropped out of school and continued her relationship with Raniere, working at Consumers' Buyline, his multilevel marketing company (MLM), for a time. On October 11, 2002, she was found dead of a gunshot wound to her head on the grounds of the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, an apparent suicide.
In June 1988, the Times Union profiled Raniere, reporting on his membership in the Mega Society after he achieved a high score on founder Ronald K. Hoeflin's MEGA test, an unsupervised, 48-question test published in the April 1985 issue of Omni magazine. Although the MEGA test has been widely criticized as not having been properly validated, the 1989 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records (the last to include a category for Highest IQ) described the Hoeflin Research Group as "the most exclusive ultrahigh IQ society," and the 1989 Australian edition identified Raniere, Marilyn vos Savant, and Eric Hart as the highest-scoring members of the group.
Multilevel marketing career
Through the 1980s, Raniere was involved with the MLM company Amway. Heidi Hutchinson recalled that during the late '80s, Raniere was fascinated by Amway, Scientology, and neuro-linguistic programming. He also worked as a computer programmer for New York State's Division of Parole.
Consumers' Buyline Inc.
By 1990, Raniere founded his own multilevel marketing company, Consumers' Buyline Inc. (CBI). It was at a CBI pitch meeting that Raniere met Toni Natalie, who subsequently became a top seller for the organization along with her then-husband. Natalie and her son later moved to Clifton Park, New York, to be near Raniere; her marriage ended shortly thereafter. Natalie and Raniere dated for the next eight years.
CBI's operations were restricted in 1993 after the company was investigated by twenty states. That year, New York State filed a lawsuit alleging the organization was a pyramid scheme. CBI was permanently shut down in September of 1996 by the Attorney General of New York after being investigated by 25 states. Raniere signed a consent order permanently barring him from "promoting, offering or granting participation in a chain distribution scheme" and ordering him to pay a $40,000 fine.
National Health Network
In 1994, Raniere created "National Health Network," a multilevel seller of vitamins. That business failed in 1999. In the mid-1990s, Raniere and Natalie operated a health-products store.
Executive Success Programs and NXIVM
In 1998, Toni Natalie met Nancy Salzman, a nurse and trained practitioner of hypnotism and neurolinguistic programming. Natalie recalled:
Nancy said, "You're so wonderful, how can I help you?" So I said, "Well, you can help me with my boyfriend." He had grandiose ideas and his hours were becoming erratic again... She listened and she said "Oh that's easy, I can help you. He's a sociopath..." They met and four days later she came out with the glazed eyes and gave me the, "You don't know who he is," and I was like, "Wow, there goes another one."
Also in 1998, Raniere met Christine Marie Melanakos, a recently divorced mother who had won the title of "Mrs. Michigan 1995." She recalled that Raniere "explained how there was a profound event that would often happen to the women who became intimate with him, sometimes they would even see a blue light... Ultimately I agreed to be intimate with Keith, and it was just as he said. I even saw a blue light, but I don't think I told him so. I remember thinking, 'Wow, my brain is really susceptible to the power of suggestion.'"
Raniere and Salzman founded Executive Success Programs, a personal development company offering a range of techniques aimed at self-improvement. A few years later, the program was rebranded under the name "NXIVM." Raniere "adopted the title 'Vanguard' from a favorite arcade game in which the destruction of one's enemies increased one's own power." Much of NXIVM was influenced by the teachings of Ayn Rand, one of Raniere's favorite authors.
Raniere's eight-year relationship with Natalie ended in 1999. She later claimed to have been the victim of harassment. In a January 2003 ruling, federal judge Robert Littlefield implied Raniere was using a legal suit to harass his former partner. Wrote Littlefield: "This matter smacks of a jilted fellow's attempt at revenge or retaliation against his former girlfriend, with many attempts at tripping her up along the way."
In 2002, Raniere and Salzman succeeded in recruiting members of the influential Bronfman family, heirs to the multibillion-dollar Seagram's fortune. Sara Bronfman initially became involved, followed by sister Clare Bronfman. Their father, Edgar Bronfman Sr., took a NXIVM course the following year.
Disappearance of Kristin Snyder
Kristin Marie Snyder was a 35-year-old environmental consultant who, in November 2002, paid $7,000 to enroll in a sixteen-day personal development course conducted in Anchorage, Alaska, hosted by Salzman. The following January, Snyder traveled to New York State to visit Raniere and other NXIVM leaders. Snyder's mother recalled that her daughter "had come to believe she was responsible for the Columbia shuttle disaster" and "thought Keith was incredible." Snyder, accompanied by her partner Heidi Clifford, signed up for a second sixteen-day course in Anchorage.
On February 6, 2003, the tenth day of the second seminar, Snyder reportedly began claiming to be pregnant with Raniere's child, a claim allegedly corroborated by Clare Bronfman. Clifford recalled: "I was told [by a NXIVM instructor] not to bring her to the hospital. That's what makes me feel really bad." Snyder was last seen leaving this session of the course. Her vehicle was discovered two days later in Seward, Alaska, 120 miles from Anchorage. Police recovered a note that read: "I attended a course called Executive Success Programs … based out of Anchorage, AK, and Albany, NY. I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was killed/turned off. I still have feeling in my external skin, but my internal organs are rotting... I am sorry life, I didn't know I was already dead. May we persist into the future." A separate page added: "No need to search for my body."
A witness at Raniere's 2019 trial testified that after Snyder disappeared, Raniere paid $24,000 to obtain the password to her email account.
2003 Forbes exposé
In October 2003, Raniere was featured, cloaked in shadows, on the cover of Forbes magazine, accompanied by the appellation "The World's Strangest Executive Coach." The "devastating" cover story, penned by Michael Freedman and entitled "Cult of Personality," has been described as "a gold mine of previously unpublished information". The story discussed Raniere's title "Vanguard" and detailed his previous shuttered business, Consumers' Buyline, and included a quote from Edgar Bronfman accusing the organization of being a cult.
Vanity Fair subsequently reported on the Forbes article's impact within the group: "People at NXIVM were stunned. Expecting a positive story, the top ranks had spoken to Forbes, including Raniere, Salzman, and Sara Bronfman. What upset them above all were Edgar Bronfman's remarks." According to Vanity Fair, the article was a turning point in Raniere's relationship with Edgar Bronfman: "'That,' says one woman, 'was when Edgar Bronfman became NXIVM's enemy.'" A witness at Raniere's trial later testified that Bronfman's computer was compromised and his emails monitored by group members for a period of years.
Relationship with minor Camila
In 2019, court testimony (as well as WhatsApp messages presented as evidence) suggested that, beginning around 2005, Raniere had been sexually involved with a 15-year-old named Camila.
Barbara Bouchey spent $1.6 million covering losses of commodities trades which Raniere made in her name. From January 2005 until late 2007, Raniere lost nearly $70 million in commodities trading. Raniere suggested to Clare Bronfman that the losses were due to market manipulation by her father. Beginning in August 2005, the Bronfman sisters covered the losses, ultimately using $150 million of their funds in support of Raniere and his organization.
Collaborations with the Dalai Lama
Eager to distance themselves from "cult" allegations in the press, NXIVM members sought the endorsement of the Dalai Lama, spending $2 million on the project.
Eight years later, it was revealed that, in 2009, Sara Bronfman had a sexual relationship with Lama Tenzin Dhonden, the Dalai Lama's gatekeeper who arranged the appearance; and who, as a monk, had taken a vow of celibacy. Amid accusations of corruption, Dhonden was replaced.
On May 6, 2009, the Dalai Lama traveled to Albany to give a talk; during the event, he presented Raniere with a white scarf onstage. The Dalai Lama additionally wrote the foreword to the book The Sphinx and Thelxiepeia, which Raniere co-authored in 2009. The prior year, Raniere had co-authored his first book, Odin and The Sphinx.
Mass resignations and public allegations
In 2009, a group of Raniere's associates (called the "NXIVM Nine") broke with Raniere and his organization, citing "concerns about unethical practices and the alleged abuse of his leadership status to sexually manipulate women in the organization." One of the dissenters, Barbara Bouchey, had been Raniere's partner for nine years. In March 2010, Raniere learned that inner-circle member Daniela had kissed another man. According to 2019 trial testimony, upon hearing the news, Raniere locked himself in a bathroom. Thereafter, he ordered that Daniela be confined to a room with only a mattress and video cameras, where she was held for almost two years.
In November 2010, Vanity Fair published an article titled "The Heiresses and the Cult" in which Raniere's former partner Toni Natalie recalled that Raniere "had insisted she keep the body of her dead puppy in her garage freezer and look at it daily." That same month, The New York Post reported on the existence of a video in which Raniere is heard telling two followers: "I've had people killed because of my beliefs – or because of their beliefs." In a 2010 Albany Times Union article, NXIVM former coaches characterized students as "prey" for Raniere to satisfy either his gambling or sexual proclivities.
In 2011, Toni Natalie filed documents in federal court alleging that she had been repeatedly raped by Raniere.
Departure of Kristin Keeffe
Kristin Keeffe was a longtime partner of Raniere and mother of his son Gaelyn. The child, born in 2007, had earlier been reported to be an orphan adopted by Raniere and Keeffe, rather than their biological child. In 2010, it was reported that Raniere had ordered that the child be kept away from peers and that he was being cared for by nannies speaking five different languages.
In February 2014, Keeffe broke with Raniere and his group. After she fled the region with her son, an email bearing her name explained: "I have full sole legal custody of Gaelyn. Keith was experimenting on him. I had to get Gaelyn away." Keeffe publicly described Raniere as "dangerous."
In 2015, it was reported that Keeffe had alleged that Raniere directed Canadian investigative firm Canaprobe to obtain financial information on six federal judges and a US senator from the State of New York as well as a reporter, an editor, and the publisher of the Times Union. That same year, Keeffe further alleged that Raniere had planned to lure his critics to Mexico with an invitation to an anti-cult conference; once in Mexico, the critics were to be arrested on false charges by order of a judge who had been bribed.
Patent infringement litigation
In 2015, Raniere personally sued AT&T and Microsoft, alleging they had infringed on his patents. The following year, the case was dismissed with prejudice. The trial court ruled that Raniere's "conduct throughout this litigation, culminating in his untruthful testimony at the hearing on the motion to dismiss, demonstrates a pattern of obfuscation and bad faith." Raniere was sanctioned and ordered to pay $450,000 in attorneys fees.
Allegations of sex slavery and branding
On June 5, 2017, Frank Parlato was the first to report that there was a secret sorority called DOS and the women known as "slaves" were branded with Raniere's initials, using a hot cauterizing pen. On October 18, 2017, The New York Times published a story about the slaves and branding and reported that the slaves were required to provide nude photos or other potentially damaging information about themselves if they wished to join. At trial, the prosecution introduced a 2016 recording of a private meeting with DOS "slaves" in which Raniere acknowledged that "the [branded] monogram as it is right now is very directly related to my initials." The group discussed how to obscure the connection to Raniere's initials.
At Raniere's trial, DOS member "Nicole" recalled that when she and Raniere discussed her decision to leave the group, he said: "You guys think you have it so bad, but this is nothing compared to other subcultures."
In the wake of the article, Raniere fled to Mexico, accompanied by a few members of his inner circle.
Arrest, trial and conviction
A search warrant was issued for Raniere's email account on January 18, 2018. An agent of the FBI filed a criminal complaint and an arrest warrant against Raniere with the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York on February 14, 2018.
Raniere was arrested by Mexican Federal Police authorities in a luxury villa outside Puerto Vallarta in March 2018. Lauren Salzman later recalled that the arrest interfered with a planned group sex session; when police arrived, she and Raniere barricaded themselves in the master suite, with Raniere attempting to hide in a walk-in closet. Raniere was then transferred to custody in New York after appearing in federal court in Fort Worth, Texas.
Raniere was indicted on a variety of charges related to DOS, including sex trafficking, conspiracy for sex trafficking, and conspiracy to commit forced labor. The indictment alleged that at least one woman was coerced into sex with Raniere, who forced DOS members to undergo the branding ritual alleged by former DOS member Sarah Edmondson and others. United States Attorney Richard Donoghue stated that Raniere "created a secret society of women with whom he had sex and had branded with his initials, coercing them with the threat of releasing their highly personal information and taking their assets."
Raniere's federal trial began on May 7, 2019. Prosecution witnesses included Lauren Salzman; NXIVM film-maker Mark Vicente; victims "Sylvia", "Daniela", and "Nicole"; and cult educator Rick Alan Ross. The defense rested without calling any witnesses.
On June 19, 2019, the jury found Raniere guilty on all charges after five hours of deliberation. Raniere was found guilty of:
- Sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child pornography with regard to minor victim "Camila";
- Sex trafficking of "Nicole"; attempted sex trafficking of "Jay";
- Identity theft against Edgar Bronfman, James Loperfido, Ashana Chenoa, "Marianna", and Pam Cafritz;
- Trafficking for labor and services of "Daniela"; forced labor of "Nicole";
- Conspiracy to alter records for use in an official proceeding; and
- Sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, racketeering conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy.
On October 27, 2020, federal judge Nicholas Garaufis sentenced Raniere to 120 years in prison and fined him $1.75 million As of January 2021, Raniere began serving his 120-year sentence at United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg, a medium-security penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. On January 22, 2021, Raniere was transferred to a maximum-security prison, United States Penitentiary, Tucson, in Tucson, Arizona. His earliest possible release date is June 27, 2120, when he would be 160 years old.
A number of Raniere's alleged lovers suffered untimely deaths. Gina Hutchinson was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Kristin Snyder disappeared and was last seen at a NXIVM event. Live-in girlfriends Barbara Jeske and Pam Cafritz both died from what was diagnosed as cancer at the time but is alleged to have actually been subtle poisoning. Raniere's partner Kristin Keeffe survived cervical cancer. In 2009, Raniere was filmed claiming, "I've had people killed because of my beliefs."
In 2019, Investigation Discovery aired a documentary titled "The Lost Women of NXIVM", speculating that Raniere committed homicide. According to that program, a woman who lived with Raniere and developed bladder cancer submitted a hair sample that reportedly revealed the evidence of dangerous levels of bismuth and barium.
In January 2020, Raniere and several other NXIVM individuals were named as defendants in a civil lawsuit filed in federal court by 80 former NXIVM members. The lawsuit details allegations of fraud and abuse and charges the NXIVM organisation with being a pyramid scheme, exploitation of its recruits, conducting illegal human experiments, and making it "physically and psychologically difficult, and in some cases impossible, to leave the coercive community."
In the media
- Investigation Discovery released a documentary titled The Lost Women of NXIVM; it premiered December 8, 2019. In it, Frank Parlato examines the deaths of four women who had connections to NXIVM.
- HBO released a docuseries about NXIVM titled The Vow; it premiered on August 23, 2020.