NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York man charged with keeping women as sex slaves branded with his initials is one of the few cult leaders to face prosecution in the United States, but he controlled his followers in ways that are strikingly similar to those of cult figures who have been convicted.
Prosecutors said that 58-year-old Keith Raniere used his group Nxivm, which presented itself as a self-help organization, as cover for blackmailing young women into having sex with him. If convicted, Raniere, who is charged with racketeering, forced labor, sex trafficking and possessing child pornography, faces life in prison.
Jurors were expected to begin deliberations on Tuesday.
Raniere has pleaded not guilty and his lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, has argued that Raniere’s followers acted of their own volition.
Phil Elberg, a lawyer who previously represented Raniere’s former girlfriend and people who left a New Jersey cult, said Raniere’s prosecution reminded him of the case against fundamentalist sect leader Warren Jeffs, who was convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting two young girls to whom he was illegally married.
Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence, taught that marriages between his adult male followers and girls were “celestial marriages” that would bring the girls closer to heaven.
Prosecutors said Raniere promised female followers that sex with him would further their personal development.
“The insidious parts of these cults or groups is that you can get individuals involved who try to use those religious principles and beliefs and turn them to gratify themselves,” said Eric Nichols, who prosecuted Jeffs and now works in private practice.
Like Jeffs, Raniere allegedly limited Nxivm members’ contact with outsiders. Raniere used non-disclosure agreements and threats, prosecutors said, while Jeffs isolated his followers in a Texas compound.
“That is a hallmark of a lot of these groups, to isolate the victims and remove all outside influences,” Nichols said.
Kyra Jenner, who led the federal prosecution that convicted preacher Tony Alamo, said she was struck by the similar way Alamo and Raniere were able to “normalize completely aberrant behavior” for their victims.
Alamo, leader of a fundamentalist Christian sect, was convicted in 2009 of transporting children across state lines for sex and died in prison in 2017.
“The girls in the cult would not talk to me...,” Jenner said. “It takes so much psychological deprogramming to get a victim to cooperate in this kind of case.”
That made investigating and prosecuting Alamo’s case difficult, said Jenner, who is now criminal division chief in the Western District of Arkansas U.S. Attorney’s office.
Even though the non-profit Cult Education Institute estimates there may be thousands of cults in the United States, prosecutions are rare because most of the abusive behavior is not criminal, Elberg said.
In Raniere’s case, he said, blackmail and the presence of a child victim pushed it into the criminal realm.
Robin Boyle, a professor at St. John’s University School of Law who has written on cults, said prosecutors can increasingly rely on human trafficking laws to prosecute cults and cited Raniere’s case as an example.
Trafficking laws often apply to cults because “they’re very often exploiting humans for their own personal gain,” Boyle said, though it can be difficult to prove that victims did not act of their own free will.
Despite the challenges in prosecuting cult cases, Nichols said jurors have “little difficulty” reaching a verdict when presented with the evidence.
“That’s something that resonates with the average person, when someone uses religious principles to abuse and victimize people,” he said.
Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Cynthia Osterman