Alleged NXIVM cult leader 'adamant about his innocence,' lawyer says

NXIVM leader Keith Raniere's defence attorney says his client is not the leader of DOS, a secret society in which women were allegedly coerced to join and branded with a cauterizing pen.

Women were allegedly branded, groomed for sexual relationships with Keith Raniere

Attorney Marc Agnifilo is representing Keith Raniere, the co-founder of a controversial self-help group critics call a cult. (Kevin Hagen/Associated Press)

NXIVM founder Keith Raniere denies he was the leader of DOS, a secret society in which women were allegedly coerced to join and branded with a cauterizing pen, according to his lawyer.

Prosecutors allege that prospective members were required to provide incriminating material to act as "collateral" in order to gain membership into DOS. Some were also allegedly groomed to have sexual relationships with Raniere, who has been accused of running an organized criminal enterprise by the FBI.

Raniere has pleaded not guilty to numerous charges related to sex trafficking, forced labour and racketeering conspiracy. He is expected to stand trial in January 2019.

Uncover: Escaping NXIVM's Josh Bloch spoke to Raniere's lawyer Marc Agnifilo in early August. Here is part of their conversation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview below.

Josh speaks to one of Keith Raniere's lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, and hears a different point of view on NXIVM and DOS.

Josh Bloch: Can I ask you why you agreed to do this interview?

Marc Agnifilo: I just thought that it's very easy in matters like this to have everyone talking about one viewpoint and not another viewpoint. I mean, I think that the government's viewpoint is very clear. I think it's errant and I think it's not the whole picture, but it's very clear that [the government claims] this is essentially a sex cult and that there's sex trafficking. And my concern in matters like this is that there is another viewpoint.

How would you describe [Raniere's] state of mind right now?

He is very engaged. He's very engaged in his defence. He's very smart. He studies a great deal. He has a lot of ideas about his case. He's adamant about his innocence. And I think that's part of what animates him to be as energetic about his defence as he's been.

Keith Raniere is the co-founder and leader of NXIVM, a self-help group that sells personal development courses. (Cathy Pinsky/Pinsky Studios)

The FBI describes NXIVM as a criminal enterprise. And it says that Keith and other NXIVM leaders have used the self-help program to coerce people and to manipulate them in order to enrich themselves.

That's what the FBI says.

And I wonder what your response is to that.

I don't think that's true and I don't think that that will be proven true at trial. I think the government's position is a tricky one. You know, because everyone here is not only an adult, they're well-to-do adults. They're adults that for the most part are educated. They're smart. They have financial opportunity. These are actresses and models and successful people and business people, people who have successful businesses and have aspirations.

Smallville actress Allison Mack was arrested on several charges for her involvement with DOS, including sex trafficking, forced labour and racketeering conspiracy. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

And these are choices — eye-open, adult-knowing, voluntary choices that these people are making. And for the government to just sort of say, "Well, you know, they're brainwashed. You know, they're effectively brainwashed." I don't think there's such thing as brainwashing. It went out with the Cold War. It's like a relic of the '70s. I mean, it just doesn't exist.

But are people that are educated and have means immune from being manipulated or coerced? I mean, brainwashing aside.

Right. You know, I suppose everybody can be manipulated or coerced. But now let's look at really what they're saying is going on. It's a self-help group. It's a group that preaches a pretty fundamental idea the way I've come to understand, which is this: that there are no victims.

The ironic part about this case is that the NXIVM philosophy — and maybe I'm dumbing it down too much — is just take victimhood out of the equation. Everything in your life is something that you chose. I'm talking about people who live in first-world countries who have choices and economic opportunity.

The NXIVM philosophy ... is just take victimhood out of the equation.- Marc Agnifilo, defence attorney

And people are now saying, "Well, I was manipulated." Well, how? I mean, to sort of say that I was exposed to these concepts and somehow I was manipulated or coerced — man, you're going to have to prove that to me, because I don't see it.

What I do see is I see a lot of people who broke away from this group, who were once very attached to this group, who were once leaders in this group, who were once teaching the stuff that they're now saying they were manipulated by, and now they're angry. I think part of what the evidence is going to show is some of these people who broke away from NXIVM wanted to start a version of it themselves.

The focus of our investigation, of this podcast series, has been around Sarah Edmondson's story, a former member of NXIVM and of DOS. And she's told me about her feeling of being deceived when she found out that this secret women's group that she had joined, called DOS, she found out, she says, it was actually run by Keith Raniere.

And she also found out, she says, that Keith Raniere's initials were on her body, that she had gotten a brand. She was told it was going to be something else and then discovers his initials. Are those Keith Raniere's initials on Sarah's body?

I've seen the same image that people have. It looks like there's a K and an R if you look at it sort of sideways. So I can't say that it isn't. I mean, it appears to be.

Former NXIVM member Sarah Edmondson says she was branded with a cauterizing pen in a secret initiation ceremony for DOS. (Supplied by Sarah Edmondson)

Was Keith aware? I mean, is that intentional?

I don't know that it was intentional. I think at some point, I think he did become aware. And I think that it was like sort of an acknowledgement that Keith's philosophy sort of inspired DOS. But Keith is not the leader of DOS. DOS doesn't really have a leader in that sense. It is not a corporate structure that way. And so I don't begrudge Sarah Edmondson from feeling deceived, however she feels that she was deceived. But if she feels that she was deceived because this is some corporate-type structure with Keith as the head, I don't think she really was deceived because that's just not the case.

In court filings, the FBI included alleged electronic communications between Keith Raniere and a DOS slave. And Keith describes himself as a grandmaster in a secret growing organization where women want to be branded with his monogram. What do you make of the evidence ... released so far about this electronic communication?

I think it's very clear that many women, not all of them, but many women in DOS branded themselves. They weren't branded. They branded themselves.

To the extent that anyone didn't know they were being branded with what seems to be Keith Raniere's initials, that seems to be a different story. And if that's the nature of the problem, I welcome that problem. That I knew I was going to be branded, I wanted to be branded, I planned to being branded but I didn't know that was going to be Keith Raniere's initials. I'm not quite sure how that turns into a felony. I mean. it's just not.

Men do these things, we call them Marines. Women do these things, we call them victims.- Marc Agnifilo

I think the government's position has elements of sexism in it. There are men in the United States who join fraternities and get branded. But it's men, so we don't think anything of it.

Women want to be in a secret group and want to be branded and all of a sudden we're very quick to say, "Oh, poor dears. They must be victims because no right-thinking, free-willed woman would ever want that for herself." And I think that's sexist and I think the government is playing to a sexist agenda. You know, men do these things, we call them Marines. Women do these things, we call them victims.

One of the requirements of women to join DOS was to hand over collateral — nude photos, videos, false confessions. How much of that collateral did Keith see or how much of it went to Keith?

I believe some of it went to Keith. I think most of it was retained by the woman master who brought the person in. And so I think for the most part, Keith did not see the vast majority of it. But collateral is a very common principle in NXIVM. The whole kind of concept behind NXIVM is promises matter.

Clare Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune, is one of five high-ranking NXIVM members in Raniere's inner circle indicted on racketeering conspiracy charges. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

But I've heard from Sarah and seen in the FBI indictment that some women in DOS did say they feared that their collateral would be released if they didn't want to be a part of the organization anymore or didn't want to abide by certain instructions that were given to them. Isn't that legally problematic, to hold someone's collateral against them, even if they've voluntarily given it over initially?

I don't think it's extortion. And first of all, I think it's important to know no collateral was ever released ever. Not one time. Women left DOS, women didn't keep the DOS secrets and no collateral was ever released. And the government doesn't allege otherwise and I don't think any member of DOS alleges otherwise. To your point of whether it's problematic, it's a little edgy. But I think it's there for a reason.

Some women claim that sex with Keith was proposed as part of the personal growth that they were engaged in, that there was kind of a proposition that it could be empowering to have sex with Keith. What has Keith told you about that?

So I haven't heard about it from Keith, but what I've heard from some other people is that some of the women who were in DOS felt that they had issues with intimacy during sex. And that they felt that they could be intimate with Keith. Now ironically, neither of these people had sex with Keith. Keith is about human connection. I say jokingly but it's only half a joke: this is more of a cuddle cult than it is a sex cult.

How this got transformed into a sex cult, I'll never know.- Marc Agnifilo

Keith would go on long walks with these women. He'd hold hands with these women. He would lay down in a bed and she would put her hand on Keith's heart and he would put his hand on her heart. And that is the totality of the conduct. So how this got transformed into a sex cult, I'll never know.

And yet the FBI alleges that there are in fact several women who were in DOS who said that they were forced or compelled, because of the collateral, to have some kind of sexual encounter with Keith. Are you suggesting that those women are lying?

Yes. I'm saying they're lying. If they're saying that they were coerced to have sex with Keith, I'm saying they're lying.

What do you think is at stake in this case?

A great deal. The government wants to give Keith Raniere life in prison. They want life. That's what they think a fair resolution of this case would be, that he would get life in prison for this. And so for Keith, everything. I mean, his very livelihood, his life is at stake.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Listen to the full interview in Episode 6 of Uncover: Escaping NXIVM.