Even on the run, Keith Raniere, known by his followers as “Vanguard,” was living like a king. Months after fleeing the country in the wake of a 2017 New York Times story in which former members of his NXIVM success training program described being branded and used as sex slaves, Raniere was finally cornered. He had abandoned a lot more in Clifton Park where he had amassed properties, followers and influence through his “success training programs,” relationships with local politicians and associations with prominent television actresses.
Last week, Raniere was arrested by Mexican federal police in a gated luxury community in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where rents are around $10,000 a week. He was surrounded by women so devoted to him that they piled into a car and chased the police vehicle that was transporting him to jail at high speeds. Those women included, according to sources, actresses Nicki Clyne of Battlestar Galactica and Allison Mack of Smallville.
Raniere has been charged with sex trafficking due to his activities as part of a subgroup of NXIVM that saw women recruited and branded as sex slaves while being forced to seek out others to be inducted.
Raniere posted on NXIVM’s site that the group was a “private sorority” and distanced himself and NXIVM from it. Now the IRS have joined the FBI and state Attorney General’s office in a wide-ranging investigation into the group’s finances and general behavior. Prominent members of the group received subpoenas this week to secure their testimony in the case.
For many women who have been speaking out about their alleged abuse at the hands of Raniere and NXIVM, and for those who helped them tell their stories, Ranerie’s arrest was a triumph, a validation. But it also left them wondering why it had taken so long for authorities to act.
NXIVM issued this statement via their website: “In response to the allegations against our founder, Keith Raniere, we are currently working with the authorities to demonstrate his innocence and true character. We strongly believe the justice system will prevail in bringing the truth to light. We are saddened by the reports perpetuated by the media and their apparent disregard for ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ yet we will continue to honor the same principles on which our company was founded. It is during the times of greatest adversity that integrity, humanity and compassion are hardest, and needed most.”
Former female members of the group and concerned family members have filed complaints with New York state authorities repeatedly over the years, only to be rebuffed or ignored. NXIVM has used its vast resources to silence and intimidate critics, and its members are generous political donors.
Last year, The New York Times reported that Raniere would prep women to be his sex slaves by assigning them a strict diet that would be monitored. According to the complaint, if these slaves cheated on the diet he would force them to wear fake udders and parade in front of a group of others that mocked and taunted them. The process to finally become a slave involved Raniere, a video camera and a branding rod. Raniere would force one woman to film, while another would hold down the prospective slave while they were branded with his initials. Slaves were not only expected to serve their master but to also recruit new slaves.
For Chet Hardin, a former resident of Troy and news editor for Metroland, the area’s now-defunct news weekly, the story has become very personal. He’s seen people’s lives destroyed by what he calls the group’s “brainwashing,” their “abusive litigation” and their dedication to silencing and defeating critics absolutely.
While other local news outlets were covering Raniere’s business savvy and his training programs, Hardin was approached by concerned individuals about what they saw as a very disturbing trend: The success training group was being run as a cult, they said, people were asked to give over their possessions to Raniere, and radical brainwashing and therapy techniques were used that would leave participants convinced they were somehow personally responsible for atrocities they had nothing to do with. One woman was convinced she was responsible for the Challenger disaster, another the Holocaust.
A source provided Hardin with a report by New York-based espionage group Interform that detailed the bank deposits and financial history of cult deprogrammer Rick Ross. The source said it had been commissioned by NXIVM. Hardin called Ross and read him the list of transactions.
“He verified it was his account and that the report contained information about his own finances he wasn’t even aware of,” Hardin said. “He said, ‘They better get a good lawyer!’”
Around this time Hardin was introduced to former NXIVM member Toni Natalie.
Natalie was converted personally by Raniere after meeting him through his company Consumer Byline. After eight years of what she claims was full of mental abuse, she negotiated her release from NXIVM. But, in many ways, it was just the beginning of her relationship with the group.
By all accounts, Raniere has an alluring personality. He boasts of having one of the highest IQs in the world. Raniere entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at 16. He was the first person to graduate from RPI with a triple major, earning degrees in math, biology and physics. His bio on executivesuccessprograms.com reads:
From early childhood, he demonstrated astounding gifts nurtured by his parents and subsequent mentors. By the age of one, he could construct full sentences and questions; he was able to read by the age of two. An autodidact, he directed his learning abilities to learning itself, studying its science and art in order to find optimized learning strategies and methodologies. Applying this skill to athletics, Keith Raniere excelled in judo and was an East Coast Judo Champion at age eleven. He also excelled in numerous other sports including volleyball, tennis, table tennis, diving, softball, cycling and skiing. By the age of twelve, he taught himself to play piano at the concert level; his passion and aptitude for music would inspire him to master many other musical instruments. He taught himself high school mathematics in nineteen hours at the age of twelve; only one year later, he was proficient in third-year college mathematics and was a professional computer programmer.
“The story Natalie told me was just absolutely insane but she seemed so sincere. There was something about her that just seemed so true,” says Hardin. So he kept digging.
Above: Keith Raniere and Toni Natalie in 1997
“I knew that they were dangerous but I didn’t know the scope,” says Hardin. “I knew Keith essentially had a harem. I started hearing the stories that began trickling out more in 2010, I knew they were very eccentric and they were going to get what they wanted, I knew about their donations to Hillary Clinton and close connections to Rensselaer County politicians but I didn’t have the full scope and really no one did until these women began to speak out about how they were treated.”
It wasn’t long before Hardin would get a lot closer to the center of NXIVM—closer to the soft-spoken, glasses-clad, flannel shirt-loving man they called “Vanguard.”
In October 2006, Hardin turned in his narrative feature on NXIVM, detailing how Natalie had first been recruited by NXVIM (she wanted to quit smoking and soon instead found herself leaving her husband for Raniere), why she left the group, and Rick Ross’ contentious relationship with NXIVM.
“They do everything they can to destroy your life, to keep you quiet. Especially me, because I know so much about them,” Hardin quoted Natalie as telling him. “I know what was done to me. I know what was done to my family. I know what they are doing to other families. I know how they mind-fuck people. I know how dangerous they are. I know how dangerous Nancy Salzman is, and Keith Raniere. They are very, very dangerous, scary people,” Natalie continued.
Hardin recalls his editor didn’t believe what he’d submitted. “I was summoned to his office and on the way there I remember overhearing him ask another editor, ‘Do you believe any of this?’” Hardin admits it was hard for him to believe, but it was all true.
The article ran and soon representatives of NXIVM who he says previously ignored his entreaties were reaching out—forcefully. Hardin recalls being summoned to meet Nancy Salzman, Raniere’s second-in-command at Professor Java’s on Wolf Rd. in Colonie.
Salzman, dressed professionally, struck Hardin immediately as having an overwhelming presence. She quickly demanded to know who had tipped him to the story. “I’m not going to reveal my sources,” Hardin says he replied. Saltzman’s demeanor swiftly changed from outgoing and professional to angry and mocking. “I’m not going to reveal my sources,” she spat back at him the way an older sibling would belittle a younger.
A minute later she was offering Hardin a job at $70K a year. An impressive sum for a reporter—let alone a reporter working at an alt-weekly where paychecks routinely bounced. But Hardin declined and unceremoniously departed.
At the time, NXIVM was not used to being covered critically—especially Salzman, who was seen as Raniere’s fixer and confidant. It was a few years before the Times Union began running stories featuring alleged victims of the cult.
“The number of people in the region NXIVM touched, that went through their success training in the Capital Region is mind-blowing,” says Hardin. “It was really seen as a valuable executive success training program.” Raniere was able to build up thousands of affiliates around the country. “Everyone who went through it wanted to network and Salzman had a very good reputation,” said Hardin.
Raniere had an obsession with a cappella music. He sponsored shows at The Egg and Crossgates Mall. Seeing Raniere sitting in a folding chair in the middle of a mall surrounded by his followers leading polite applause was something to behold.
Hardin at one point witnessed a meeting between Nicki Clyne and Ally Mack and former Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian to discuss setting up a nonprofit in Troy related to NXIVM. For a few years the actresses were fixtures in Troy and began hanging out with Hardin’s friends.
“There’s Ally Mack and Nicki Clyne trying to recruit my friends and I’m like, ‘This is not going to happen!’”
Hardin says he expects to see a lot of NXIVM’s political connections to be exposed during the federal trial. Already the case appears to involve a number of prominent political fixers. In 2007, former Times Union reporter James Odato detailed how the Seagram heiresses Sarah and Clare Bronfman donated over $30,000 in cash and over $30,000 of in-kind contributions to New York Senate Republicans. Odato also detailed in that report how eight top members of the group had maxed out their donations to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Odato and other reporters have detailed how NXIVM and its members have used the services of, or worked with, the following prominent political figures: Roger Stone, notorious Republican dirty trickster and former Trump campaign fixer; Steve Pigeon, Western New York-based political operative and ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo; former U.S. Senator Alphonse D’Amato and former Rensselaer County Republican Party Chairman Jack Casey. And then there’s the Dalai Lama.
“It honestly surprised me that Keith was arrested,” says Hardin. “It could be that his old allies aren’t in power anymore but the Times Union ran a story about the group that detailed allegations of child rape and there was crickets from the government, so what happened?”
In 2008, a rumor started circulating that Raniere was determined to bring the Dalai Lama to town as a sort of blessing of his own ventures. Hardin was dismayed to say the least. He called the Dalai Lama’s office, he wondered why local outlets were reporting the story as “‘respected philosopher, entrepreneur’ bringing Dalai Lama to town.”
Wasn’t anyone paying attention?
It started to look like they might be.
World Ethical Foundation, a group founded by the Bronfman sisters on the teachings of Raniere, invited the Dalai Lama to town for a four-day tour where he’d speak at the Times Union Center and various local universities. The universities balked, refusing to have anything to do with NXIVM. After a cascade of negative press and venue refusals, the Times Union’s reporting on the visit was noticeably devoid of criticism or details on Raniere’s past.
Eventually, the Times Union Center appearance was canceled and the Dalai Lama rescheduled his appearance to The Palace on May 6, 2009. He was questioned during the event about whether the cancellation at the TU was due to bad press about NXIVM. He responded: “If you have done something wrong, you must accept, you must admit, change, make correction. If you have not done [anything wrong], make clear all these allegations [are untrue], truthfully, honestly, openly, transparently.”
At one point he placed a scarf around Raniere’s neck. That was apparently what the Bronfmans were looking for—an indication that the Dalai Lama endorsed Raniere’s philosophy.
It’s since been reported by the Daily Mail that the Dalai Lama had been convinced to un-cancel his visit after the Bronfman sisters and Raniere flew to visit him in Dharamsala, India and personally convinced him to attend a smaller event. It worked.
What also likely proved helpful was the $1 million the heiresses reportedly gave the Dalai Lama to spend on charity. The Daily Mail reported that one of the Lama’s aides was involved in a sexual relationship with a NXIVM member in violation of his beliefs and was put up in Bronfman-owned properties.
It was during the Dalai Lama uproar that Hardin was finally invited to meet “Vanguard” at a complex near Clifton Park. It was also around this time that NXIVM announced its intention to sue Metroland for its coverage.
Hardin was concerned about his safety. Natalie for years has claimed that NXIVM is responsible for the death of Kristin Snyder—a woman who took an intensive, 16-day NXIVM course in Alaska and then disappeared. Authorities ruled her death a suicide but former members of NXIVM say there was foul play involved.
“There I was in Clifton Park, at a gymnastic facility at midnight to play volleyball with Keith Raniere,” recalls Hardin.
There were Mercedes, BMWs and other luxury cars parked around the facility; it was clear to Hardin that this was a high-end affair.
“I played volleyball with Keith for four hours and it was as weird as you would think. Clare Bronfman was there, Allison Mack and a bunch of people I didn’t know,” he says. Hardin was on one side with a prominent NXIVM follower and Raniere on the other. Hardin says that when it was clear he wasn’t competitive, Raniere asked him to join his team.
“When I started with him, he started losing. Then the game got called.”
Hardin recalls when he joined his team Raniere recited a “joke.”
His joke went that a group of people needed a leader, so they reanimated Hitler. They asked Hitler to lead them. His reply: “Yes, but on one condition: ‘No more Mr. Nice Guy.’”
Hardin says he can see why people were gathered there. “Smart, beautiful, rich people gathered together to discuss philosophy. Everyone there has a lot of money, a lot of freedom. It was a total escape from reality. If Keith wasn’t who Keith was, it would be cool. I could see how a young actress could get caught up in this. “
In 2014, Odato took a leave of absence from the Times Union. Politico reported that it “appeared related” to his in-depth coverage of NXIVM and a lawsuit brought by the group against him, a Vanity Fair editor, and three others that accused them of possibly accessing NXIVM servers with a stolen password.
Reporting on the cult became much more rare following the suit.
However, in 2016 and 2017, interest began to rise again as more women fled the group. Paste Magazine reported on the oddity of The Knife of Aristotle–NXIVM’s fake news site that requires reporters to undergo 5-weeks of training.
Hardin says that seeing Raniere held to account is bittersweet because he knows people who have suffered, battling lawsuits for years, struggling to survive while being bullied and intimidated by a group with unlimited resources.
He says that Natalie “left in 1999, she’s been waiting a long time for this to happen. For 20 years, she’s been embroiled in lawsuits and drama. Ostensibly what all other former members go through is a period where they are completely divorced and ‘they aren’t suing me so I should keep my mouth shut.’” But Hardin says Natalie has tried to do just that, only to be dragged in back in by legal actions.
“I don’t think anyone can understand how much she suffered because of NXIVM, but the legal system allowed them to abuse her to no end after she left. If Toni was filing a bankruptcy, they were there challenging it. They can document dump all this pointless stuff, all these meaningless legal actions and motions. She’s not a rich person but she still has to respond and it’s been a drain on her resources for decades–the legal system allowed NXIVM to perpetrate this.”
So why does Hardin believe it’s taken so long for NXIVM to come under legal scrutiny itself? “State legislators don’t retire, they just get indicted. It’s clear that money bought cover for all the crimes Keith allegedly committed. All the officials who turned a blind eye are culpable–maybe not legally but for all these women who have been branded–they should be ashamed of themselves. I don’t think this is over. I think it is going to come out. The way officials are going after Keith and NXIVM now I think it’s clear they want to destroy this entity and if anyone had their hands on it, they should be worried.”
Read more of Hardin’s NXIVM coverage here.