NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – The clandestine branding ceremonies at a suburban town in upstate New York were intended to leave scars that served as permanent pledges of loyalty to Keith Raniere, the leader of the cultlike group Nxivm.
Women who joined a secretive sect within Nxivm called the Vow, or DOS, were held down on a table as they recited the words “Master, please brand me, it would be an honour.”
Then, another member of the sect would cauterise Raniere’s initials into their skin.
But some women may now be able to get rid of those scars.
At a federal restitution hearing Tuesday (July 20), a judge ordered Raniere, who was convicted in 2019 of offences including sex trafficking and racketeering, to pay a total of more than US$3.4 million (S$4.6 million) to 21 victims, with some of that money allocated to women to have brandings removed.
“Virtually all low-ranking members of DOS were victims of a conspiracy” involving forced labour, the judge, Nicholas G. Garaufis, of US District Court in Brooklyn, said Tuesday, adding that DOS members were also directed to perform sexual acts by “higher-ranking members.”
Raniere was not present in the courtroom but attended by video from Arizona, where he is serving a 120-year prison sentence.
The sometimes contentious proceeding Tuesday resolved a process that had mainly been hidden from public view.
A series of letters to the court related to restitution have been filed under seal, part of an effort to protect the privacy of the victims, including some who became part of DOS – an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions.”
DOS members, known as “slaves,” were required to provide to “masters” sensitive or embarrassing personal material called “collateral,” according to court documents and testimony in the case.
That material was then used to coerce compliance with orders, including some to “seduce” Raniere.
About 100 people had submitted requests for restitution totalling about US$33 million, Garaufis said. They included DOS members, a business consultant who worked with Nxivm and members of a family who had fought a nearly 15-year court battle with Nxivm.
At one point prosecutors had recommended that the court award restitution to 25 people.
Garaufis determined that 17 people deserved restitution under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which applies to crimes including forced labour, sex trafficking and document servitude.
Those victims are entitled to restitution for legal counsel they retained in connection with the government investigation and Raniere’s criminal proceedings, the value of unpaid labour they performed within DOS, and medical services, including mental health care and brand removal.
Another four people are entitled to restitution under a second law, the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act of 1996, which applies to crimes including racketeering, racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy.
Among those to whom Raniere is being ordered to pay restitution is Sarah Edmondson, one of the first people to speak publicly about the brandings.
In 2017 she told The New York Times that she wept as she endured that experience and “disassociated out of my body.”
Other recipients include a woman identified only as Sylvie, who testified during Raniere’s trial that she was ordered to have sex with him and described life within DOS as “lies and deceit and darkness,” and a woman identified as Daniela, who testified that Raniere became jealous when she rejected him and caused her to be kept in a room for two years.
The largest restitution amount, US$507,997, was awarded to Daniela’s younger sister, Camila. Raniere began sexually abusing Camila when she was 15, according to court records.
Garaufis said Tuesday that there was information that “the defendant induced her to submit to pornographic photography sessions.”
Garaufis also said lower-ranking DOS members “are statutorily entitled to the return of their collateral” and directed Raniere to assist in that effort. But that order was stayed until Raniere’s appeal of his conviction is exhausted.
While restitution cases with a single victim and perpetrator – and one clear-cut crime – can be straightforward, Raniere’s case appeared to be particularly complex, said Paul G. Cassell, a former federal judge in Utah and professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, who has written about crime victims and restitution.
“Here we have both issues of who is a victim, and once that’s sorted through, what are the compensable losses,” Cassell said. “Given the breadth of the charges and the number of people involved, this is one of the most complicated restitution cases I think I have ever seen.”
The restitution process could be further complicated by the fact that Raniere has long presented himself to the world as a “renunciate” who shunned material possessions, and he may not have the means to pay whatever he is ordered to hand over.
In a memorandum to the court before Raniere’s sentencing, prosecutors wrote that he had reported an interest in the US$8 million estate of a deceased former partner and told probation authorities that he also had earnings from Nxivm and from another organization he founded called Executive Success Programs.
Prosecutors also wrote in the memo that they would ask that “forfeited funds” be used for restitution.
Throughout the proceeding Raniere was visible on a screen, wearing a dark-colored shirt and taking notes on a legal pad. At one point, after Garaufis asked if he had any comment, Raniere declared that he had no connection to the personal materials provided by DOS members.
“I have never handled the collateral,” he said. “I know nothing about it.”