Local journalists uncovered sex cult Nxivm years before Hollywood paid attention

Local journalists uncovered sex cult Nvixm years before Hollywood paid attention

By Kristen Hare

In this April 13, 2018, courtroom sketch, Keith Raniere, center, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, attends a hearing at court in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP, File)

Local journalists uncovered sex cult Nxivm years before Hollywood paid attention

In this April 13, 2018, courtroom sketch, Keith Raniere, center, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, attends a hearing at court in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP, File)

It took less than five hours for a jury this June to convict Keith Raniere of everything he’d been charged with – sex trafficking, forced labor, posession of child pornography, sexual exploitation of a child, obstruction of justice and more.

Before that, it took federal prosecutors a few months to file charges against Raniere, the leader of an alleged sex cult, after The New York Times reported that members of the group were getting physically branded, like cattle, with his initials.

And before all that — before the books, podcasts and documentaries on the cult and its leader — it took a local reporter who saw something strange on a town hall planning board agenda and started reporting.

That was 16 years ago.

The Albany (New York) Times Union’s coverage of Raniere and his alleged cult, Nxivm (pronounced nex-ee-um, like the medicine) began in 2003. It included Raniere’s attempt to build a headquarters, countless lawsuits against detractors and defectors, his questionable business, his history of preying on minors and the group he built around himself. A reporter working at Metroland, an alt-weekly in Albany, uncovered Raniere’s tactics for persuasion, how he silenced critics and his obsession with a former girlfriend.

But nothing stopped Raniere or the group until that 2017 New York Times story.

“Why Nxivm founder Keith Raniere is only now being tried … is a lingering mystery,” said an editorial in the Times Union in May. “Officials here didn’t merely drop the ball; they never even picked it up.”

But local reporters did. One after another after another.

In 2003, The Times Union started ongoing coverage of Keith Raniere and Nxivm. Before that, there was a glossy society profile in 1988, and coverage in the ‘90s that his previous company, Consumers Buyline, was accused of running a pyramid scheme. (Screenshot)

‘What many people would call a destructive cult’

In 2003, Dennis Yusko stopped by city hall in Halfmoon, New York, to see the town planning board agenda. The Times Union reporter noticed something unusual — an architect’s futuristic rendering of a large building.

Yusko did a little reporting and found the community was already collecting signatures against the group’s proposed headquarters. He wrote his first story on Nxivm in July of 2003.

“Raniere, 42, is a colorful figure by all accounts. The Brooklyn-born ‘genius’ said in past interviews with the Times Union that he dropped out of high school at age 16 to enter Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, where he simultaneously earned undergraduate degrees in math, physics and biology,” Yusko reported. “Raniere garnered local attention in 1988 when he qualified at age 27 for the elite Mega Society — a step above Mensa — by demonstrating an IQ of 178.”

Yusko reported that Raniere’s previous business, Consumer Buylines, was shut down after several investigations alleged it was a pyramid scheme.

His new venture was billed as a “human potential school.” But neighbors were concerned that Raniere and his new project, Executive Success Program, or ESP, was on the radar of an area cult expert.

Yusko’s story included this quote from Rick Ross, that cult expert.

“There are parallels in which the way ESP operates,” Ross said, “and what many people would call a destructive cult.”

Nancy Salzman, NXIVM's president, posed for a photo during Vanguard week at Silver Bay Center on Lake George in 2003. (Photo by Will Waldron/Times Union)

HBD Vanguard

Raniere was known by his followers as Vanguard. And every year, the week of his birthday was celebrated as Vanguard Week.

In the summer of 2003, Yusko decided to crash his party.

He drove to a retreat center at Lake George in New York’s Adirondack region.

He saw a board with the names of the group’s “achievers,” each at different levels depending on their performance. Colored scarves denoted rank. To Yusko, it felt like Raniere had found a new use for his multi-level marketing skills.

When Yusko sat down in a cabin to talk with Nxivm members, they spoke in hushed, mesmerizing tones. It didn’t work on the reporter.

“… Far away from the peaceful landscapes of Warren County, former members and critics charge that ESP, is a secretive, ‘cultlike’ enterprise,” he reported. “In federal court papers, they allege the programs have torn apart families, intimidated detractors through lawsuits and controlled the minds of students.”

Raniere ran ads for his Executive Success Programs in local newspapers, like this one from the Bennington (Vermont) Banner in 2003. (Screenshot, newspapers.com)

‘May we persist...'

In the fall of 2003, Forbes devoted its cover to Raniere, headlined: “The world’s strangest executive coach.” Author Michael Freedman wrote that the powerful and rich were among Raniere’s students, “but some people see a darker and more manipulative side to Keith Raniere.”

“His teachings are mysterious, filled with self-serving and impenetrable jargon about ethics and values, and defined by a blind-ambition ethos akin to that of the driven characters in an Ayn Rand novel,” Freedman wrote. “His shtick: Make your own self-interest paramount, don’t be motivated by what other people want and avoid ‘parasites’ (his label for people who need help); only by doing this can you be true to yourself and truly ‘ethical.’ The flip side, of course, is that this worldview discredits virtues like charity, teamwork and compassion — but maybe we just don’t get it.”

The day that story was posted online, Nxivm members had a meeting scheduled at the Times Union to make the case to editor Rex Smith that Nxivm was just misunderstood and deserved more favorable coverage from the paper.

Forbes’ story appeared 20 minutes before that meeting. Yusko printed it out and placed it on his boss’ desk. Afterward, Smith stuck by his newsroom. The paper’s reporting would speak for itself.

In February of 2004, Yusko reported on the death of Nxivm student Kristin Marie Snyder. Snyder disappeared in Anchorage during her second 16-day intensive course. She left a note in her truck.

“I attended a course called Executive Success Programs (a.k.a. Nexivm) based out of Anchorage, AK, and Albany, NY,” she wrote. “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. Please contact my parents … if you find me or this note. I am sorry life, I didn’t know I was already dead. May we persist into the future.”

Her body was never found.

NXIVM offices in 2010. (John Carl D'Annibale/Times Union)

Cold call

Chet Hardin hadn’t been at Metroland, Albany’s alt-weekly, for long when he got a cold call with a tip: This local group was strange, the caller said, and might be a cult.

Hardin started reporting on Nxivm that day.

In 2006, he wrote about Toni Natalie, a former girlfriend of Raniere who was harassed, hounded and repeatedly sued by Raniere and Nxivm. Harden’s piece, “Stress in the Family,” offered a look inside Raniere’s world and his efforts to silence his critics.

The Times Union and Metroland continued covering Raniere for the next several years, reporting on accounts of former students, ongoing lawsuits and the group’s political connections.

Other local and national journalists picked up the story, too, including The Buffalo News, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair and the New York Post. Raniere and Nxivm made news again and again  – for a controversial visit from the Dalai Lama, a look at the Seagram heiresses who funded the group and a bankruptcy petition filed by a woman who sought protection from the group for having “records documenting potentially illegal activities,” Jim Odato reported for the Times Union in 2010.

In 2011, the Times Union’s editor, Smith, decided it was time to take a deeper look at the cult down the street.

Odato, an investigative reporter, worked with features reporter Jennifer Gish for more than a year. (She declined to comment for this story.) Before their series could run, the Times Union tried sending questions to Raniere through certified and overnight mail.

When they got no answer, editors asked reporter Brendan Lyons to hand-deliver them.

Actresses and Nxivm members Allison Mack, far right, and Nicki Clyne, center, visited Albany in 2008. (Courtesy Chet Hardin, via YouTube)

Enlightened

Outside a Halfmoon duplex, Lyons waited across the street in the bushes for sight of Raniere. The reporter tried appealing through the building’s security camera. Finally one night, when a car left late, Lyons noticed someone sitting low in the passenger seat.

He got in his own car and followed.

At the indoor rec complex where the car eventually parked, Lyons couldn’t see much through the frosted windows. After several attempts, he got a glimpse as someone walked onto the volleyball court and pulled off a hoodie.

It was Raniere.

Lyons realized he was there alone. He called his wife, told her where he was and what he was doing. If she didn’t hear from him in 15 minutes, he said, “Call the cops.”

Then he walked inside and onto the volleyball court, where a few people stood talking. Lyons approached.

“What do you want? What do you want?” one man asked.

Lyons held a list of typed questions out to Raniere, who stood on the other side of the net. A security guard blocked him from getting any closer. So Lyons laid the pages on the ground.

The Times Union’s four-part series published shortly after, in February of 2012. It included one installment on Raniere’s history with women and minors. Odato and Gish reported that sex with Raniere was promised to be a spiritual experience. The story included women who went on the record with their experiences.

“…In 1984, when a woman objected to 24-year-old Raniere having sex with her underage sister, the woman said Raniere explained her sister’s soul was much older than her biological age. The girl was 15 or 16 at the time. But according to the man who came to view himself as an enlightened being, she was a Buddhist goddess meant to be with him.”

“We really thought, frankly, that there would be an official response after our series was public,” said Smith, the Times Union’s editor, in a recent interview with Poynter.

They were wrong.

Keith Raniere, called Vanguard by his followers, is pictured in a screenshot from the Albany Times Union’s 2012 investigation.

Branding

Odato and Gish won awards for their series on Nxivm in 2013. Odato continued reporting on Raniere and the group. Then, in 2014, he left the paper.

It started as a leave of absence after Nxivm filed a lawsuit against Odato and two other journalists —  a blogger and contributing editor at Vanity Fair — Joe Pompeo reported for Politico.

“Nxivm’s suit reportedly alleges that the three writers and two other individuals may have used a former Nxivm client’s login information to gain unauthorized access to the Albany-based company’s computer server,” Pompeo wrote.

The case was thrown out in 2015. Odato did not return to the Times Union. (Poynter attempted to reach Odato but was unsuccessful.)

Lyons, who’d hand delivered the questions to Raniere in 2012, picked up the story along with reporter Robert Gavin. For the next several years, they covered Raniere and Nxivm through a tangle of ongoing court cases.

In 2017, Lyons saw a blog post from the Frank Report, which spent years reporting on Nxivm. The blog included news that women inside the group were getting physically branded as part of an initiation. Lyons reached out to his sources.

Those sources knew the Times Union had covered the story for years, Lyons said. And they knew that after those stories, authorities hadn’t stopped Raniere.

They told him they’d given the exclusive to The New York Times.

In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Keith Raniere, center, sits with attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left, and Marc Agnifilo during closing arguments at Brooklyn federal court, Tuesday, June 18, 2019 in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

‘The horror of what was happening…’

In the summer of 2017, New York Times reporter Barry Meier got a tip about something new happening inside Nxivm.

It took months to get former members to go on the record. In October of 2017, the Times published his story, which detailed how women recruited other women into a secret group with an internal hierarchy of masters and slaves; how they used nude photos, bank account information or personal secrets as leverage; and how they were branded with Raniere’s initials.

His story included a link to the Times Union’s 2012 series.

“Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their ‘master,’ a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: ‘Master, please brand me, it would be an honor,’” Meier reported. “A female doctor proceeded to use a cauterizing device to sear a two-inch-square symbol below each woman’s hip, a procedure that took 20 to 30 minutes. For hours, muffled screams and the smell of burning tissue filled the room.”

Two months later, the Justice Department started an investigation into Raniere, Nxivm and his inner circle.

Meier thinks the branding was the detail that finally made the difference.

“That was it. That’s what sort of broke the dam,” he said. “Absent that aspect of the story, probably our story would not have made that much of a difference.”

But the details of blackmail and branding, “of what was happening and what people were subjecting other people to and what members were accepting in order to be part of this organization, it was horrifying,” he said.

And once that news hit the front page of The New York Times, Smith said, “it was more difficult for prosecutors to ignore it.”

“Nobody believed it,” said Hardin, the former alt-weekly reporter. “I think that’s an important part of this. Until that New York Times story broke, nobody believed any of it.”

Nxivm’s secrets spilled out after that, incluing Raniere’s predatory relationships with minors, the actress who recruited others into a “secret sex slave club,hacking, sex trafficking, then charges, trials and convictions.

For more than a decade, people spoke out and journalists dug into what was happening in Halfmoon. Each chipped away at the wall Raniere built around himself with power, influence and money, until, as Meier said, one final blow brought the whole thing down.

After The New York Times broke the news that Nxivm was branding women, The New York Times Magazine followed up with a chilling look at the cult. (Screenshot; Photo by Stefan Ruiz for The New York Times.)

Corruption, apathy, status quo

Why did it take so long for Raniere and his associates to end up behind bars?

“The stuff they were writing about was terrible and horrible and should have prompted local officials to take action,” said The New York Times’ Meier of the Times Union’s coverage.  “Unfortunately, it didn’t.”

As a result of that, he said, Raniere “became crazier and crazier.”

Recently, Lyons asked people involved with Nxivm why the Times Union’s 2012 series didn’t scare them away from Raniere or the group.

“And their response was that he knew for so long what we were working on, what our questions were, what we were digging into, that he had convinced his inner circle that it was all fabricated,” Lyons said. “One said, ‘I never even read it. None of us did.’”

Hardin said he thinks a lot of variables are responsible for years of inaction, “from corruption to apathy to status quo.”

The work of national journalists helped break through that, he said, including Suzanna Andrews from Vanity Fair, who wrote about the Seagram heiresses who helped fund Nxivm; and Jeane MacIntosh from the New York Post, who covered, among other things, Nxivm’s influence on the right and the left.

More than a decade later, Hardin thinks the Times Union did — and still does — a good job with its coverage.

Ross, the cult expert many of the journalists quoted who spent 14 years in legal battles with Nxivm, agreed.

“I think they were very determined to do their job, but at the same time, they were being threatened constantly,” he said.

Having good lawyers helped, said Smith, the paper’s editor. He added that the Times Union’s publisher, George Hearst, has been a stalwart through years of coverage and outside pressure for the newspaper to back off.

The Times Union did its job, said Yusko, who left the paper in 2016.

“But there were other people who didn’t do their job,” he said. “Newspaper people don’t have the power to prosecute. Newspaper people don’t have the power to make arrests. All they can do is present facts. And they did that for many, many years.”

Photo illustration by Jeff Boyer/Times Union

A smaller watchdog

Keith Raniere now sits in a detention center in Brooklyn awaiting sentencing. Members of his inner circle pleaded guilty to multiple charges. Nxivm has suspended operations, the Times Union’s Gavin reported.

But there is now also less local news in Albany than there was in 2003, when a newspaper beat reporter first started asking questions about the strange item he saw on the town hall agenda.

The Times Union is the rare local American newspaper that hasn’t changed owners recently. Or in fact, for a very, very long time. William Randolph Hearst bought it in 1925. It’s now one of Hearst’s 24 dailies.

But it did not escape the great shrinking that hit the industry.

Pew Research found that employment in American newsrooms dropped 25% from 2008 to 2018. In newspapers, it dropped 47%.

In 2003, when Yusko first started covering Nxivm, the Times Union had about 122 people in the newsroom. In 2012, when it published Odato and Gish’s four-part investigation, it had 90.

Now, there are about 70 journalists in the newsroom. The Times Union’s Sunday print distribution is 88,000, and it had 1.8 million visitors to its site in the past 28 days, 1.4 million of them unique. The site has a metered paywall.

Metroland closed in 2016, after staff put out one final issue on their own time. The association that serves alt-weeklies has about 100 member publications, down from 135 in 2009.

“It’s sad because we’re going to recognize what local journalism did for us by its absence,” said Hardin, who now lives in St. Louis. He co-wrote a book with Raniere’s former girlfriend, Natalie, titled “The Program: Inside the Mind of Keith Raniere and the Rise and Fall of Nxivm.” It comes out in September.

In spite of a smaller staff, the Times Union has a history as a local watchdog, said Smith, still the editor. So that’s where its resources now go. Since The New York Times story came out, staff closely followed Nxivm members’ trials, revived old coverage and created a podcast.

Gavin was the latest Times Union reporter to pick up the case of Nxivm. The courts and criminal justice reporter lived in Brooklyn for two months to cover the trial.

He likely won’t be the last.

“I think the challenge of an organization that wants to lie about what it’s really about and also keep itself so secret that people have to sign nondisclosure agreements and get punished with litigation, that’s a challenge any journalist worth their salt is gonna see as something worth pursuing,” Lyons said.

And when people tell him that local news is a tough business, he asks them this: “What are you gonna do when we’re not here?”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify a point about continued coverage.

Written by Kristen Hare
Designed by Ren LaForme
Edited by Barbara Allen