The trial for Keith Raniere, the leader of the alleged secret sex cult NXIVM, began in Brooklyn Tuesday, a little over a year after he was arrested in a villa in Mexico and accused of manipulating women into being "sex slaves."
In their opening arguments, attorneys on both sides painted a widely different picture of Raniere, who has been charged with sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, racketeering, and conspiracy to commit forced labor.
Assistant US Attorney Tanya Hajjar described Raniere as "a predator" who sexually exploited women — including a minor — and blackmailed them with private, naked photos and their bank accounts.
"He claimed to be a leader, but he was a conman," Hajjar said.
Raniere's attorney, Marc Agnifilo, called his client a "good man" with "good intentions," who taught women how to be vulnerable.
Raniere is standing trial as the sole defendant in the case after three women previously pleaded guilty to a series of charges. Allison Mack, the former Smallville actor who allegedly was Raniere's second-in-command, pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges.
Clare Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram liquor fortune whose wealth helped fund NXIVM, and Kathy Russell, the group's longtime bookkeeper, also pleaded guilty.
Hajjar said Raniere drew people in to NXIVM with the promise of a better life, including more money and healthier relationships, but ultimately took advantage of them, and in some cases sexually exploited women.
The prosecution described NXIVM as a "criminal group" with Raniere serving as its mastermind. He allegedly controlled his followers, using shame and humiliation as a way to bring them down if they ever challenged his authority.
Hajjar said Raniere recruited a family from Mexico — including three daughters — in the early 2000s. Raniere offered to tutor the children, Hajjar said, but instead he had sex with all three girls.
"He turned family against family, sister against sister," she said. In order to protect the women's privacy, the court is referring to past members by only their first names.
When the middle daughter, Daniela, began seeing another man, Raniere allegedly punished her with threats of deportation.
After two years of threats, Raniere allegedly followed through and had Daniela driven to Mexico, where he still made her do as he pleased as he held on to her documents, such as her birth certificate.
Raniere also had sex with the family's youngest daughter, a 15-year-old girl whom he referred to as "virgin Camilla," Hajjar said.
Raniere, who was 45 at the time, also took explicit photos of her, which were used as an instrument of coercion and control, Hajjar added.
The prosecutor focused much of her opening argument on DOS — a subgroup of NXIVM — which purported to be a women's empowerment group. Instead, Hajjar said, Raniere recruited the women to the group to serve as his "slaves," where he controlled many aspects of their lives, including their schedules, diets, and whom they spoke to.
As a way of pledging commitment to the organization, the women were forced to turn over compromising information — what prosecutors called "collateral" — including bank accounts and naked photos.
The women were also branded with Raneire's initials using a cautery pen that burned their skin and left a mark.
The DOS "slaves" also had to have sex with Raniere, Hajjar said, including Nicole, an actor in her thirties.
Raniere allegedly blindfolded and tied Nicole to the table while another person Nicole did not know came in to the room and performed oral sex on her.
The other person turned out to be Camilla, the young girl from Mexico, Hajjar said.
Agnifilo, Raniere's lawyer, refuted the allegations, saying the organization helped a lot of people and Raniere's intentions were always in the right place.
Agnifilo said Raniere formed DOS "to be a sisterhood, a secret society of women."
He also said the collateral was not collected with bad intentions, but as a way for the women to "back up" what they said they believed in.
Agnifilo compared the naked photos women used as collateral to the children's phrase "cross my heart and hop to die, stick a needle in my eye" — saying kids use this phrase when they need to prove something they're saying is true.
"If you mean it, put something behind your word," Agnifilo said.
He also asked the jury to look at the evidence presented during the trial through his client's eyes, quoting To Kill a Mockingbird: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."