New York sex cult was front for 'horrible evil,' surveilled members: Witness

Mark Agnifilo, legal council representing Keith Raniere, speaks to the media at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse as he arrives for opening arguments in the sex trafficking and racketeering charges related to the Nxivm cult case in New York, U.S., May 7, 2019.

NEW YORK - A secretive New York group that federal prosecutors say evolved into a sex cult tried to conceal a "horrible evil" behind a facade of self-improvement, a 12-year veteran of the organisation said Thursday (May 9) at the group leader's criminal trial.

Filmmaker Mark Vicente is the second witness to testify against Keith Raniere, who is on trial for crimes including sex trafficking for his role running the secretive upstate New York Nxivm group. Prosecutors said Raniere forced women to have sex with him and in some cases branded his initials on them.

"It's a well-intended veneer that covers a horrible evil,"an emotional Vicente said during the trial's third day in federal court in Brooklyn.

Vicente said he was like many of the group's members when he joined in 2005, buying into Raniere's pitch of himself as a genius who could help people turn their lives around. As he rose through the ranks, Vicente discovered that Nxivm spied on its members by placing surveillance cameras in their driveways and pressured them to spend thousands of dollars to take its classes.

Raniere, 58, has pleaded not guilty to charges including sex trafficking and child pornography. He faces life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors say women were blackmailed into having sex with Raniere and branded with his initials as part of a secret society within Nxivm called DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly means "master of the obedient female companions."

Defence lawyer Marc Agnifilo has argued at the trial that members joined voluntarily and were never forced to do anything against their will.

Vicente, who has spoken out against Raniere since breaking away from the group in 2017, said Nxivm President Nancy Salzman contacted him around 2005 after seeing a film Vicente made about quantum physics and philosophy, saying she wanted to introduce him to Raniere.

That meeting led Vicente to begin his association with the group, he told jurors. He described how Nxivm members wore an array of striped coloured sashes to show their rank, and were encouraged to make their way up the "stripe path."

Senior members got to teach classes to junior members, although the amount they were paid for their teaching followed no clear pattern, Vicente said.

Asked to describe the group's accounting system, he replied, "It was chaos."

A former Nxivm and DOS member who was only identified by her first name Sylvie told jurors on Wednesday she was recruited as a "slave" to another woman in the organisation.

Her "master"eventually ordered her to engage in sexual activity with Raniere, who also took nude photos of her, she said.

Other individuals who say they were victims of the group are expected to testify. Five of Raniere's co-defendants, including Salzman, Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman and former Smallville television actress Allison Mack, have pleaded guilty to related crimes.