In harrowing testimony on Thursday, a woman told jurors about how Keith Raniere, the head of the self-empowerment group and alleged sex cult NXIVM, groomed her as an adolescent to have sex with her on her 18th birthday — only for him to deem her too overweight when the day arrived.
Identified only as Daniela, the 33-year-old woman testified during the trial against Raniere, who is being charged with seven criminal counts, including sex trafficking, racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. Earlier this week, former NXIVM member and co-defendant Lauren Salzman, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, testified that she and Raniere had held Daniela against her will in a room in an Albany house for nearly two years, as punishment for Daniela’s “breach” of being romantically interested in a man other than Raniere.
Daniela began her testimony by telling jurors that she had grown up in Mexico, and that she took a course offered by NXIVM in her hometown of Monterey in 2002 when she was 16 years old. NXIVM teachers raved about the man they called “Vanguard,” referring to him as a “renunciate” with an “aura of saintlihood” and lauding him as “a scientist and the smartest man in the world,” Daniela testified.
Although she had been offered a scholarship to a school in Switzerland, she instead relocated to Albany, NY, where NXIVM was headquartered, after taking the NXIVM course. She thought she would take computer programming classes, but she ended up cleaning houses, though she was told by NXIVM members she could not be paid because of her visa issues.
Once she arrived in Albany, Daniela said, Raniere, who was then in his 40s, began to flirt with her, eventually kissing her in an empty office. According to Daniela, he said he would not have sex with her until her 18th birthday, and she also had to lose 20 pounds before they engaged in a sexual relationship. “I believe he was grooming me,” she testified.
In order to meet his requirements, Daniela said she took laxatives to lose weight every day. When her 18th birthday arrived, he determined that she did not meet his standards for female attractiveness because she had not lost enough weight yet, telling her, “‘Why, do you not care about me? You don’t care enough? You care more about food than to be with me,’” she testified. When they did finally have a sexual encounter after she was 18, it was on a dirty mattress in an office; although she said he was unable to perform, Raniere claimed to have penetrated her regardless.
Eventually, Daniela said, she discovered that Raniere was having a sexual relationship with her older sister Mariana. One night, he pressured the two of them to engage in group sex with him, during which they both started crying. “It felt dirty. It was bad. It was wrong,” she said.
In 2003, Raniere encouraged Daniela to invite her other siblings, including her brother Adrian (nicknamed “Fluffy”) and her then-15-year-old sister Camila, to join her in Albany, a decision that she said would yield horrific ramifications for her family in subsequent years. Although initially employed as a maid for another NXIVM member, the then-15-year-old Camila started sleeping with Raniere in 2006.
When Daniela confronted Raniere about the fact that he was sleeping with her underage sister, he was nonchalant, simply asking her if she “minded.”
“I feel a lot of shame about this, but this is exactly how it happened. On top of me being concerned about him having her, I was also feeling kind of jealous,” Daniella testified, her voice becoming increasingly distraught. “I was thinking, oh, he made me wait until after my 18th birthday and he’s having sex with my sister, you know, now. And it’s all kinds of messed up that I felt that way. And I really wish — I deeply regret that I didn’t at that moment get my sister out of there. But that’s how it happened.”
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