By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A filmmaker who spent 12 years in a secretive New York group that prosecutors say evolved into a sex cult is set to testify for a second day on Thursday against its former leader who faces charges that include sex trafficking.
Filmmaker Mark Vicente is the second witness to take the stand after a former group member tearfully described how 58-year-old Keith Raniere forced her into an unwanted sexual encounter and declaring himself her “grand master.”
Vicente, who joined the group, Nxivm, in 2005, has spoken out against Raniere on his website and in interviews after breaking away in 2017.
Raniere 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.”
Defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo has argued at the trial that members joined voluntarily and were never forced to do anything against their will.
Vicente, who took the witness stand toward the end of the day on Wednesday, said Nxivm President Nancy Salzman contacted him around 2005 after seeing a film he 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 gave jurors a brief crash course on Nxivm, listing more than a dozen organizations and self-improvement programs under its umbrella that cost thousands of dollars.
Earlier Wednesday, a former Nxivm and DOS member who was only identified by her first name Sylvie told jurors she was recruited as a “slave” to another woman in the organization. Her “master” eventually ordered her to engage in sexual activity with Raniere, who also took nude photos of her, she said.
Sylvie said she felt she had to do what she was told, both because of years of psychological manipulation by Raniere and others, and because she had given her master compromising material that could be used to blackmail her.
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.
Nxivm, which started under another name in 1998 and is pronounced “Nexium,” was based in Albany, New York.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson, Editing by Scott Malone, Rosalba O’Brien and Jeffrey Benkoe)