NEW YORK — Daniela was a talented high school student from a small town in central Mexico when she decided to forgo a scholarship for a year abroad in Europe to move to a town near Albany, New York, and join the cultlike group Nxivm.
Shortly after she arrived, Keith Raniere, the group’s leader, expressed a sexual interest in her, even though she was only 16, she testified Thursday in his racketeering and sex trafficking trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. A few days after she turned 18, he brought her to a dimly lit office, she said, where the two lay down on a dirty mattress and had a sexual encounter.
During a full day of testimony, Daniela, who was identified in court only by her first name, described how Raniere maintained a harem-like arrangement in which he had sexual relationships with as many as a dozen women.
She said that he criticized their eating habits, directed women to participate in group sex and enlisted some to assuage members going through outbursts of jealousy — what Raniere called “going off” and “pride tantrums” — because of his polyamorous activities.
“Someone could go off at any moment,” Daniela, now 33, testified. “These things happened at all hours.”
The women afflicted by jealousy eventually included Daniela and, it appears, her older and younger sisters. All three women had sexual relationships with Raniere, she testified.
Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced Nex-ee-um) in the 1990s as a self-help organization based in a suburban town in upstate New York. He is now on trial, facing charges of racketeering conspiracy, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking.
While Raniere presented himself as a mentor to people seeking personal growth and inner peace, prosecutors have said that he was actually a predator who exploited followers, particularly women.
Witnesses and former Nxivm members have said Raniere urged some women to adopt near-starvation diets so they could maintain the sort of physique he favored and he created a secret society within the organization of women, called “slaves,” who were branded with his initials. Some were pressured into sexual relationships with him, witnesses have said.
Although women in the group were expected to be monogamous with Raniere, witnesses have said, he was permitted to have sex with multiple people.
Daniela said she became fascinated with Nxivm in high school after taking one of the group’s classes — called The Mission — in Monterrey, Mexico. The class taught that Raniere had developed a sophisticated mathematical formula to predict that the world would end within 15 years.
Daniela said she gave up a scholarship to a Swiss school to move to New York state when she was only 16 to help Raniere and his followers in their purported efforts to end hunger, improve the lot of humanity and stave off the destruction of the planet.
She made the decision even though she had not met the guru-like Raniere, known to his followers as “Vanguard.” But she had conjured up a mental image based upon descriptions from others.
“He was spoken about a lot and it was with a degree of reverence,” she testified, saying he was looked upon as something like a saint.
With the approval of her parents, who had also taken Nxivm courses, Daniela said she worked directly for Raniere, compiling lengthy digests of dense texts and traveling back and forth between the United States and Mexico to comply with visa requirements.
Once, when she was denied entry into the United States, she said, Raniere arranged for her to enter the country illegally from Canada with the help of a fellow Nxivm member.
Daniela said she frequented the house where Raniere worked, spending hours a day with him and observing his interactions with others.
She described a crude atmosphere, in which he made ribald comments about women’s bodies, delighted in sexual innuendoes and chided women who he thought ate too much, sometimes grunting like a pig. Once, she said, he placed a pie in a refrigerator as bait and set up a surveillance camera to record who among his followers ate it.
The term “working with” had a dual meaning, according to Daniela’s testimony. When Raniere was “working with” a woman, it was understood that he was having sex with her, supposedly to aid her personal growth.
But Raniere also sent women who were skilled at making peace to calm his sexual partners who became jealous of others.
He turned to his longtime companion, Pam Cafritz, most frequently, Daniela said, calling her “the defuser of bombs” who would “neutralize others.”
Daniela said she performed oral sex on Raniere regularly, sometimes more than once a day. Often, she said, that took place while he sat in a chair watching a monitor connected to a security camera that would show if anyone was approaching the house.
Eventually, Daniela said, she realized that her older sister, Marianna, also had a sexual relationship with Raniere. On one occasion, she said, he persuaded both sisters to go to bed with him. But as he began kissing one and touching the other, Daniela said, they both started weeping. A few minutes later, Raniere left with Marianna, Daniela testified.
At some point in 2006, Daniela said, she also learned that Raniere had a sexual relationship with her 16-year-old sister, Camila, who he referred to as “Virgin Camila.”
She said she asked Raniere about having sex with Camila. But she said that while she was concerned for her sister, she also felt a twinge of jealousy, because Raniere had not had sex with her until she was 18.
“I feel a lot of shame about this,” Daniela testified. “I deeply regret that in that moment I didn’t get my sister out of there.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.