Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman pleaded guilty on Friday afternoon for her role in NXIVM, a purported cult in which women were allegedly branded and groomed for sex with the group’s leader.
Bronfman, 40, who was once NXIVM’s operations director and one of its largest donors, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain and fraudulent use of identification.
The group’s bookkeeper Kathy Russell, 62, also pleaded guilty Friday to one count of racketeering conspiracy before U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn federal court. Russell later pleaded guilty to one count of visa fraud, and is expected to be sentenced in late July. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
After initially fighting the charges, the two women are now the fourth and fifth defendants to plead guilty in the case, leaving NXIVM founder Keith Raniere to stand trial alone next month.
Friday’s turn marks the final unraveling of the once ultra-secretive “self-help” organization founded by Raniere in Albany, New York, over two decades ago. In what prosecutors now believe was a front for a “cult-like” pyramid scheme, the 58-year-old’s inner circle allegedly recruited thousands of followers to pay for “executive success” training programs around the country.
Prosecutors allege Bronfman helped Raniere steal email passwords from “perceived enemies,” laundered money to help a non-citizen enter the U.S. in the name of the program’s success, and paid off debts the founder racked up with a dead girlfriend’s credit card. Russell is accused of helping Bronfman and Raniere smuggle the non-citizen into the US.
“NXIVM was not a criminal enterprise but instead was an organization that helped thousands of people,” Bronfman’s attorney, Susan Necheles, insisted in a statement after her arrest.
Investigators opened an investigation into the organization after former members accused Raniere’s sidekick, Smallville actress Allison Mack, of inducting women into a secret sect of the group called DOS—which is loosely translated to “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions”—in which “slaves” would allegedly be forced to have sex with Raniere, or “The Vanguard,” and brand themselves with his initials.
In March 2018, federal authorities arrested Keith Raniere on a variety of charges related to DOS, including sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor. He has also been charged with two counts of sexual exploitation of a child and one count of possession for child pornography. Raniere has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Mack was arrested and charged on similar sex tracking charges one month later.
“I’m very sorry for the victims of this case,” Mack said in court on April 8. “I’m very sorry for who I’ve hurt through my misguided adherence to Keith Raniere’s teachings.”
Opening statements in Raniere’s criminal trial are scheduled for May 7 in Brooklyn. He remains in custody at a federal detention facility without bond.