The Times Union has lifted the paywall on this developing coverage to provide critical information to our community. To support our journalists’ work, consider a digital subscription.
NEW YORK – Attorneys for jailed NXIVM leader Keith Raniere said they learned he is considered an inmate at “high risk” for serious illness from COVID-19.
But now that’s not so clear.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn say the disgraced guru is simply in an age group that the Centers for Disease Control initially considered at high risk from the coronavirus pandemic, but no longer does.
The 59-year-old Raniere, known to his disciples as “Vanguard,” is being held in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn. The former Halfmoon resident awaits a possible life sentence on May 21 in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn for his conviction on sex trafficking, forced labor and racketeering charges for his crimes while operating the cult-like personal growth organization based in Colonie.
At least one MDC inmate has tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by novel coronavirus, according to a letter sent by Raniere’s attorneys to Senior U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis on March 26.
Raniere attorneys Marc Agnifilo and Teny Geragos told the judge in the letter that on March 26 the federal public defenders’ office informed them Raniere was a “ ‘high risk’ for serious illness from COVID-19 under the Center for Disease Control’s definition of the term.”
38 positive for coronavirus at Rikers, NYC jails
Raniere sentencing postponed until May 21
NXIVM’s Raniere wants new trial, claims women lied about plans to sue him
The latest coronavirus numbers in NY
Sign up for the Times Union coronavirus newsletter
Full coronavirus coverage
The lawyers told Garaufis their repeated attempts to calls Raniere at the jail have gone unanswered. The MDC, their letter noted, ceased legal visits in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawyers said they had one 40-minute call with Raniere on March 16. They said they requested another call a week later which they were told was “forwarded to the appropriate department” but went unfulfilled.
They asked the judge to order the Bureau of Prisons to provide any information identifying Raniere as a “high risk” inmate. The lawyers said Raniere told Geragos he received a medical exam “related to several health issues” on March 17 but by March 23 had not received any follow-up on it.
The judge agreed to order the Bureau of Prisons to release the records to Raniere’s lawyers by 3 p.m. on Monday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar informed the judge in a letter late Monday that she contacted the legal counsel for the MDC and was told Raniere’s high-risk designation was “solely due to his age (59) and not due to any medical condition.” The prosecutor said based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bureau of Prisons updated its list of high-risk inmates to include only those inmates 65 years or older
“Based on the updated criteria, the defendant is no longer on the list of at-risk inmates,” Hajjar wrote.
Asked if Raniere’s designation was simply because of his age, Agnifilo told the Times Union: “The answer is we don’t know the basis for the designation. That is why I wanted the full medical records. If there is a basis for a motion of some sort based on the records, we’ll make that motion.”
Raniere’s sentencing was set for April 16 but moved to May 21 because of a 30-day prohibition on lawyer visits with inmates at MDC prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Raniere’s lawyers were unable to speak to him to prepare for their pre-sentencing recommendation to the judge.
The Bureau of Prisons website said 19 inmates and 19 staff members at their facilities have tested positive for COVID-19.
Last June 19, a jury took less than five hours to convict Raniere following a nearly two-month trial of sex trafficking, forced labor and racketeering charges that included underlying acts of money laundering, child exploitation, possession of child pornography, identity theft, obstruction of justice, and wire and visa fraud.