For years, Keith Raniere won glowing endorsements from the Hollywood actresses, millionaires and Ivy League graduates who studied his teachings during self-help classes offered by his company Nxivm.
Most of them have now distanced themselves from Mr. Raniere after he was convicted and sentenced to 120 years in prison for using Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) to commit sex trafficking and other crimes.
Among other things, a jury found that women in Nxivm were recruited under false pretenses to join a secret sorority that Mr. Raniere formed, where they were branded with his initials near their pelvises, groomed to be his sexual partners and kept in line with blackmail.
Still, despite trial evidence that Mr. Raniere possessed child pornography, manipulated his followers by keeping them starved and sleep-deprived and committed a long list of federal crimes, a handful of these recruits insist that Mr. Raniere changed the world for good. And now, they are unleashing a public campaign to undermine his conviction.
Last month, eight of his female supporters — including a former actress, corporate lawyer and doctor — released videos online that pushed back against the group’s reputation as a “sex cult,” saying they consented to being branded and were never forced into sexual relationships with Mr. Raniere.
At a news conference on the day of Mr. Raniere’s sentencing, his supporters defended their time with Nxivm. Their comments came after they watched a former Nxivm member tell the court that Mr. Raniere sexually abused her starting when she was 15 and he was 45 — an allegation that Mr. Raniere’s lawyers have never disputed.
The effort to exonerate Mr. Raniere was in keeping with how Nxivm had long dealt with its critics; former members who challenged Mr. Raniere’s methods were shunned from the community and sometimes targeted with lawsuits that drove them into bankruptcy.
Nxivm lured recruits with its expensive “Executive Success Programs,” tapping into a desire for personal growth within elite circles. Around 18,000 people have taken its courses since 1998.
What made Nxivm an illegal enterprise, prosecutors said, was the fraud, extortion, immigration violations and sex crimes that took place over 15 years under Mr. Raniere’s direction. A jury convicted Mr. Raniere on all counts after a six-week trial last year. Five women in his inner circle have also pleaded guilty to felony charges.
And yet, Mr. Raniere maintains a small and loyal following among people with careers in law, medicine and business. In letters to the court last month, Mr. Raniere’s supporters touted their degrees from top universities.
“Cults like going after people who are bright because they will represent the cult very well,” said Rachel Bernstein, a therapist who specializes in treating former cult members. “Intelligence is not a predictor of cult involvement.”
Cult experts say it is not uncommon for followers to stand by a leader who has gone to prison or died. Clinging to the group may be more comforting than the prospect of leaving, which may require finding a job or reconciling with family and long-lost friends.
“They’re what we call true believers,” said Janja Lalich, a psychologist and cult expert who has worked with Nxivm defectors. “It shows the depth of their indoctrination and the extent to which they have internalized his rhetoric.”
During the pandemic, Mr. Raniere’s supporters regularly danced outside the Brooklyn jail where he was housed. They released a jailhouse phone call with Mr. Raniere as a podcast.
One vocal supporter of Mr. Raniere is Nicki Clyne, the former television actress from “Battlestar Galactica” who now describes herself as an advocate for criminal justice reform.
Ms. Clyne has said she was part of the secret women’s group inside Nxivm called DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase meaning “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions.”
Trial witnesses testified that the group had a pyramid structure where lower-ranking women were referred to as “slaves” and overseen by female “masters” who reported to Mr. Raniere.
To honor their vow to the group, the women were regularly required to hand over what was known as “collateral,” including nude photographs or the rights to their financial assets, according to trial testimony.
Prosecutors said it was extortion and fraud. Former DOS members testified at trial that they obeyed Mr. Raniere’s sexual orders under the fear that their collateral would be released.
Ms. Clyne was not charged, but prosecutors said in a court filing last month that she had directed some women inside DOS to delete the collateral from their computers and transfer it to hard drives stored with her lawyer. Ms. Clyne denied the allegation in an emailed statement.
Ms. Clyne is married to Allison Mack, the former television actress who is awaiting sentencing after she pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from her role as a top DOS recruiter. Prosecutors have called it a “sham” marriage to allow Ms. Clyne, a Canadian native, to stay in the United States.
Ms. Clyne said in her statement that the marriage was “born from genuine love.”
With regards to Mr. Raniere, she said: “If I discover that predatory, underage sex took place, I will denounce it wholeheartedly and reconsider my views.”
She and other followers of Mr. Raniere were now reviewing the trial evidence and “keeping an open mind,” she said.
In the videos released last month, Ms. Clyne and seven other former DOS members said they voluntarily participated in the “master-slave” relationship.
“Everyone’s going like, if you say anything different than what’s been said, then you’re an idiot, you’ve been brainwashed, you’ve been abused,” Sahajo Haertel, who describes herself on LinkedIn as a humanitarian and entrepreneur, said in one video.
But Mr. Raniere’s supporters have gone further than just sharing their experiences: they have sought to publicly undermine confidence in the legal system by attacking the prosecutors, the victims and the judge who oversaw Mr. Raniere’s trial.
Several showed up to the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office in September with a video camera to ask prosecutors to sign an “affidavit” swearing that they followed due process. And last month, they filed a letter with the court that accused the government of tampering with evidence on Mr. Raniere’s computer.
Mr. Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, said during his client’s sentencing that he did not believe the claim was valid and refused to file it himself, even after Mr. Raniere and his supporters asked him “many, many times.”
“These publicity campaigns are distinct from the legal work in the case that has to be done,” Mr. Agnifilo said in a statement.
Prosecutors have said Nxivm was financed largely by Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, who was sentenced to over six years in prison for her crimes on behalf of Nxivm.
Ronald Sullivan, a lawyer for Ms. Bronfman, said she was not funding the recent publicity effort.
None of Mr. Raniere’s supporters testified at trial, which would have required them to answer questions under oath during cross-examination by prosecutors.
Ms. Clyne and another woman, Michele Hatchette, wrote in affidavits to the court last month that they chose not to testify because of threats from prosecutors. The judge dismissed the claim, saying there was “scant and highly questionable evidence” of any intimidation.
Ms. Hatchette appeared in a September television interview to defend Nxivm, saying, “I think there is a difference between being branded and getting a brand.”
But during the criminal investigation, Ms. Hatchette told prosecutors in interviews that she wanted to leave DOS after she was assigned to seduce Mr. Raniere, according to a court filing last month.
She only stayed, she told prosecutors, because of the material she had handed over as collateral, including letters addressed to the police that accused her siblings of abusing their children, the filing said.
In an emailed statement, Ms. Hatchette said: “As a result of my experiences in DOS, I am a stronger, more confident woman than I ever thought I could be, and I have an unwavering trust in myself.”
Mr. Raniere’s relentless publicity campaign backfired with one longtime follower.
Ivy Nevares, 43, who dated Mr. Raniere, said in an interview that she decided to denounce him publicly after seeing the recent efforts to promote him. She said the attacks on his victims were “abhorrent.”
At Mr. Raniere’s sentencing, Ms. Nevares told the court that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after Mr. Raniere subjected her to “indentured servitude” during her nearly 17 years in Nxivm.
Pulled in by Mr. Raniere’s teachings, Ms. Nevares moved from New York City to Nxivm’s headquarters near Albany, N.Y., where the group controlled her rent, her income and her work visa as a Mexican immigrant.
Mr. Raniere demanded she weigh 95 pounds and claimed his spiritual energy would kill him unless he had sex constantly, she told the court.
In early 2018, the government subpoenaed her to testify before a grand jury. On the advice of a lawyer provided by Ms. Bronfman, however, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, she said in the interview.
She left the group a few months later. It took her almost a year to stop viewing Mr. Raniere as a “Jesus-type figure,” she said. “I was in the bubble of Nxivm for so long that I didn’t know how I could navigate the world,” she said.
Ms. Nevares said she wanted to warn the public about what she sees as efforts to rebuild Nxivm and Mr. Raniere’s reputation.
“If you want to go on believing he’s God on Earth, that’s fine,” she said. “But don’t go around enrolling people into this very dangerous criminal organization.”