By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Some members of an alleged New York sex cult believed their leader had the power to heal the sick and affect the weather, in addition to teaching them self-improvement, a 12-year veteran of the organization said at the founder's criminal trial.
Filmmaker Mark Vicente is the second witness to testify against Keith Raniere, who faces crimes including sex trafficking and child pornography for his role running a secretive upstate New York group known as Nxivm. Prosecutors said Raniere forced female "slaves" to have sex with him and in some cases branded them with his initials.
"It's a well-intended veneer that covers a horrible evil," an emotional Vicente said during the trial's third day in federal court in Brooklyn.
Raniere, who presented himself as a genius whose unique insights would lead to deeply fulfilling lives, enjoyed a near-mythical reputation among his acolytes, said Vicente.
"There were rumblings about abilities he had" among Raniere's closest associates, including healing people and influencing the weather, Vicente said.
He also said the group's president, Nancy Salzman, once told him, "There's a path to enlightenment through sexuality, and Raniere understands that path."
Raniere, 58, has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
Prosecutors say women were blackmailed into having sex with Raniere and branded as part of a secret society within Nxivm called DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase, "Dominus Obsequious Sororium," 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 has spoken out against Raniere since breaking away from the group in 2017, said Salzman contacted him around 2005 after seeing a film Vicente 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, and he eventually became Nxivm's unofficial videographer, he told jurors. He described how Nxivm members wore an array of striped colored sashes to show their rank, and were encouraged to make their way up the "stripe path."
As he rose in the organization, Vicente discovered that Nxivm spied on its members by placing surveillance cameras in their driveways and pressured them to spend thousands of dollars to take its classes.
A former Nxivm and DOS member who was only identified by her first name, Sylvie, told jurors on Wednesday 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.
Other individuals who say they were victims of the group are expected to testify. Five of Raniere's co-defendants, including the former president Salzman, Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman and former "Smallville" television actress Allison Mack, have pleaded guilty to related crimes.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson, additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)