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For years, Keith Raniere walked the streets of this placid suburban subdivision, sometimes in the middle of the night, often accompanied by as many as six women. To his neighbours, he was a strange and unnerving presence. One local resident remembers warning her young daughters never to speak to him.

But it was not until last week that their fears were confirmed. Federal prosecutors unsealed criminal charges against Mr. Raniere alleging that he oversaw a secret society divided into “masters” and “slaves” in which women were forced to have sex with him and coerced into rituals during which his initials were burned into their flesh.

Mr. Raniere is the founder of a group called Nxivm (pronounced Nex-ium), a cult-like organization based in Albany, N.Y., that has offered what it describes as self-discovery courses for two decades. The group attracted adherents in the United States, Canada and Mexico and Mr. Raniere benefited from a flow of money from one of Canada’s most storied fortunes, prosecutors say.

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Keith Raniere is the founder of a group called Nxivm, a cult-like organization based in Albany,

Clare and Sara Bronfman, the youngest daughters of the late Edgar Bronfman, the long-time chief executive of liquor giant Seagram Co., both became involved with Nxivm. The U.S. authorities say that Clare Bronfman traveled with Mr. Raniere to Mexico in 2017, after the Federal Bureau of Investigation began interviewing witnesses in the case. In late March, Mr. Raniere was arrested at a luxury villa in Puerto Vallarta and extradited to the United States.

Federal authorities began investigating the group last year after a report in The New York Times that focused on the experience of Sarah Edmondson, an actress who lives in Vancouver. Ms. Edmondson described how she became part of a secret “sorority” within Nxivm that collected compromising material on participants to use as leverage against them. She was branded in a night-time ceremony in a house in Halfmoon, according to a complaint she filed with state medical authorities.

Mr. Raniere, 57, is being held at a prison in Oklahoma pending his transfer to Brooklyn, where he will stand trial in federal court on charges of sex trafficking and forced labour. A lawyer who represented Mr. Raniere at a preliminary hearing in Texas declined to comment on the case and said Mr. Raniere was in the process of obtaining a lawyer for future proceedings.

Operating from an ordinary office park in Albany, Nxivm offered intensive, five-day courses that cost thousands of dollars. Participants were obliged to sign confidentiality agreements that barred them from revealing the content of the classes. To ascend to higher levels in the hierarchy required recruiting new adherents; members describe being in daily contact with a mentor in the group.

Mr. Raniere, who is known within the organization as “The Vanguard,” succeeded in attracting a number of wealthy or prominent individuals, including Emiliano Salinas, the son of a former president of Mexico, and India Oxenberg, the daughter of Catherine Oxenberg, a U.S. television actress. But it was the Bronfman sisters who would become his major benefactors.

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Clare (pictured) and Sara Bronfman, the youngest daughters of the late Edgar Bronfman, the long-time chief executive of liquor giant Seagram Co., both became involved with Nxivm.Supplied

Clare and Sara are Edgar Bronfman’s two children by his third wife. They gravitated toward the group about 15 years ago, when they were in their 20s. Mr. Bronfman took a Nxivm course at the urging of his daughters, but later told Forbes magazine, “I think it’s a cult.” Mr. Bronfman died in 2013.

According to court filings in a proceeding involving a former Nxivm board member, the Bronfman sisters have spent more than US$100-million on Mr. Raniere and associated projects, including US$66-million to cover losses he incurred in a commodity-trading scheme and US$25-million on a Los Angeles real estate investment. A person close to the Bronfman family confirmed that the sisters gave more than US$100-million to Mr. Raniere and his ventures.

Clare Bronfman, formerly a competitive equestrian, became deeply involved in Nxivm. She also started a foundation associated with Nxivm that is currently under scrutiny by state authorities, according to the Albany Times Union. U.S. authorities say Ms. Bronfman has repeatedly paid for lawyers to bring legal proceedings against critics of Nxivm. They also allege she and Mr. Raniere orchestrated legal threats against women who have left the sorority, which is also known as “DOS” or the “Vow.”

Several attempts to reach Clare and Sara Bronfman were unsuccessful. A lawyer who has represented both sisters in Nxivm-related cases did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Late last year, a statement appearing to be from Clare Bronfman was released on a Nxivm website and on her personal website. It said that recent months have been “deeply painful,” but experts had assured her that “the sorority has not coerced nor abused anyone.”

In court documents, U.S. authorities said that the allegations against Mr. Raniere represent “the culmination of decades of abusing women and girls through manipulation, coercion and, at times, physical violence.” Members of the sorority had to adhere to diets that were extremely low in calories and were tasked with having sex with Mr. Raniere, according to the criminal complaint. “Slaves” were held down as they were branded in their pubic region with a cauterizing pen. The whole process was filmed, the complaint says.

In Halfmoon, the small community about 25 kilometres north of Albany, where Mr. Raniere and some of his adherents lived, the arrest was met with a sense of relief. Some members of the community had complained to the sheriff and local authorities repeatedly about the group, but were told nothing could be done.

The curving drive where Mr. Raniere lived is lined with identical mailboxes and large houses set back from the road. A woman named Katherine who lives near his home said that, years ago, her husband dressed up as Mr. Raniere for Halloween – scraggly grey wig, black clothes and Barbie dolls hanging from his sleeves. “It’s that creep factor,” said Katherine, who asked that her last name not be used. “It’s just been so weird for so long.”

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