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Clare Bronfman arrives at federal court in New York for her sentencing on Wednesday. Photo: AP

Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman gets nearly seven years in jail in NXIVM sex slave case

  • Cult-like ‘self-improvement’ group was led by Keith Raniere, who branded brainwashed women with his initials and forced them to sleep with him
  • Bronfman gave away tens of million of dollars to bankroll organisation, also paying for lawyers to defend it in lawsuit brought by critics

A wealthy benefactor of Keith Raniere, the disgraced leader of a self-improvement group in upstate New York convicted of turning women into sex slaves who were branded with his initials, was sentenced Wednesday to almost seven years in prison in the federal conspiracy case.

Seagram’s liquor fortune heiress Clare Bronfman was taken into custody to begin her 81-month sentence immediately after her appearance in federal court in Brooklyn.

Bronfman, 41, admitted in a guilty plea last year that she harboured someone who was living in the US illegally for unpaid “labour and services” and that she committed credit card fraud on behalf of Raniere, leader of the group called NXIVM.

In a letter to the court last month, Bronfman wrote that she “never meant to hurt anyone, however I have and for this I am deeply sorry”. Still, she said that she could not disavow Raniere because “NXIVM and Keith greatly changed my life for the better”.

A courtroom sketch depicts NXIVM leader Keith Raniere listening during his trial in New York in June 2019. Photo: Reuters

At trial, prosecutors told jurors the 60-year-old Raniere’s organisation, NXIVM – pronounced NEHK-see-uhm – operated like a cult whose members called him “Vanguard”.

To honour him, the group formed a secret sorority comprised of brainwashed female “slaves” who were branded with his initials and forced to have sex with him, the prosecutors said.

Bronfman’s lawyers argued she deserved leniency because she had no direct involvement in the most disturbing allegations and has a health condition that could put her at greater risk for a coronavirus infection if incarcerated.

‘Slave’ in US sex cult says founder Keith Raniere held naked meetings

But in court papers, prosecutors argued she deserved a serious punishment since, “there can be little doubt that Raniere would not have been able to commit the crimes with which he was convicted were it not for powerful allies like Bronfman”.

The defendant had long been affiliated with NXIVM, giving away tens of million of dollars to bankroll Raniere and his programme of intense self-improvement classes. She also paid for lawyers to defend the group against a lawsuit brought by its critics.

Along with Bronfman, Raniere’s teachings won him the devotion of Hollywood actresses like Allison Mack of television’s Smallville. Mack also has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

As part of a plea agreement, Bronfman agreed to forfeit US$6 million from a fortune prosecutors have said is worth US$200 million. They also are seeking a US$500,000 fine.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Seagram heiress jailed in case of branded sex slaves