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Seagram Heiress Among 4 Arrested in Sex-Cult Investigation

An heiress to the Seagram Co. fortune was arrested in a widening probe of a self-help organization that prosecutors say operated as a secretive cult that branded its victims and forced them to participate in sexual acts.

Clare Bronfman, the daughter of former Seagram chairman Edgar M. Bronfman, was one of four women charged Tuesday in connection with the investigation of Nxivm, an Albany, New York-based multi-level marketing company founded by Keith Raniere, according to John Marzulli, a spokesman for the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney.

Raniere was arrested in Mexico in March and charged with sex trafficking, conspiracy and forced labor and is being held without bail. Allison Mack, an actress who allegedly recruited slaves for Raniere, was apprehended the following month and charged with similar crimes. Both have pleaded not guilty.

According to the indictment, the four women — Bronfman, Kathy Russell, Lauren Salzman and Nancy Salzman — were members of Raniere’s “inner circle” along with Mack, and recruited and groomed sexual partners for him. Bronfman is one of seven children of her father, a second-generation heir who captained Seagram’s expansion during his years leading the company.

Prosecutors said Nxivm operated like a pyramid scheme, charging participants thousands of dollars for courses while encouraging them to sign up for more and recruit others. Raniere allegedly created a “secret society” within the organization in 2015 that recruited women from within the group to serve as “slaves” overseen by “masters,” according to prosecutors.

Recruits were expected to provide “collateral” before joining — including damaging information about friends and family, nude photographs and rights to assets — that could be used against them if they revealed the existence of the organization or tried to leave, prosecutors said. Many “slaves” were branded on their pelvic areas with a cauterizing gun with a symbol that incorporated Raniere’s initials, according to prosecutors.

The four women are scheduled to appear in federal court in Brooklyn and Albany later Tuesday. The company said on its website that it has suspended events until further notice.

The case is U.S. v. Raniere, 18-cr-204, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).