CREDITS Guest: Frank Parlato Host: Jessie Stephens TechnicalProducer: Luca Lavigne ExecutiveProducerandEditor: Elise Cooper
Here is the transcript of the show:
Jesse Stevens: Just a note before we get into this episode. The following interview contains discussions of sexual assault, violence, emotional abuse, and the recounting of traumatic events, discretion is advised.
Jessie Stevens: It was February 6th, 2003 when Kristen Snyder attended a training course in Anchorage, Alaska. An environmental consultant, Kristen was a bright over-achiever, joining an executive success program that claimed to help professionals succeed in their fields.
But on this particular day, Kristen was acting out of character. To her partner, Heidi, she appeared delusional, even threatened to end her life. Despite her erratic behavior, she insisted on attending the course which cost her $7,000 American dollars.
On day 10, Kristin became particularly distressed during a session and began making shocking claims, not only about the organization but the man who founded it.
The instructor allegedly told the class to ignore Kristen and refused to provide her with medical attention. With that, she left the hotel, waving goodbye to her wife, Heidi. After that, no one would ever say Kristin again.
The class she attended was run by an organization named Nxivm, a multi-million-dollar pyramid scheme founded by a man named Keith Raniere.
She was in the middle of an elaborate web, which included sex slavery, blackmailing, the branding of women and forced slavery.
Snyder, along with three other women, died under suspicious circumstances and have become known as “The Lost Women of Nxivm.”
And their stories are only just now being told.
I’m Jesse Stephens and this is True Crime Conversations, a podcast looking into the world’s most notorious crimes and speaking to the people who know the most about them.
In this episode, I’m joined by former Nxivm publicist turned investigative journalist Frank Parlato. Frank was the first person to reveal that Nxivm was branding women.
In his new documentary special, “The Lost Women of Nxivm”, Frank takes a deep dive to answer the questions surrounding the tragic deaths and mysterious disappearances of four women who all had connections to Nxivm and it’s founder Keith Raniere.
Q. Can you talk us through Kristen Snyder’s last day?
Frank: Kristin Snyder, in Anchorage, Alaska, came to a Nxivm intensive in downtown Anchorage at the Westmark hotel with her partner, Heidi Clifford, and during the day, as she was taking the class, she began to make some pronouncements that became very disturbing to the people who were conducting the classes and they announced that they were throwing her out of the class and they had one of their Nxivm members [Elaine Smiloff] pick her up and take her out of the class and she was never seen again.
Q. And what took place in those Nxivm classes? She was attending it with her girlfriend and they were involved in Nxivm, but what do we know about what actually took place inside of those classes?
A. They were typical Nxivm classes, which means they started in the morning around 7 a.m. and it went on till about 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.
They were doing their usual teaching, but Kristin was making a fantastic pronouncement, which was that she was pregnant with Nxivm leader Keith Raniere’s child. This became rather disconcerting to the leaders of the group because they were teaching that Raniere was a monk-like person. So this was most upsetting to the students and to the people who were leading the class and they felt that they had to get her out of the class.
Q. And what kind of people sign up for these Nxivm classes. The average person might have heard there were a few celebrities associated with it. What sort of professionals or I suppose personality types might be drawn to Nxivm?
A. The courses are expensive to begin with, we’re talking $10,000 a course, so very few of the people are impoverished. These are successful people and in this particular class, Kristin Snyder’s class, it was doctors, lawyers, future judges and a number of business people.
In general, he attracted a lot of trust fund babies, people who had inherited a good deal of money, as well as some actresses like Allison Mack, Kristin Kreuk, and Grace Park. He attracted the son of former president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas, the daughter of another former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. He attracted the heiresses, two of the heiresses of the Seagram’s liquor fortune, Clare and Sara Bronfman, among other well-known personalities and quite a number of people who are not celebrated but are people who were in the various world of business, finance, and beauty.
Q. And what did he claim to teach them? Was it a sort of self-empowerment self-help type class?
A. In theory, it was a life coaching type of class which would revolutionize your thinking and completely upend your old notions, bringing you back to your original state of mind when you were completely open to developing your mind in any way you chose, and it was based on a fundamental but dishonest premise that Keith Raniere was the smartest man in the world.
Q. What did he actually do? What was his background? How was it that he was able to even claim that?
A. He was a masterful con artist. In one respect, you could make the argument that he was the smartest con artist in the world — up until his luck ran out. He did one thing that was kind of interesting.
Back in 1989 – he had the help of Australia in so doing – he managed to get his name inserted into the Guinness Book of Records 1989 Australian edition only, under the category of ‘Highest IQ’ and using this as his bedrock, he was able to then launch a career as “I’m the smartest man in the world.’
Now why I say it is false is this: He did actually get his name in the 1989 Australian edition of the Guinness Book of Records. However, it was a take-home IQ test that he took and he was able to persuade the editors of the Book of Records that it was a legitimate, uncontroversial test.
Of course, a take-home test is not by any means a real, scientific test. An unmonitored test cannot be used to authenticate anything. He took a month, took it home and came back with some answers. It was later that I discovered that he had help with that test. He had cheated on the test.
However, he was in the book and so he could parade this inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records as “Now I’m the smartest man in the world” and he gathered about him a number of women; they were all women who formed his inner circle harem and these women were also bright, attractive, charismatic women – maybe in some ways more charismatic than he was – and the women sold other women on his greatness.
A recording of Heidi Hutchinson speaking: “He was preying basically on all the girls in the community. He had a plan. His plan was to become a mentor figure, you know, a teacher of these young kids.”
A recording of Raniere: “Often when you council people who were, say children of we’ll call “abuse” some little children are perfectly happy with it until they find out what happened and later in life and then it’s more society that abuses them than actually the parent.”
Recording of Joe OHara: He’s like a spider in a web pulling people in. Raniere used to love giving examples like having sex with children. Why shouldn’t grown-ups be able to have sex with children? Why is the age of consent 16, 17, 18? Why can’t it be 12?
Recording of Raniere: In other societies in the past – like in Rome or whatever – the standards are completely different.
Recording of Joe O’Hara: He was trying to normalize certain things that he wants to be normalized in his world. One of his long-time followers sent an email in which she told Raniere you can have my daughter. The daughter was only 15-years-old at the time.
Q. Going back to Kristin Snyder for a moment who is in this class and she started shouting things that were quite critical of Keith. What did she do for a living?
Frank: She was an environmental consultant. She headed her own business in the Anchorage area.
Q. And she was forcibly removed from this class because of what she was saying and then her car was later found with a note inside. What did the note say?
A. The note appeared to be a suicide note. It didn’t actually say “I’m going to commit suicide” but essentially the note said “I have been brainwashed. I didn’t even know I was dead but I took a course called Nxivm and it has essentially persuaded me that I am no longer alive in this body and may we persist in the future” and then mysteriously it said, on a second sheet of paper, “no need to look for my body.”
Q. And was her body ever found?
A. No, her body was never found.
Q. And the area where she went missing, is this Resurrection Bay and it’s sort of a big lake? There had been people gone missing around there before. How common was it to find bodies that had been lost in that area? Is it possible that she had gone missing there and just unlikely that they would ever find her body?
A. It’s far more likely that they would have found her body. I spoke with the harbormaster for Seward, where Resurrection Bay is, who is essentially in charge of the harbor and waters there – and he said in his entire career, which encompassed the time when Kristen was there to the present, out of 20 or so bodies that went missing, they found everyone except for Kristen Snyder.
Recording of Kenny Powers: I was the director of the Ski Patrol. Kristin had expressed a lot of interest in search and rescue, so I was grooming her, if you will, to be the next search-and-rescue leader. Kris was a great person, super-nice, smart. She’s a very close friend of mine. She was a stable person. This was so unbelievably out of the ordinary in terms of behavior for her.
Heidi called me that afternoon and said Kris walked out of the ESP seminar this afternoon said something scaryish and left – and Heidi had not chased after her at the time, but when she got home a couple of hours later Kris was gone. The Ski Patrol, which is a rescue organization, is like “We’ve got to find Kris.” Thirty Nordic Ski Patrol ERS – we’re out there looking, on top of Alaskan state troopers, Anchorage Police Department. There’s a Coast Guard cutter, helicopter in the air, hundreds of people looking for Kris.
It was like a police officer gets shot and the call goes out “police officer down” and you don’t get one police car that shows up, you get 20 and it was like that with Kris (sad sniff) “she’s one of us and we got to try to find her.”
Q. Four months earlier, there’s another alleged suicide. What connection did Gina Hutchinson have with Keith Raniere, who was the founder of Nxivm?
Frank: Gina Hutchinson began a relationship with Keith Raniere before he started Nxivm. She was about 14 years old at about the time when a 23 or 24-year-old Keith Raniere began to date her and in New York State, at her age, 14, that is considered statutory rape.
And they dated for a while – if you can use the word date advisedly – and he molded her young life and brought her into, as he did with so many women, his harem and he had almost complete control of her life for a good many of years.
When he started Nxivm, she kind of disappeared for a number of years and then came back. It’s my suspicion that she began to reveal certain aspects of Keith Raniere, including the statutory rape and the fact that he was anything but a celibate monk to some of his rank-and -ile followers. Then, shortly thereafter, her body was found a couple of hours from Raniere’s home in a wooded area, part of the property of a Buddhist monastery, shot in the head. It was ruled a suicide.
Q. Was there anything suspicious about the way her body was found?
A. It was very suspicious because there was really no investigation of any alternative theory other than suicide. The autopsy and the police report show that they immediately assumed it was a suicide and they had no investigation as to whether or not maybe it was foul play.
They didn’t do a proper test for the pellets. They didn’t look for footprints. They jumped to the hasty conclusion that she committed suicide, much like they did with Kristen Snyder and in both instances, the police did not know or no one made them aware of the influence that Keith Raniere had in these two women’s lives.
Q. So, by that stage, there’re two women who have died by suicide who have quite a close connection to this Keith Raniere. We’ve touched on this, but how else would you describe him? He’s obviously someone with an inflated sense of self. What are the characteristics that define him?
A. I think that there are a couple of things that define him pretty well. You know he wasn’t particularly a good-looking gentleman by standards of conventional good looks. He had relied entirely on his harem to kind of give him a buildup that made women believe, by the time they met him, that they were in the presence of something extraordinary.
And what he did with almost every woman when he first seduced them was to tell them that he was interested in having a monogamous relationship with them and that above all he wanted to sire with the woman a child – and that that child would grow to become a savior of the world. He called them an avatar child. So he appealed to a woman’s sense of motherhood and women were generally flattered that all of these intelligent women would be welcoming her and reinforcing his greatness and through it all, he was just lying to them.
Once he got them indoctrinated – he was a master hypnotist – he worked gradually to do what some people might call brainwash the women who he got under his spell.
Q. And in what ways did he control them? There’s one point in the documentary where it explains how he would control how they ate, and their weight, and that sort of thing. In which other ways did he sort of control their lives?
A. He controlled their diet. They had to remain extremely lean, some would call it emaciated. He taught that any woman who ate more than 900 calories a day was not spiritually advanced, so he always kept them very thin and on a vegetarian diet. He also monitored their sleep and because he slept all day and was up all night, while the women had to stay up all day and work for him, he could keep them up at night at will and limit their sleep.
I doubt that any woman in his harem ever got a full eight hours straight sleep when he was around. In addition, you couldn’t cut your hair and that means any of your hair. If you are a woman you had to let your hair grow exactly as it grows on your body without any kind of grooming without his permission.
He expected, demanded 100% obedience and anyone that didn’t do exactly what he said would soon find the rest of the harem women descending on her with either “change or you will be shunned.”
Q. He had this tight inner circle which both Barbara Jeske and Pam Cafrtiz were a part of. How would you describe their relationship with him?
A. They were part of what I would call his “inner-inner circle.” There were about a half a dozen of his closest confederates. One was Barbara Jeske and the other was Pamela Cafritz, a third was Karen, a fourth was Kristen Keeffe, who appears in the film.
All four of them got cancer; two of them died, and two of them survived. These four inner-inner circle women lived in the actual residence of Keith Raniere.
Q And as you say, both Barbara and Pamela died of cancer. In what way is that suspicious, because cancer is quite common, but there was something a bit unusual about the cancers that they fell ill with?
A. I think it’s very unusual because he lived with four women and three cats. All four women got cancer and all three cats got cancer. Keith used to always talk about how cancer was the New-Age method of assassination and he even laid the cancer at the doorstep of one of his follower’s parents, claiming that they had found a way to give them all cancer.
What we discovered, when we tested one of the cancer-stricken women’s hair, was that she had extraordinary levels of two toxic, cancer-producing metals in her hair at the time when she was living with him and those are barium and bismuth.
Q. How would she have those, like what in her environment would attach itself to her body in that way?
A. That’s inexplicable right off the bat. How she could have so much barium and bismuth in her body suggest that — well barium is found in rat poison — it suggests that she was poisoned and I think it’s fair to say that Keith was a chemist when he went to college that was one of his majors is chemistry. He knew how to manipulate various toxins for purposes that he alone perhaps knew.
I think he poisoned all of the women and even though there may be no way to ensure that someone gets cancer, I think by the slow poisoning of the women he lived with, it would ensure that their immune systems would be compromised. And what I think happened was they all got sick and I believe it was deliberate.
These were aging harem members and he had new harem women coming in all of the time. Younger, prettier and I think it was “out with the old and in with the new.”
Q. One of the new harem members was Allison Mack who was an actor in Smallville. When headlines came out about her affiliation with Nxivm, it sort of gone into world-wide news. I think it was in about 2018 when that infiltrated popular culture. What came out about the cult at that time?
A. What came out was that Keith Raniere, with Allison Mack, who was his “slave”, they’re branding women on their pubic area with his and some say her initials.
They took a hot cauterizing pen and were branding women as slaves with the initials of Keith Raniere and, if you look at the brand, quite possibly Allison Mack’s initials too.
That’s still in dispute and we can’t get anything authoritative because Raniere or Mack won’t talk on the record about it.
In addition to the branding, they also held blackmail-worthy material on all of the women who were required to give it on a monthly basis so that they could hopefully enforce their obedience. If any woman wanted to get rebellious, they had the blackmail hanging over her.
Q. Keith Raniere did eventually stand trial. What charges were brought against him in the courtroom?
A. He was charged with racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, identity theft, forced labor and most significantly sex trafficking.
Q. How about Allison Mack?
A. Allison was originally charged with sex trafficking, racketeering, forced labor. She did not stand trial. She took a plea deal where she admitted to committing racketeering and racketeering conspiracy.
Recording of news anchor: Actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering charges today. Prosecutors say she helped alleged Nxivm leader Keith Raniere get women into a secret society in the group. The women were allegedly brought in as sex slaves for Raniere and branded with his initials. In court, Mack admitted to recruiting women in by telling them they were going to become members of a female mentorship group. Mack’s plea came as jury selection began with the trial of her co-defendants in Brooklyn Federal Court. Her sentencing is set for September 11th.
Q. What role did sex trafficking play in Nxivm? When all of this sort of came out in front of a courtroom what did we learn?
Frank. This was an interesting thing because it was a completely novel application of sex trafficking law. Typically in the US, sex trafficking, when you are trafficking women it is to a variety of different men who abuse these women for their gratification and perhaps for monetary payment so typically a woman is trafficked out to a number of men and she essentially becomes a slave-trafficked woman.
In the Nxivm case, there was only one man that got these so-called fruits of the sex trafficking and that was Raniere. The women were only trafficked to him and the trafficking wasn’t for the money. They were forced because they had blackmail material held against them.
They were forced by such as Allison Mack and other women to have sex with Raniere, which they testified in court was much to their displeasure and was not something they would have done if they would have not been blackmailed into doing it.
Q. And if we go back to Kristen Snyder for a moment. She was in a same-sex relationship and was claiming that she was pregnant with Keith’s child. Do you think that was true?
A. The opportunity was there. We discovered from reviewing her old credit card statements that had been made it available to us that she was in Albany with Keith Raniere just before she went back to Anchorage and took her final Nxivm class from which she disappeared.
We also know that Keith had a particular teaching that supported his own lascivious nature which was that he believed that women who were lesbian were actually suffering what he called “a disintegration” and that they could be cured by him by doing special sessions. So that they could work a sort of conversion therapy on the women who are lesbian, provided they were attractive and slender and Kristen Snyder was. I think it is quite likely that he did get her pregnant. I guess we’ll never really know.
Q. In the documentary, you do a handwriting test based on the note that was found in her car because there is I suppose a question whether or not she wrote it or someone else did. What conclusion did you come to?
A. The handwriting expert could not conclusively give an opinion. There were some letters, some parts of the script, that looked similar and there were other parts that looked drastically different. We don’t know. We do know that Keith Raniere would have a strong motive to murder Kristen Snyder. If his secret, the secret that he is – only his harem knew – that he was nothing like a celibate but actually a very sex-addicted, middle-aged man, that would ruin his entire business which was attracting wealthy people to pay big money for classes.
At that particular time, he had just become introduced – when Kristen Snyder and Gina Hutchinson allegedly committed suicide – in that four months, it happened to coincide with the time when he met Clare and Sara Bronfman, heiresses of the Seagrams fortune and they were just getting lured in at the time, and they were just beginning to believe in his greatness, that he was a great monk, a Buddha-like monk, who could solve the problems of the world and with their money, he could do it rapidly. Change the course of the world and part of their strongest belief was that he was like Buddha, a monk who had renounced all for the welfare of the world.
Q. Finally, Keith Raniere has been convicted and this documentary provides some question marks around the Lost Women of Nxivm, whose deaths still have questions around them. Do you think that it’s likely there are a number of crimes that Keith Raniere wasn’t convicted for? That there are a number of things that he did that have not been seen before or caught?
A. I believe that sincerely and unequivocally, including the murder of these four women. The greatest crimes Keith Raniere committed, he has not been convicted of.
Recording of news anchor: There is a verdict in the case surrounding an Albany-based sex cult. The jury found Keith Raniere guilty on all counts. He said he was running a self-help group for women. Let’s listen now how he was found guilty. We’re listening to some of the women react to this verdict.
Recording of Catherine Oxenberg: It was finally time that they saw some of this evidence and it was shocking, truly shocking for them to realize how they had been used and manipulated, beyond their imagination; it was horrific for them actually.
Reporter: When you first heard the word “guilty” over and over and over, proven over and over what feeling went over you, like how did you feel?
Oxenberg: There is no feeling to describe, there really isn’t, just waves of emotion and relief, just incredible relief.
Toni Natalie: They saw it in the evidence in these brave witnesses that came forward and spilled their souls and told their story; they saw the truth quickly.
Reporter-what will you to do next
Natalie: Go have a drink.
Recording of Rick Ross: In the end, Keith Raniere thought “I can dominate any woman” but, in reality, it was women that brought Keith Raniere down.
“The Lost Women of Nxivm” is available to stream now on Investigation Discovery on Foxtail or by following the links in the description of this episode. We have a closed Facebook group where listeners are invited to discuss episodes of the podcast, just search True Crime Conversations on Facebook and join the group for bonus information on this episode.
If there is a case you want to hear about on this future podcast, you can email us at email@example.com. True Crime Conversations is a Mamma Mia podcast hosted by me, Jessie Stevens, technical production is by Luca Levine, executive producer and editor is Elise Cooper.
His work has been cited in hundreds of news outlets, like The New York Times, The Daily Mail, VICE News, CBS News, Fox News, New York Post, New York Daily News, Oxygen, Rolling Stone, People Magazine, The Sun, The Times of London, CBS Inside Edition, among many others in all five continents.
His work helping take down NXIVM is featured in books like “Captive” by Catherine Oxenberg; “Scarred” by Sarah Edmonson; “The Program” by Toni Natalie, and “NXIVM. La secta que sedujo al poder en México” by Juan Alberto Vasquez.
Parlato has been featured prominently on HBO’s docuseries “The Vow” and acted as lead investigator and coordinating producer for Investigation Discovery’s “The Lost Women of NXIVM.” He was credited in the Starz docuseries 'Seduced' for saving 'slave' women from being branded and escaping the sex-slave cult known as DOS.
Parlato appeared on the Nancy Grace Show, Gretchen Carlson Show, Dr. Oz and NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, where Parlato scored the first ever interview with Keith Raniere after his arrest, which many credit Parlato with engineering. He will be featured in an upcoming episode of American Greed.