Untold story


The New York Times this week rolled out a long, long story about NXIVM guru Keith Raniere headlined “The ‘Sex Cult’ That Preached Empowerment.”

Alaska kayaker Kristin Snyder who is believed to have gone missing, or not, in Resurrection Bay in 2003 was not mentioned in the story, though she had a direct connection to Raniere. And Frank Parlato, a former NXIVM member from New York state who set up a website that dogged Raniere for years prior to his arrest in Mexico on U.S. charges of sex-trafficking, has suggested Snyder might have been murdered because she was pregnant with Raniere’s child.

Alaska friends of Snyder – none of whom wanted to talk about the case on-the-record out of consideration for Snyder’s former partner, Heidi Clifford – called Parlato’s theory far-fetched. They believe it more likely Raniere and NXIVM played some role in a mental breakdown that led Snyder to suicide.

Alaska State Troopers are, however, reported to be taking a second look at Snyder’s strange disappearance 15 years ago.

A still active Alaska State Troopers missing person bulletin says Snyder “was last seen February 7, 2003 leaving Executive Services (sic) Program in Anchorage, Alaska. Her vehicle was found abandoned at Millers Landing in Seward, Alaska on February 8, 2003.

“Anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of…Snyder, please contact
the Anchorage Police Department, reference case #03-6966.”

Snyder paid $16,000 to attend an Executive Success Programs (ESP) meeting in Anchorage and Albany, New York. Whether she was actually seen leaving the ESP program in Anchorage or only reported to have left is unclear. ESP was a self-help program run by NXIVM.

The company’s operations have now been suspended, according to the company website, and Raniere is currently in jail in New York.

The Raniere story exploded onto the national scene in a big way with the arrest of “Smallville” actress Allison Mack, who has been accused of playing a key role in recruiting vulnerable women as sex slaves for Raniere.

Times reporter Vanessa Grigoriadis said Mack admitted in an interview to being the one who came up with the idea of branding the women to  bond them as part of a secret society of the Raniere chosen. Parlato first reported the branding a year ago.

“In a ritualistic ceremony, which takes about three hours, the women make what is known as ‘The Vow,’ which includes a lifelong commitment to the service of Mr. Raniere and Miss Mack,” Parlato wrote….The use of a cautery, made of metal, heated to a dull red glow, is applied to the cleanly shaven skin of the pubic area of the woman being initiated.

“The hot iron cauterizes the pubic area leaving permanent tissue scarring that form the letters KR and AM [for Keith Raniere and Allison Mack.] The process is similar in effect to the branding of cattle. Dr. Danielle Roberts MD, a licensed physician, performs the branding to ensure the safety of the women.  Dr. Roberts is a student of Mr. Raniere and one his ardent followers.”

Since those salacious allegations first emerged, the story has only grown. But its roots go back for years. The Albany (New York) Times-Union first labeled Raniere a “cult leader” in a series of stories in 2012.

Raniere’s cult

“One of the characteristics of cults commonly cited by experts is the predisposition of group leaders to use sex as a means of power and control,” reporters James M. Odato and Jennifer Gish wrote. They reported that mental health professionals who viewed the NXIVM curriculum concluded “followers of NXIVM undergo a ‘thought reform’ or ‘brainwashing’ and ‘the ability of people to independently think is largely compromised.’

“One woman who learned Raniere’s ways was his former girlfriend Natalie….The first time she met Raniere, she said, he had noticed she’d gone outside for a cigarette and asked if she wanted to quit smoking. When she told him she did, Raniere took her into his office for what she thought was only 15 minutes. Her husband at the time told her afterward that she had been in the room with Raniere for 2 1/2 hours. She doesn’t remember anything that happened during the session, but she didn’t smoke again.”

The story also contained some bizarre observations, including a report that Raniere told Natalie “that in a previous life she was Heinrich Himmler, chief of Hitler’s secret police in Nazi Germany, and NXIVM leaders were formerly Jewish victims.”

Friends of Snyder have suggested she might have suffered a psychotic break after being run through a similar Raniere program of thought reform, sleep deprivation and suggestions of past lives.

Raniere disciples “were required to participate in ‘readiness’ drills. The purpose of these drills was to have everyone in the NXIVM pyramid respond by text message at any given time of the day or night. Readiness drills along with other aspects of the…program resulted in the slaves suffering from severe sleep deprivation,” according to federal court documents. 

The were also made “to engage in acts of self-denial or acts that would cause them discomfort, including taking ice-cold showers for several minutes, standing for an
hour at 4:00 a.m. and performing planks (a difficult exercise where one rests on her forearms and tiptoes and keeps her back as flat as possible),” according to those documents.

Sleep deprivation is a common brain-washing technique. Probably the most famous case of brainwashing in the U.S. involved Patty Hearst who was kidnapped and manipulated into becoming a member of the terrorist Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s.

Whether she was brainwashed or not remains a much debated subject, but as mental health counselor and former cult member Steven Hassan told CNN, “any human being is going to have situational vulnerabilities throughout their lives.”

The story was titled “Are you susceptible to brainwashing?” It suggested, given the right circumstances, that anyone can be.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists brainwashing as a possible cause of dissociative disorders. “Suicide attempts and other self-injurious behavior are common among people with dissociative identity disorder,” the association adds. “More than 70 percent of outpatients with dissociative identity disorder have attempted suicide.”

Cults try to create fear in people to destabilize them and drive them to the cult as a safe haven, cult expert Alexandra Stein told Psychology Today. 

For years, NXIVM was legally aggressive in trying to quash stories labeling it a cult. In 2003, it filed suit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York accusing cult deprogrammer Rick Ross of making “false, disparaging and defamatory statements” about the company on the website Cult News.

Snyder played a key role in that lawsuit.


Two stories

Officially, Snyder had been declared legally dead long before 2009 based on a trooper theory that she paddled a kayak out into Resurrection Bay, intentionally overturned it, and perished in the cold water.

There was little physical evidence to back up the theory. A possibly stolen kayak in Seward was the sum of it. And there was this in the trooper report at the time:

“….Snyder was reported to be suicidal. Snyder’s vehicle was located by AST on Lowell Point near the Miller’s Landing at 2120 hours on Feb. 7, 2003. There was a note inside the vehicle indicating that Snyder was planning to commit suicide, ending with ‘no need to search for my body’.

“Due to information that Snyder had previously been kayaking out of Seward, a search of the immediate area and shoreline was begun that night. A full-scale search began to
be organized for the following morning. On the morning of Feb. 7, 2003, the Milters (sic) of Meiers (sic) Landing resort discovered a storage shed containing kayaks and gear had been broken into and an old kayak was missing. The storage shed was close to where Snyder’s vehicle was located.”

The kayak was never found nor the body.

NXIVM later offered a different opinion as to the note.

“In truth of fact, that note was not found in the vehicle,” its court complaint against Ross charged. “According to the official police report, a different note was left behind in the vehicle, and said note made no mention of NXIVM or Executive Success Programs.

“Moreover, on February 7, 2003,the name ‘Nxivm’ or ‘Nexivm’ had not been used as a trade name. The corporation that later became NXIVM Corporation, was incorporated in Delaware in 1998 as ‘Executive Success Programs, Inc.’ and later was renamed NXIVM Corporation. But, prior to the (sic) February 7, 2003, the corporation did not do business as NXIVM.”

But a spiral notebook belonging to Snyder was reported to contain a note saying “I attended a course called Executive Success Programs (aka Nexium (sic))  based out of Anchorage, AK, and Albany, NY. I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was killed/turned off. I still have feeling in my external skin, but my internal organs are rotting. Please contact my parents … if you find me or this note. I am sorry life, I didn’t know I was already dead. May we persist into the future.”

ABC’s 20/20 showed a picture of the note and allowed an unidentified friend of Snyder’s to read the rest on-air in a December 2017 report on NXIVM. The note does in fact contain the words “aka Nexium,” a phonetic spelling of the pronunciation of NXIVM. The report did not say where the note was found.


Twisted story

The 35-year-old Snyder, an environmental consultant active in Anchorage’s Nordic Ski Patrol, promised to pay Raniere the $16,000 for self-help training in the year before her disappearance and visited ESP headquarters in Albany,  New York to see Raniere at least once.

None of  the strange events surrounding her involvement with the company were disclosed by troopers at the time of her disappearance. Parlato has reported Snyder’s debt to NXIVM was settled after her death by Clifford signing over to the New York company the truck she and her partner jointly owned. 

Anchorage friends who asked not to be identified for this article said the NXIVM training broke Snyder and never put her together again. They are convinced she committed suicide and dismiss the idea she was murdered or faked her death to help hide from a drug gang, a NXIVM-spawned theory.

Former Alaska assistant attorney general Kenny Powers, the director of the Nordic Ski Patrol at the time of Snyder’s disappearance, flatly told the Times-Union in 2012 that “there was no drug ring.”

Reached at home in Anchorage this week, he confirmed making that statement but he, like others, said he didn’t want to talk about what happened 15 years ago. Snyder, he confessed, was a good and true friend who often joined him and her partner to soak in his hot tub back in the early 2000s.

The Nordic Ski Patrol provided most of the labor for the futile search for her body. The Snyder story attracted little attention in Alaska. Friends attribute that to no one wanting to publicly put their name to what was going on, a trooper policy of disclosing very little information about anything, and an intellectually incurious and unaggressive media.

One friend described Snyder as emotionally disintegrating after returning from Albany. What happened there is unknown. She later attended the NXIVM “intensive” in Anchorage and afterward disappeared forever.

One friend said Snyder, who was gay, might have had issues with her sexual identity.

Parlato claims that “Raniere boasts he has cured lesbians [lesbianism being a disintegration, according to him] and claims to have converted lesbians to heterosexuals. It is ironic because, I dare say, more women went from heterosexual to lesbian because of Raniere than vice versa.”

A real-estate developer in real life, Parlato is a man with his own checkered history. Federal officials in 2015 accused him of stealing $1 million from Sara and Claire Bronfman, the heirs to the Seagram liquor fortune and members of NXIVM.  The theft charges were dropped last month, but charges of wire fraud and cheating the Internal Revenue Service remain.

Parlato contends the charges are nothing but an attempt by the Bronfmans to discredit him for his pursuit of Raniere. NXIVM has been ruthless in pursuit of its critics in the past.

“Respected Albany reporter James Odato has taken a leave of absence from the city’s Times Union newspaper—a move that appears to be related to a lawsuit involving his in-depth coverage of” NXIVM, Politico reported in 2018.

A 2014 NXIVM lawsuit charged that Odato, blogger John J. Tighe and Vanity Fair contributing editor Suzanna Andrews broke into the NXIVM computer system. Odato is now the Albany reporter for Reuters. 

At the Art Voice, another of Parlato’s publications, Parlato on May 31 credited a large cast of characters for Raniere’s present problems with the law. On that list were what he has labeled the NXIVM Nine, “a group of NXIVM women who were appalled to find out that the NXIVM cult leader… had been sleeping with members of the cult’s Executive Board and other students.

Nina Cowell, an Anchorage resident who has since moved to the East Coast, is among those nine. She was at the NXIVM intensive as a student in 2003 when Snyder was last seen alive. So, too, Esther Chiappone, a former Soldotna teacher who went to work for NXIVM. Her LinkedIn page still lists her as a NXIVM consultant. 

Parlato has suggested Cowell and Chiappone might know more than they ever let on about what happened to Snyder, whatever happened to Snyder.

Friends believe she suffered a breakdown. NXIVM and Raniere might have played a role. His powers as a Svengali are an issue in the Mack case. Variety Magazine has portrayed her as a susceptible woman manipulated by Raniere.

Citing a source “familiar with the ESP service,” the Hollywood publication reported thatit’s easy to see how the information gathered in ESP courses could help identify potential recruits for Raniere’s alleged clutch of DOS followers. The ESP program pushed participants to divulge their fears and vulnerabilities in the context of overcoming obstacles to success. Mack would have been a prime target for drawing deeper into Raniere’s world, the source said.

“‘They try to help you get through some of your trigger points,’ the source said. ‘He probably started grooming her there. He located her trigger point of wanting to make other people happy and to feel special.'”

Court documents do not paint a very pretty picture of Raniere. Parlato levels plenty of  other allegations against the self-help guru, but it is hard to know how many have substance.

Federal court recognition of his reports of branding have, however, elevated his credibility.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story had the date wrong for the NXIVM suit filed against Rick Ross.





3 replies »

  1. Thank you, great story, please keep digging, don’t give up. There are so many more questions that need to be, and/or should have been asked and/or answered at the time.

    FYI – The Ross Case started in 2003, not 2009, ended in 2017 when NXIVM/Bronfman/Salzman/Raniere, could not show up for court because they were all on the run, some still are. #TruthForKristinSnyder

  2. This is Frank Parlato – and my view is that Kristin Snyder’s death is 100 percent attributable to cult leader Keith Raniere. I will be presenting more information on this shortly. We expect to get to the truth – and murder has no statute of limitations.

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