Judge denies bail for NXIVM founder

NEW YORK — An heiress is being considered a "co-conspirator" in a sensational sex-trafficking case in which the jailed founder of a purported self-help group is accused of branding women, a federal prosecutor said at a hearing Tuesday.

Keith Raniere was denied bail as his lawyers sought his release on $10 million bond, using a defense fund believed to be largely bankrolled by Clare Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune. The judge in federal court in Brooklyn sided with prosecutors, who argued Raniere could flee with the help of Bronfman and other benefactors.

During her argument against bail, Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza didn't specifically name Bronfman but labeled a person fitting her description as someone who has "acted as a co-conspirator of the defendant for many years."

Prosecutors have said the investigation remains active and that more people could be charged along with Raniere and actress Allison Mack. In court filings, they have detailed how Bronfman gave away tens of millions of dollars to support Raniere and his NXIVM (pronounced NEX'-ee-um) group, including paying for private air travel at a cost of $65,000 a flight.

She also "has paid for numerous lawyers to bring suits against NXIVM critics," the filings say. "Bronfman also owns a private island in Fiji, which the defendant has visited, and both Bronfman and the defendant have contacts all around the world."

Bronfman has denied knowing about the allegations against Raniere. There was no immediate response Tuesday to a message left with one of her lawyers.

Federal prosecutors have accused Raniere of forming a barbaric secret society within NXIVM, a group that over the years has attracted a following of minor celebrities and wealthy people. The prosecutors allege the sub-group branded brainwashed victims with Raniere's initials during initiation ceremonies that turned them into sex slaves for Raniere.

In the court papers, the defense lawyers have claimed that the alleged victims were never abused. The women were "independent, smart, curious adults" on a legal "search for happiness, fulfillment and meaning," the papers say.

Raniere, 57, has been behind bars since he was captured in Mexico, where he was staying in a villa with Mack and other women, and brought to the U.S. in March.

Mack played a teenage friend of Superman in the CW network's "Smallville." She's pleaded not guilty and is free on $5 million bond.

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