Secret Agent Schmuck

The spooky truth behind the media's favorite 'spy'

Raniere has done considerably better with NXIVM. Originally dubbed Executive Success Programs, the company offers Ayn Rand–ian seminars on personal growth and achieving business goals. But critics say that the exhaustive, 10-hour sessions are designed to break down students' personalities and isolate them from family and friends, until they're dependent on NXIVM for their self-esteem and willing to pay good money to get it. NXIVM devotees include some of the richest people in America and Mexico, such as two heirs to the Bronfman/Seagram's fortune, Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson, and the children of former Mexican presidents Carlos Salinas and Vicente Fox.

No one has complained about NXIVM more tirelessly than Rick Ross, a New Jersey–based "cult deprogrammer" who has spent years compiling information on predatory cults around the country. Ross says he first heard of NXIVM in late 2002, when a family called to complain that their son had gotten involved with a strange new group and had recruited their daughters for the seminars as well. A private eye dug up the pyramid-scheme accusations against Raniere's earlier venture, and one of the daughters gave notes from her NXIVM seminars to Ross, who forwarded them to a few psychiatrists. John Hochman, a UCLA behavioral-psychiatry professor, concluded that NXIVM's curriculum employed classic group mind-control techniques: long seminar hours, isolation from friends and family, redefining English words to fit the ambitions of group leaders, paramilitary rituals (Raniere's followers are forced to wear sashes displaying their rank and to address him as "Vanguard"), and daily contact with group leaders "framed as personal growth."

"They claimed that they had a 'breakthrough technology,' " Ross says. "What they really have, in my opinion, is just another large group-awareness training program, very similar to [the personal-growth cult] Landmark Education, with certain aspects that are almost verbatim from the teachings of Scientology."

Juval Aviv on Fox, Your Turn 12-4-06
photo: Staci Schwartz
Juval Aviv on Fox, Your Turn 12-4-06

NXIVM's Robertson replies that Ross merely paid Hochman a fee to write the analysis he wanted. "Hochman was paid by Ross or others to create a report," he said. "So he's compromised. It's not a scholarly report; he was paid to come up with a certain production." As for Ross, Robertson claims that he's just a "thug" who incites fear of cults in innocent people to make a buck. "Ross is paid to create cults. That is to say, the more cults, the more opportunities he has to make money deprogramming people. . . . The man's a criminal—in my opinion, anyway."

Armed with this report, Ross lured his clients' son to a Florida vacation resort and tried to talk him into leaving NXIVM; however, the son refused and later moved to Raniere's Albany headquarters. But the rest of the family got out, and Ross published Hochman's report, along with everything else he could find on NXIVM, on his website. NXIVM's leaders promptly sued him for copyright infringement; the lawsuits and countersuits are stuck in federal court to this day. As part of NXIVM's legal strategy, Juval Aviv was allegedly given a new assignment in 2004: take on Ross as a special project.

Around November 2004, according to a lawsuit that Ross filed against NXIVM, an Interfor representative called and asked him if he wouldn't mind speaking to a gentleman named Juval Aviv. "He told me that a very old friend of his, an old and dear friend—not just a client, but someone that was a personal friend—had a daughter in NXIVM and wanted to do an intervention to deprogram her," Ross said in a later interview. "And he repeatedly said that the mother was very wealthy, the family was very wealthy—as if to impress me, I suppose, or get my interest."

Ross agreed to meet the mother and Aviv at Interfor's office on Madison Avenue. Later that month, Ross walked into the lobby and met Aviv for the first time. "I couldn't help but notice that his hand was sweaty when he shook my hand," Ross recalled. "And I thought that he was very nervous. And he seemed—how do I put it?—an oily creature." The two men allegedly sat in a conference room with Interfor attorney Anna Moody and a distraught woman who called herself Susan Zuckerman, but who, Ross claims he would later discover, was really a professional actress.

"She tells me she's very worried about her daughter," Ross says. "That her daughter is brainwashed, that she's in NXIVM, that she's sold family heirlooms to pay for courses. That her husband is sick over it, that he had to go to pawnshops in Manhattan and find these things and buy them back. That they've had terrible arguments over this, that she's very worried and doesn't know what to do." According to Ross's lawsuit, Moody asked him what he knew about NXIVM. As a tape machine recorded the conversation, Ross spent at least an hour explaining what he'd discovered about the group, Raniere, and the psychological effects of the "seminars."

After speaking with Zuckerman, the allegedly grieving mother, Ross agreed to conduct an intervention, but added that he wouldn't have anything to do with physical restraint. The daughter, he insisted, would be free to leave at any time. "Aviv walks me to the elevator, even rides the elevator down to the lobby with me," Ross later recounted. "And then he gushed to me that there would be other cases that we could work on, and that there would be other cults that he would like to go after, and so on. I thought, 'Man, this guy is really nervous.' And he just seemed to go overboard, and he was really solicitous."

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