Attorneys for NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell argued for a lenient sentence in a memo filed with a Manhattan federal court on Tuesday.
“Given Kathy’s genuine progress and positive trajectory, any time in prison would be devastating,” the 45-page defense filing argues in themes that appear throughout the memo. “Not only would it cause lasting and irreversible psychological harm on a 62-year-old woman who has worked so hard to understand and overcome the root causes of her trauma and poor decision-making, but it would also disrupt the life of her son, whose future is now inextricably intertwined with hers.”
Submitted with the U.S. District Court on the eve of her sentencing, the final sentencing hearing for any of the sex cult defendants, Russell’s attorneys cast the bookkeeper as a lifelong victim of abusive relationships that culminated with her years spent under the “negative influence” of convicted NXIVM leader Keith Raniere.
The memo says Russell’s lifetime of abuse began when she was a child. Both of her parents “suffered from psychological disorders.” The document argues that these facts of life only grew worse after Russell’s father was involved in a life-changing car accident caused by a drunk driver. On her own, Russell says she didn’t fare much better. She quickly fell prey to a series of abusive romantic relationships hallmarked by physical abuse.
Against this backdrop, her defense attorneys argue that Russell was a prime target for Raniere and his cult after she was convinced to attend an intensive, 16-day course in Anchorage, Alaska in 2001.
The so-called sex cult previously held itself out as a business and lifestyle program that could help its members actualize and achieve their full potential — with concomitant promises of happiness and fulfillment to follow.
“Kathy was particularly psychologically vulnerable to Raniere’s manipulative tactics,” the filing argues — all while admitting that many female defendants had similar tales of woe and accompanying psychological profiles. “Kathy was unusually susceptible to his tactics. Also, unlike some of her codefendants, she had neither money nor fame, and simply lacked the economic means to escape.”
Almost from the beginning, however, Russell says she was merely used as Raniere’s sex object and that he quickly asserted undue control over their “intimate relationship.”
“When Kathy first moved to Albany, she was completely enthralled with Raniere,” the filing says. “At the start of their sexual relationship, Raniere asked Kathy for a five-year commitment ‘just to him.’ While she initially had reservations, Raniere explained the commitment in such a ‘clear, logical way’ that Kathy ultimately agreed.”
A few months after their sexual relationship began, Russell was offered a job with NXIVM at less than half her then-salary and without any benefits or retirement options. The defendant says she agreed because she “was desperate to belong to a community that she perceived to be welcoming and thoughtful and, on its face, was dedicated to self improvement and improving the world.”
But things quickly changed for Russell.
Fast-forward to 2004: Raniere requested a lifelong commitment from the defendant. The next year, their sexual relationship was “phased out” and ended entirely in 2008. All the while, the cult leader asked Russell to remain chaste and neglected her more and more.
“In truth, once Raniere decided that he no longer desired Kathy sexually, she was always in the doghouse, whether in the context of her bookkeeping work or otherwise,” the filing says.
Russell’s attorneys claim that Raniere’s neglect was an engineered effort to manipulate and further control their client.
From the filing, at length:
As a result, Kathy found herself “begging to speak” and “spend time” with Raniere, but he generally refused to engage with her directly. For more than a decade, Raniere kept Kathy at arm’s length, and communicated with her only when he needed something, refusing to respond to her texts and emails. By 2009, Kathy emailed Raniere in despair, explaining that their “moments of connecting” were “so infrequent” that they felt “almost non-existent.” Kathy went on to explain: “[I]t feels like I cry into the night and no one comes,” and asked, “Is there something I can do different?” Sadly, Raniere held out the possibility of renewing their relationship as a way to manipulate Kathy. He suggested that if she just worked harder, if she just did better, if she just “healed” her “ethical breaches,” maybe he would come back to her. Of course, that was a lie: no matter how hard she tried, he never resumed a relationship with her and in fact, after 2008, he rarely interacted with her directly.
The memo describes the ensuing years as something like perpetual penance performed by Russell — all for Raniere’s approval.
In one instance, Russell was required to submit a “breach plan” which “included proposed penances if she failed to meet the project goals, including losing pay, running errands for her peers, planking daily, and reducing her calories by 200 each day for a week.”
The filing names Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman and NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman as chief enforcers of the cult’s discipline.
“The punishment and controls extended to every aspect of Kathy’s life,” the filing continues while offering several disturbing details. “NXIVM dictated how much she could weigh, what types of foods she could eat, who she could communicate with, and even how often she could dance. At one point, Clare chastised Kathy for owning a cat, telling her that she did not make enough money to have a pet and that she would need Raniere’s permission to keep her beloved animal.”
For all of her efforts, Russell claims she was increasingly denigrated and made to feel helpless–as well as economically unable to leave.
“Sadly, she internalized the denigration, and came to believe that she was inadequate and unworthy,” the filing argues.
The years of sub-standard pay, abuse, control, and punishment came to something of a head in 2011 when Russell’s son came to work with his mom for the group. Describing his understanding of the group’s relationship with his mom as “clear-eyed,” the memo claims Silas Russell recommended that she surreptitiously obtain a second job to get herself away from the group’s sway. He also once confronted Bronfman about how his mom was being treated “horrendously.”
Russell was fired on numerous occasions — the last time in 2015. In the summer of 2018, she was indicted as part of the wide-ranging racketeering conspiracy. In April 2019, she accepted a plea deal on charges that she falsified immigration documents. Since then, her attorneys claim, Russell has made “a psychological transformation” and “replaced her NXIVM family with her actual family, rebuilding her relationship with her adult son, Silas, and her sister, Kelly.”
The accountant was left all-but penniless after her time with Raniere and his sexual slavery-focused organization.
“For many years, NXIVM kept them apart; the group thrived in part by severing its participants’ ties to those outside the organization,” the filing says. “Kathy is now reconnected with her true family, and it is in her best interest and that of society to ensure that she continues on that path.”
The government is seeking up to one year in prison. Russell is pleading for either home confinement or probation.
“My delusion on who Keith is has come at a very high price, not only to myself, more importantly to everyone who in some way were also pulled in and were hurt,” the defendant wrote in a separate letter to Judge Nicholas Garaufis. “Your Honor, I ask that you, and all those who have been hurt by NXIVM, accept my remorse.”
Russell will be sentenced on Oct. 6.
Read the sentencing memo in full below:
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