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tv   Nightline  ABC  December 16, 2017 12:37am-1:07am EST

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you're stamped as property of somebody? >> i'm not cattle. >> she says women were branded as initiation into a secret society. >> this is horrific. >> why didn't you go out and run out of there, even naked? >> tonight, elizabeth vargas with a "nightline" investigation. and who is this charismatic controversial life coach? >> what is this thing thinking? >> the focus of startling claims coming to light. >> once i found out about the sex, the branding, the slaves, i went nuts. >> how did he attract this young star from "smallville" to his teachings? >> i want to cry, it's beautiful. >>
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former "dynasty" star. >> she's in grave danger. >> now former followers describe strange rituals and lives changed forever. >> it's right here. i think brainwashing is a wonderful term in terms of trying to define what happened to me. >> this special edition of "nightline" will be right back.
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this is a special edition of "nightline."
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>> reporter: we are told the rendezvous was a secret. five women summoned to a house outside albany, new york, one night this past march. sarah edmondson says she was one of them, willingly participating in a strange initiation ritual led by a woman who told everyone to take off their clothes and put on a blindfold. >> led us in blindfolded and sat us in a semicircle buck naked, no clothes, on a sheepskin rug. >> reporter: edmondson told authorities she thought they were going to get tattoos. instead, she says, they found out they were all going to be branded. what was that like? >> it was worse than childbirth. imagine a hot laser dragged across your flesh for 30 minutes without anesthetic. >> reporter: at this point, you're probably wondering how in the world did this happen?
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she lives in vancouver where she is a wife and mother with a successful film and television career. >> do i know you? >> i don't think so. >> no, no, i never forget a face. >> reporter: her life changed after she crossed paths with a secretive self-help group nxium and its charismatic leader keith ranieri. >> i'm an interesting person, i'm a controversial person, most importantly an unconventional person. >> reporter: according to promotional materials, even as a child ranieri was destined for greatness. speaking in full sentences at age 1, reading at age 2, judo champ and concert-level pianist at 13. >> i was told he was one of the smartest men in the world, just an incredible man. >> with that i'm going to pass the microphone over to mr. ranie ranieri. >> reporter: so incredible, it seems, an honor name won't do. participantsay
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to camerlmera theory vanguard. >> vanguard, because he's the leader of a philosophical movement. >> reporter: at the heart of nexium training is intensives which former members say are like group therapy. running as long as 14 hours a day and up to 16 days. edmondson says she attended her first one in 2005. she says it cost over $2,000. >> i left my five day, my initial training, as if a veil had been lifted and i could see things more clearly in my life. >> reporter: in promotional materials and videos nexium claims more than 16,000 people worldwide have taken its courses. but participants are required to sign a confidentiality agreement. so what do we actually know about this secretive self-help group? according to former members, nexium has its own lingo. and the sessions came
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practices such as chanting. a special handshake. even bowing. >> to vanguard. >> thank you, vanguard. >> reporter: former members, like mark vicente, say anyone unwilling to go along with the rituals would be scorned. >> if you questioned keith ranieri, the [ bleep ] hits the fan. >> like what? >> you are prideful. how dare you. don't you realize you owe everything to him. >> reporter: before he founded nexium, ranieri's first big idea came in the 1990s, hawking memberships in an ill-fated networking marketing company. >> his name is keith ranieri, his product is consumers byline. >> reporter: consumers buyline featured eddie
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acres" fame and an awkward ranieri, pitchman. >> good to see you. >> good to see you. >> it's an amazing idea. >> sometimes it even amazes me. but consumers byline is wonderful and it's working. >> it really was a brilliant idea, based on the premise of as a group collectively, we can buy in bulk, we can save a lot of money. >> reporter: tony natali knew ranieri before he was vanguard. when you met him did he seem like a genius? >> he seemed like a geek. i asked him, you have a 240 iq, why are you doing this? he said, this is the platform that i'm going to use, and i'm going to change the world. >> reporter: but not everyone was buying what ranieri was selling. attorneys general in several states began looking into consumers buyline's practices. >> we told you about consumers buyline last may when the company was accused of being an illegal pyramid scheme -- >> reporter: the company settled without admitting wrongdoing but agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the
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bust. by that time, tony natali was all-in. she had left her husband and moved to albany with her young son to be with keith. they were together for nearly six years. >> here's the smartest man in the world willing to help you through your emotional issues. help you heal sexually, help you heal intellectually, you just have to trust me. >> reporter: she witnessed the early days of nexium. ranieri had partnered with a woman named nancy saltzman, and together they created teachings known as rational inquiry and methods that in court filings natali later likened to brainwashing. >> he elicits all that information from you. my opinion is that what they do from there is they take that information and they utilize that. where can i not build you up but break you down? >> reporter: over time, natali says her relationship with ranieri changed. he started to get aggressive,
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>> when i no longer wanted to have relationships with him any longer, he would force me, he would rape me. >> reporter: in a court filing she alleged that nexium was a cult, presided over by ranieri, and that he raped her repeatedly. in their filings, nexium lawyers say natali's allegations are false, they call them scurrilous, scandalous, slanderous. sarah says when she was involved in nexium, ranieri taught women were to be subservient to men, and he practiced and he preached by having what amounts to a harem of women. >> i've spoken to five different women in the harem. it was like having a normal boyfriend except you wouldn't know when you'd see him next. he'd go off with another woman the next day. >> how does he do it? to be honest, he looks like a schlub. >> right. my personal belief is that it's one giganti
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i think that there's a certain percentage of people that are susceptible. >> reporter: in fact, his followers are so devoted that they travel in from all over the world to celebrate ranieri's birthday. an annual celebration known as vanguard week. >> wishing vanguard a happy birthday. >> i loved v-we cek. my favorite time of year. i missed my best friend's wedding. it was more important to be at v-week. i missed her wedding. >> you were deep in. >> i was deep in. >> reporter: she was in the group 12 years, rising through the ranks. during that time she says she got close to nancy saltsman's daughter lauren, who was her maid of honor. >> she's like my therapist. in the ranking system she's above me. >> reporter: in march, after all their years together in nexium, sarah says lauren approached her about a new and mysterious opportunity. >>
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secret. >> reporter: but edmondson claims lauren saltsman demanded highly compromising collateral first. in response she says she and some others ended up providing nude photos of themselves. >> instantly all my alarm bells are going off. >> absolutely. >> why did you do it? >> because i trusted her. >> reporter: only then did she gain entry. >> and the first step is making a vow of obedience to her, as me being a slave, her being my master. >> slave? she used the word slave? >> she used the word slave. >> did you object? >> of course, every stage of the way. she said, it's a metaphor, it's a guru/disciple. >> reporter: all of which led to the night she and other women submitted to being branded by this woman she says, danielle roberts. >> the woman on the table screamed out in pain, twisted and turned and yelled and the woman i was with holding her legs down, we looked at each other and
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out of there, even naked? >> it didn't seem like a choice at the time. >> could you stand up and point where the brand is? >> so it's right here. right under my underwehrlein. >> reporter: an attorney for dr. danielle roberts tells abc news the allegations are unfounded. but edmondson did file a complaint on dr. roberts with the new york department of health. in response the agency said the issue she described are not medical misconduct. edmondson believes ranieri should also be held accountable because she says she saw a text come in from him as she held lauren satsman's phone, filming the branding. >> when we were doing the branding, a text came through from keith. and it said, how are they all doing with each other? >> so he knew. >> he knew. he knew we were all being branded. >> reporter: ranieri did not respond to requests for an interview, but in a letter posted on the
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says "there is no merit to the allegations we are abusing, coercing, or harming individuals." ranieri says that secret sorority is not part of nexium and "i'm not associated with the group." the letter also says "our experts say members of the sorority are thriving, healthy, happy, better off, and haven't been coerced." but in edmondson's complaint she says she was told that the brand was a latin symbol. later she says she realized it included the initials of nexium's leader and those of a fellow actress. >> the four elements were keith's initials from one side, "a.m." for alison mack from dead on. i didn't see that at the time. >> reporter: coming up, vanguard goes hollywood. why are so many young actors following the guru of albany? >> why do you think -- >> so emotional for me? >> yes. >> reporter: one star's fight to get her daughter back.
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when i first came, i had on the surface something that seemed to be like the perfect life or a pretty good life. >> reporter: this nexium testimonial is a far cry from the role actress alison mack once played on "smallville." she's among several other young actors who have at least dabbled in nexium. but of these, mack is the only one confirmed to have stayed with nexium long-term, even ditching hollywood to move to albany where she became part of ranieri's inner
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she even appeared in this video with him. >> so one would say, authenticity is being as you are. >> reporter: his words literally moved her to tears. >> i don't know why that makes me want to cry. it's beautiful. >> why? >> so emotional for me? i don't know, it seems like it's -- something that i just -- i feel like i want it. authenticity. >> reporter: sarah edmondson says it was mack who started the secret sorority in albany along with ranieri. as proof she pointed to her brand. >> the humiliation, the mutilati mutilation, they're branding women with keith's and alison's initials. >> welcome to team talk, i'm india -- >> reporter: another woman who may have had those letters seared onto her body was india oxenberg, also a young actress whose mother is in the business too. katherine
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her role in "dynasty." >> my name's amanda bedford. >> reporter: later she appeared with a young india in this movie. oxenberg hasn't seen her daughter in months and is both gripped with fear and racked with guilt. because she herself brought india into nexium. they went to an introductory session together in 2011. >> i just couldn't wait to get out of there. and i said to india, what do you think? she says, this is for me. and i was shocked. >> how old was she at that time? >> 19. pretty young, pretty impressionable. >> reporter: she says trouble started when india, seen here in this nexium video, started taking classes to become a coach. during this time, oxenberg says her daughter burned through her inheritance, largely she believes to pay for those classes. >> once she moved to albany, she became very secretive. the end of last april, a defector called me and said, you need to save india. >> reporter:
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is the first she had heard of that secret sore sortie. >> once i found out about the branding, the slave, i went nuts. >> reporter: soon there was a rare opportunity to confront india. >> i said everything wrong. i said, darling, i believe you're brainwashed. >> did she admit she had been branded? >> uh-huh. i said, try and convince me that this is a good thing. and she said, it's character building. and she's over 18, and so legally there's nothing i can do. >> reporter: india do $not respond to our request for comment, but she recently posted on facebook a public rebuke to anyone questioning her condition saying, i'm absolutely fine, great, actually. you are absolutely convinced in the deepest core of you as a mother that your daughter is not great, she's not fine? >> she's anything but fine. she's in danger.
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danger. >> reporter: but the more oxenberg speaks out, the more she could be leaving herself exposed to nexium's most common counterattack. lawsuits. >> his weapon of choice is the legal system. >> reporter: terrorism by litigation is what ranieri's ex-girlfriend tony natali has called it in court filings. she's one of a number of former members whom nexium has sued doggedly and repeatedly. she says so far the suits against her have been unsuccessful. >> i believe that the reason that you haven't heard from more people is they're afraid of being sued. >> reporter: keith ranieri's group has claimed its litigation is just an effort to protect its they can wall property and reputation. those efforts have likely cost them millions of dollars. but as reporter brendan lions found, legal filings allege keith ranieri has a secret weapon, the brothman sisters. their late father was the
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billionaire philanthropist and seagram's distillery chairman. >> people have given up their life savings trying to defend themselves. they're up against the millions of dollars that the brothmans have at their disposal. >> reporter: ranieri might now be in mexico. someone sent this photo of a man believed to be him in monterrey. perhaps he is there because there are reports of new heat in new york state, a possible investigation by the office of the attorney general. but people who have crossed paths with ranieri are worried that the worst could be yet to come. >> what frightens me is where does he go from here? >> my biggest fear is the kool-aid situation. >> like jim jones? >> yes, i do. >> why? that's a big step. >> not from what he's done. i mean, the level of manipulation? if this is about power and control over people, one cannot minimize what this person is capable of.
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>> our thanks to elizabeth for that report. we repeatedly reached out to keith ranieri, nancy lauren saltzman, alison bank and the brothman sisters for comment, none responded other than referring us to the group's website statement. just this week clair brothman posted online a lengthy statement defending the group saying, i've seen so much good come from both our programs and from keith himself." we'll be right back.
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thank you for watching "nightline." as always, we're online 24/7 on our "nightline" facebook page. thanks for the company, america. have a good weekend. good night. >> from caesars entertainment studios, it's beginner's luck week. today, we're playing with contestants who have never been to las vegas before. but they're here now and ready to roll the dice, hoping to walk away with $1 million. this is "who wants to be a millionaire." [cheers and applause]
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