Kristin Marie Snyder's life as an "Espian" lasted just four months.
From November 2002 to February 2003, the 35-year-old Alaskan immersed herself in Executive Success Programs (ESP), the teachings of Halfmoon residents Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman. She attended four ESP "human potential" courses in Anchorage, and traveled to Halfmoon and Colonie to meet ESP leaders on their home turf.
An overachiever, Snyder believed ESP would improve her career, personal life and outlook, just as advertised.
But her family and police say that by February, during her second 16-day "intensive" in Anchorage, Snyder's health and enthusiasm had disintegrated. The formerly productive environmental consultant seemed delusional, had stopped sleeping and was threatening suicide, said her domestic partner, Heidi Clifford.
ESP, also known as NXIVM, offers its controversial classes at 455 New Karner Road, Colonie; in Saratoga Springs, Manhattan, Anchorage and in Mexico. Its public profile increased markedly last summer, when it applied to the Halfmoon Planning Board for permission to build a 67,000-square-foot headquarters on eight acres off Woodin Road. Several dozen neighbors oppose the pending project.
Clifford, in a telephone interview last week, recalled seeing her distraught partner leave the Westmark Hotel in Anchorage, where the NXIVM training was held, on Feb. 6. No one has seen her since.
Alaska State Police investigators believe that Snyder drove the couple's Toyota Tacoma to a campground along Resurrection Bay in Seward. Before dawn on Feb. 7, they theorize, she paddled a creaky 16-foot kayak into the bay and intentionally capsized in the glacier-fed water.
Her last words were scribbled in a spiral notebook found in her truck.
"I attended a course called Executive Success Programs (a.k.a. Nexivm) based out of Anchorage, AK, and Albany, NY," she wrote. "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."
On a second page she wrote "No need to search for my body."
An extensive search turned up no trace of Snyder or the kayak. She is listed as missing and presumed dead, and authorities doubt her body will ever be recovered.
"Everything points to the fact that she took a kayak into the bay to kill herself and she rolled over and now she's gone," said Alaska State Trooper Paul Randall, who supervised the search.
Randall said the investigation of Snyder's disappearance confirmed the assessment of her partner and family: She had no history of psychiatric or emotional problems before becoming involved with NXIVM.
"She was a respected and successful business person in Anchorage," said Randall, who personally knows some of Snyder's friends. "We heard she had been taking courses and that she changed."
Alaska State Police Sgt. Brandon Anderson said that other notes written by Snyder during the week of her disappearance indicate a "sort of a mental breakdown" after becoming associated with ESP.
Snyder's parents, Robert and Jonnie Snyder of Dillon, S.C., are devastated by her disappearance.
"Our hearts are broken, and they'll never be fixed. She was the joy of our life," her mother said in a telephone interview from her family's farm.
For Clifford, who joined Snyder in a Vermont civil union in 2001, the loss is deeply felt and lasting.
"We had a really nice life together, a lot of fun, a lot of respect for each other," she said. "I feel kind of empty, totally empty. She's totally not here because of something really stupid."
The Snyders and Clifford only recently agreed to discuss the disappearance after learning of other complaints about NXIVM and ESP.
NXIVM President Nancy Salzman did not respond to repeated interview requests last week. Arlen Olsen, NXIVM's attorney, said he knew nothing about Snyder and would not comment. ESP involves a practice called Rational Inquiry that was created by Keith Raniere, a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate who in the past operated another business that was investigated by 23 states, including New York, and two federal agencies as a pyramid scheme.
The company, Halfmoon-based Consumers Buyline, ceased operation in the 1990s after signing up at least 250,000 customers nationwide and bringing in more than $33 million in a year. Without admitting wrongdoing, Raniere settled for $40,000, of which he has paid only $9,000. He now owes $48,356, with accumulated interest, according to a spokesman for state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
NXIVM, whose chief revenue source is fees for classes, is not hurting for money. Forbes magazine has reported that the company earns $4 million annually. Last year, it formed NXIVM Properties LLC, which has purchased at least three properties in the Halfmoon-Clifton Park area, including one Woodin Road property for $175,000.
NXIVM officials decline to describe in detail their practices, which they consider trade secrets. They do say that Rational Inquiry is a form of instruction that helps professionals succeed in their fields. Inquiry sessions use questionnaires and strategies to identify personal weaknesses. Coaches lead students in exercises that are intended to systematically break down fears and stereotypes learned in childhood.
Critics of the program, including mental health professionals and former students, allege that it strays into uncertified psychoanalysis.
They also say the ESP "human potential" classes created in 1998 by Raniere and Salzman have cult-like trappings. They note that Raniere is called "Vanguard" and Salzman "Prefect" by students who are referred to as "Espians."
Students engage in several ceremonial routines, including wearing different-colored scarves that denote company rank and bowing to leaders.
The acts are no different than those practiced in the military and martial arts, Salzman said in an interview last year.
Carlos Rueda, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in New York City, has said he treated three NXIVM students for psychological disorders related to NXIVM courses. One, a 28-year-old Manhattan woman from a prominent Mexico City family, experienced a psychotic episode in NXIVM's New Karner Road facility and required hospitalization in January 2003, a month before Kristin Snyder's disappearance, according to Rueda and Albany Police records.
Rueda last year told the Times Union that ESP leaders are not trained to deal with potential psychological problems that can surface during its training.
In a written statement last year, NXIVM officials said, "Nothing that is presented through ESP would or could have any effect upon anyone's psychological status, and after nearly 4,000 students, no civil action has ever been alleged against ESP in that regard."
The organization also maintains that it has doctors on staff.
NXIVM students have included Antonia C. Novello, the state health commissioner; Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television; Stephen Cooper, acting chief executive of Enron; Edgar Bronfman Sr. of the Seagram's fortune, and his two daughters; and several top officials in the Mexican government, according to an October Forbes magazine article called "Cult of Personality."
In August, NXIVM filed a federal lawsuit against several of its critics, including two mental health professionals, ex-student Stephanie Franco and Rick Ross, of The Ross Institute, a nonprofit public research operation that tracks controversial social movements.
It claims Franco gave NXIVM's confidential manual to Ross, a forensic psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist, who used it to falsely describe ESP as a cult on his Web site. The pending lawsuit seeks to force Ross to remove ESP from his site, plus almost $10 million in damages.
Ross, who has posted information about Kristin Snyder on an anti-cult Web site, said the case is "the exact reason Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman filed lawsuits against the Ross Institute and the doctors: to specifically suppress this information so that people like the Snyders would not understand the context of their tragedy." "She was never moody. She was always a happy kid; very level-headed," Robert Snyder said of his daughter, whom he described as a farm girl who loved outdoor sports.
A graduate of Franciscan University in Ohio, she earned a master's degree in plant ecology at the University of Kentucky, where she established the campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Summers, she would go home to South Carolina to work as a cotton scout.
Later, Kristen started her own ecological consulting firm, taking on projects in several states. In 1999, she moved to Alaska because she fell in love, both with the place and with Clifford. Her love of the outdoors drew her to join the Anchorage Nordic Ski Patrol. She was qualified in survival training and avalanche rescue.
An ESP student she met in Anchorage invited her to seminars, where she became fascinated with videotapes of Raniere and Salzman, Clifford said.
Kristin Snyder's first 16-day ESP intensive course was taught by Salzman in Anchorage in November 2002, Clifford said. She ate it up and demanded more, her partner said.
The Snyders said they knew something had changed when Kristin Snyder visited the family's 300-acre cotton farm a few weeks after her first intensive. They say they hardly recognized the tearful, angry woman.
When her parents challenged her about NXIVM, Kristin Snyder would cut off discussion and telephone her ESP "coach," her mother said.
"She had this 'We can do anything we want to do' attitude," Jonnie Snyder said. "She thought Keith was incredible."
Kristin Snyder visited ESP headquarters in Halfmoon for several days in January 2003 to learn more about the group. When she returned to Anchorage, she was sleep-deprived and seemed irrational, but intent to start another $7,000, 16-day intensive, Clifford said.
"She went to Albany and said, 'Vanguard doesn't sleep, so I don't need to sleep,' " Clifford said.
NXIVM's customs made Clifford uncomfortable, but she said she signed up for an ESP intensive to support her partner.
Kristin Snyder became emotionally disturbed on about the 10th day of that session, Clifford recalled, but a NXIVM instructor told her and other students to ignore suicide threats Kristin Snyder was making, saying they were just attempts at getting noticed. After being rebuffed for medical attention, Kristin Snyder left the hotel. Clearly upset, she waved goodbye to Clifford through a window as she walked away.
"I was told (by a NXIVM instructor) not to bring her to the hospital. That's what makes me feel really bad," Clifford said.
During the training, Kristin Snyder came to believe she had been sexually abused as a child and that she could not remember parts of her past, Clifford and the Snyders said. In her last days, she became so consumed with remembering details from her early childhood that she often called her parents to ask about mundane memories such as the costume her sister wore one Halloween, Jonnie Snyder said.
The Snyders said they have no reason to suspect their daughter was ever molested. When she last spoke to her parents, Kristin Snyder told them that she was responsible for the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, her mother said.
Though no body has been found, memorial services for Kristin Snyder were held on Resurrection Bay and in Anchorage last February. A Catholic Mass was celebrated in Dillon last March 14 and 15.
The Snyders have taken no legal action against NXIVM, though they blame it for their daughter's disappearance.
"I do, indeed, feel that her involvement in ESP was a first-cause factor in her death," her father said. "As it was, her personality disintegrated right before their eyes, and no one knew how to pick up the pieces. I do not believe that Kris wanted to kill herself. She cried out for help for almost a week, but was totally ignored."
In the four months that Kristin Snyder took classes, she paid $14,000 for the two 16-day courses and an additional $2,000 for two weekend courses, Clifford said.
"And she was a frugal woman," Clifford said.
Clifford's NXIVM bill was $11,500. She sold the couple's Tacoma truck to help pay it, as well as Kristin Snyder's $16,000 debt. She said NXIVM rejected her request for a partial refund for the second intensive course.