NASSAU, Bahamas — The first red flag came her first day on the job.
Richette Ross thought she was being hired as a massage therapist. On paper, she says she was, working at Winnipeg fashion mogul Peter Nygard’s Bahamian estate from 2009 to 2014.
She was ushered into the "breathtaking" Nygard Cay on her first shift, dazzled by the "glitz and glamour" of the lavish oceanfront property, and told her new boss wanted a massage.
"They set up the table. I went up and went in and did my session. After I was done, he told me he wanted his ‘third leg’ massaged," Ross, 35, said Saturday in a one-hour and 45-minute interview at a private Nassau residence.
Ross said she quipped: "Last time I checked, humans only have two legs." For the time being, that was the end of it. But soon, what seemed like a dream job turned into a nightmare, Ross said.
"As time went on, I realized it wasn’t really a job, it was just a giant whorehouse," Ross said.
"It was something set up for (Nygard) to lure girls in and have sex with them."
During her time at Nygard Cay, Ross said she witnessed horrific sexual abuse. She also claims she was repeatedly enlisted to pass cash bribes to Bahamian politicians and police so they would turn a blind eye to the sex-trafficking ring Nygard allegedly ran out of the developing island nation. In February 2014, she said Nygard drugged and raped her. Less than a week later, her employment was terminated.
Nygard, speaking through his attorneys, has repeatedly maintained his innocence.
In response to a request for comment, Jay Prober, one of Nygard’s lawyers, called Ross a "malicious opportunist with a vivid imagination" who "will say whatever it takes to make money."
Prober categorically denied her claims, saying she is being bought off by people who have a personal vendetta with Nygard.
The allegations against Nygard have not been proven in court and he is presumed innocent.
Ross is one of 10 women — many of them under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged offences — who have accused Nygard of drugging, raping and sodomizing them in a class-action lawsuit filed Feb. 13 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Nygard is also the subject of a U.S. federal law enforcement investigation by a joint child-exploitation task force. His international headquarters in New York City was raided by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and detectives with the New York Police Department on Feb. 25.
The firm handling the class-action lawsuit says more than 50 women — 20 Canadians and at least one Winnipegger — have come forward with similar claims. The accusations span at least five countries, three continents and four decades.
New accusers continue to step forward at an astonishing pace, said Greg Gutzler, one of the lawyers handling the suit.
Ross is the first woman to publicly attach her name to an accusation. The Free Press is identifying the Bahamian woman with her consent.
Ross said Nygard used "pamper parties" in the exclusive, gated community of Lyford Cay to lure young women, many from impoverished backgrounds, to his estate.
Upon arrival, each woman would be photographed and entered into a digital database for Nygard’s perusal, she said. She claimed only women who met Nygard’s specifications were allowed in.
Another former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Free Press they personally saw Nygard’s database of women, which reportedly numbered in the thousands.
At pamper parties, guests would be provided with manicures, pedicures, massages, food and drinks, among other luxuries. One woman who was recruited to attend a party told the Free Press she was explicitly instructed not to stay "after dark."
Ross said Nygard would use promises of modelling careers and riches to coerce women into sexual acts. When that didn’t work, he would drug and rape the women with the help of staff, she alleged.
"What they would do is, if (staff) know Nygard loves or likes a particular female, they would go to her and tell her, ‘My boss likes you and if you sleep with him, he will give you this and he will give you that.’ Most of it pertained to money," Ross said.
"And if a female says no, workers would literally drug her and get her prepped for when Nygard was ready to go up (to his bedroom) with her… There were free drinks. Bartenders would usually slip roofies (a date-rape drug) into the females’ drinks, especially the ones they know Nygard likes or has his eye on."
Ross also alleged women were held hostage at the estate until they would submit to Nygard’s sexual demands. No one entered or exited the property without Nygard’s approval, she said.
"I can remember a Bahamian girl going up to Nygard’s room and she didn’t want to have sex with him. She managed to get out. She was naked and she ran straight to the gate and she tried to climb it. And his bodyguard came and he dragged her down the fence and he carried her back," Ross said.
She also claimed on at least one occasion a woman managed to escape but was returned to the property by Bahamian police against her will.
Ross detailed making routine cash payments in U.S. currency to police officers tasked with handling sex crimes offences, as well as politicians associated with the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which was in power at the time.
On one occasion, she said Nygard had two large fish delivered to the estate to facilitate a bribe.
"He had me and two notorious gangsters here in Nassau stuff the fish with about $150,000 in cash, U.S. After we stuffed the fish, we dropped them back down in the bag and freezed them. The next night, me and the two gentlemen, we went to this particular parliamentarian’s house to deliver them," Ross said.
PLP officials have denied charges they were bribed by Nygard. Repeated attempts to reach a PLP spokesman for comment were unsuccessful.
Nygard — speaking through his lawyers — has laid blame for the mounting rape allegations at the feet of Louis Bacon, an American hedge fund billionaire he’s had a public feud with for years.
The two men are neighbours in the Bahamas and the spat has turned increasingly vitriolic, spawning more than two dozen lawsuits and accusations of insider trading, membership in the Ku Klux Klan and murder plots.
In a recent New York Times article, Ross was identified as a woman who took money from Fred Smith, a lawyer in the Bahamas connected to Bacon, to help track down accusers and build a case against Nygard.
Her credibility was further called into question when two of the women recanted their stories, saying they had been paid to make up the rape allegations.
However, Ross pushes back against this characterization. She said she wasn’t recruited to help build the class-action lawsuit, but rather reached out to Smith to offer her services. Any money she received was for her time, overhead costs and to address safety concerns, she said.
Ross did not reveal a specific dollar amount, but said she was given money to move her family to a secure residence due to threats to her safety, as well as to cover expenses.
She further claimed she paid no one to lie and passed a polygraph test — paid for by her lawyers — to that effect. Repeated attempts to reach Smith for comment have been unsuccessful.
Prober said Ross has been "bought off" by Smith and Bacon and has "no credibility whatsoever." He also said polygraphs are unreliable and inadmissible in a court of law.
Ross countered that she is not motivated by money, but a desire to put the alleged reign of abuse to an end.
In February 2014, Ross said she was warming up coconut oil to give Nygard a massage when she was handed a cup of wine by one of his "girlfriends." After drinking the wine, she said she went up to Nygard’s room and began to feel unwell.
She blacked out soon after, Ross said.
"I was in and out of consciousness. I remember the first time I opened up my eyes my bottoms were removed. I was laying on my back and Mr. Nygard has a mirror over his bed, so I could see what he was doing to me. He was performing oral sex on me," Ross said.
"I remember blacking out for a while and when I opened my eyes again, he was on top of me. I knew that he was penetrating me."
Eventually, Ross said she woke up and the alleged assault was over. Confused, she gathered her clothing, got dressed and went to leave. On her way out the door, she claimed Nygard stuffed a roll of cash into her hands.
"When I came up there, the sun was up. But when I left, it was already dark," Ross said.
She said she exited the house and went into her vehicle.
"I sat in the back of there and I cried for a while in my jeep," Ross said.
As she retold her account of the alleged rape, Ross broke down crying.
Less than a week later, Ross said she was taken off the work schedule. That was the end of her employment at Nygard Cay.
When asked why she worked for Nygard for so long given his alleged abusive behaviour, Ross said she felt like she had no one to turn to. She also admitted she was partially motivated by money, saying she was the sole breadwinner of her family and had six dependents.
"Dealing with this situation with Mr. Nygard is very serious. You’re not just touching a multi-millionaire. You’re touching the Bahamas government. You’re touching the police force," Ross said.
The alleged rape broke her for a time, Ross said, but she’s since rebuilt herself into a stronger woman. She said she’s proud of the work she did to track down alleged victims to tell them to share their stories.
"I’m not hiding anymore and I’m not running… I’m not ashamed. This is what happened. I’m not the first. I’m praying to God that whoever was his last victim, be his last victim. A lot of people think I’m doing this for money. It’s not about money," Ross said.
"You didn’t just hurt me. You took a part of me that I was never willing to give you. You didn’t just hurt and degrade me. You made me feel less than a human... I was like a piece of meat to you. And then when you were done doing what you did to me, you turned around and discarded me like I was a piece of garbage."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
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