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In custody: Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard charged with sex trafficking in U.S.

WINNIPEG — Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard was behind bars in Winnipeg on Tuesday, after he was indicted in the United States on charges he used his influence in the industry to traffic women and girls against their will for sex.

WINNIPEG — Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard was behind bars in Winnipeg on Tuesday, after he was indicted in the United States on charges he used his influence in the industry to traffic women and girls against their will for sex.  

The United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York said in a news release the charges stem from "a decades-long pattern of criminal conduct involving at least dozens of victims in the United States, the Bahamas, and Canada, among other locations." The charges include racketeering and sex trafficking. 

"Nygard frequently targeted women and minor-aged girls who came from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and/or who had a history of abuse," the indictment alleges. 

"He controlled his victims through threats, false promises of modelling opportunities and other career advancement, financial support, and by other coercive means, including constant surveillance, restrictions of movement, and physical isolation."

Nygard, 79, was arrested Monday in Winnipeg under the Extradition Act. 

Known for flashy billboards throughout the city, Nygard shuffled into a courtroom in shackles, his long grey hair tied back in a messy bun. He wore a grey sweatshirt, light greenish-grey coloured track pants with a yellow stripe down the leg and a wide black belt. A white non-medical mask covered his face.

The U.S. attorney notes that none of the allegations against Nygard has been proven in court. Nygard's lawyer Jay Prober said his client denies all of the allegations and expects to be vindicated. 

Prober said a bail hearing will be scheduled as soon as possible due to concerns over Nygard's health behind bars. The case is due back in court Jan. 13. 

"We are very concerned because of his age and medical issues that make him very susceptible to the worst consequences of COVID-19," Prober said in an interview with The Canadian Press following the hearing.  

A judge denied a request by Prober for a publication ban.

The indictment alleges Nygard forcibly sexually assaulted some victims. Others were forcibly assaulted by Nygard's associates or drugged to ensure their compliance with his sexual demands. Some of the alleged victims were between the ages of 14 and 17.

Documents filed in court allege some victims who travelled with Nygard were unable to leave and were constantly surveilled. 

The women were also brought to sex clubs, the documents filed in court say, and they were traded to strangers so Nygard could have sex with other women. Some women were forced into group sex without consent, the documents allege. 

U.S. authorities allege that Nygard also coerced some of the women to remain as his "girlfriends" and further recruit other sexual partners on an almost daily basis. 

Court documents say the FBI searched the phone of an American woman working for Nygard as an assistant in Canada until as recently as October. The woman described Nygard as a "monster" in communications on the phone. 

Nygard, who came to Canada as a child from Finland with his parents in 1942, founded his fashion company in Winnipeg in 1967. It grew from a partial stake in a women's garment manufacturer to a brand name sold in stores around the world.

The company's head office and distribution building in Winnipeg includes a "Nygard museum" with pictures of Nygard and politicians, actors, musicians and models. He received a key to the city in 2008.

For about 40 years, Nygard largely resided in the Bahamas, where he owned a large resort property. But more than a year and a half ago, after an ongoing legal dispute, he returned to Canada as a permanent resident.

He stepped down as chairman of his company after the FBI and police raided his offices in New York City in February.

Court documents allege that Nygard used company funds to pay his victims for commercial sex. It's alleged there are records showing funds were also used for plastic surgery and abortions.

Court documents say information seized by U.S. authorities also shows evidence of "pamper parties" and that records were kept describing guests' bodies and whether they'd gone to Nygard's room. The documents reference emails between employees about stocking these parties with sexual lubricants, alcohol and cash for Nygard.

Nygard has denied similar allegations in a class-action lawsuit by 57 women, which is currently on hold in the U.S. Nygard has blamed a conspiracy caused by a feud with his billionaire neighbour in the Bahamas. 

"We are encouraged that a small measure of justice for Peter Nygard is finally developing," Greg G. Gutzler, a lawyer for the women, said in a statement Tuesday. 

"We are relieved that some measure of accountability is hopefully forthcoming, but we would be remiss if we did not state that this is something that should have been done decades ago."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2020.

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press