A father accused of running a twisted sex cult and $1m extortion scheme out of his daughter’s college dorm is gearing up for his day in court.
Lawrence “Larry” Ray’s trial on 17 charges for sex trafficking, extortion, racketeering and forced labor began with jury selection on Monday at Manhattan’s federal district court.
Mr Ray, then a 50-year-old ex-convict, moved into his daughter’s on-campus housing at the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College in New York City shortly after his release from prison in 2010.
In the nearly 10 years that followed, Mr Ray “exploited and abused young women and men emotionally, physically, and sexually for his own financial gain” US District Attorney Geoffrey Berman said upon his arrest.
Mr Ray allegedly launched his horrifying manipulation campaign against his daughter’s friends by presenting himself as a father figure and convincing them they were indebted to him.
He allegedly subjected the young women to hours of grueling interrogations, deprived them of sleep and food, extorted more than $1m from their families, compelled them to have sex with strangers and forced one into prostitution.
The trial is slated to feature testimony from Mr Ray’s victims as well as statements from his alleged co-conspirators and from his daughter.
The daughter is not facing any charges herself but has previously been described by prosecutors as a co-conspirator who both supported and profited from his actions. Court records include an email she allegedly sent to him in 2013 which read: “What you have done with my friends is the most amazing and beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
Mr Ray was arrested in February 2020 after his alleged abuses were laid bare in a piece by New York magazine’s The Cut entitled “The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence”.
The students who lived in the two-storey brick building Slonim Woods 9, most of whom were sophomores, described how they were originally unfazed when their housemate asked if her father could stay with them for a bit after getting out of jail, where he served time related to a child custody dispute.
They described him as a charming caretaker who quickly embedded himself within the home.
“He did all of our cleaning and definitely took on the dad role in the house in a big way,” one of the eight roommates told The Cut.
Mr Ray regularly engaged the group with intellectual discussions and counseled them through personal issues like break-ups in “therapy” sessions, they said. Over time, he began to alienate them from their families and other close relationships by convincing them they were “broken” and claiming he could heal them psychologically.
“I didn’t want to go back home, and this was my alternative,” one victim said. “Part of why I got in a cult at all was because I had no idea how one finds a place to live in New York.”
Announcing Mr Ray’s arrest in 2020, Mr Berman said the father gained his victims’ trust and then “turned on them, falsely accusing them of harming him by attempting to poison him or to deliberately damage his property”.
Mr Ray solicited false confessions – some of them recorded – from at least six victims and coerced them into making payments “they did not actually owe and could not possibly afford”, Mr Berman said.
He allegedly directed the students to drain money from their parents’ savings accounts and forced some of them into unpaid labor at a family member’s property in North Carolina. Others opened lines of credit or solicited contributions from others to help pay the false debts.
Mr Ray “subjected his victims to almost unspeakable abuse”, Mr Berman said. He allegedly tied one victim to a chair and placed a plastic bag over her head, almost suffocating her. He allegedly forced the same woman into prostitution and ultimately took $500,000 from her, processing the money through an internet domain business.
“College is supposed to be a time of self-discovery and new-found independence. But as alleged, Lawrence Ray exploited that vulnerable time in his victims’ lives through a course of conduct that shocks the conscience,” Mr Berman said.
Responding to Mr Ray’s indictment, Sarah Lawrence College said it had not been contacted by federal prosecutors but would cooperate “if invited to do so”.
The university said it had investigated the allegations raised in the The Cut article but “did not substantiate those specific claims”.
“The charges contained in the indication are serious, wide-ranging, disturbing and upsetting,” it added in a statement. “As always the safety and well-being of our students and alumni is a priority for the college.”
Court documents filed after his arrest claimed Mr Ray continued efforts to control his victims while in custody.
Mr Ray has previously denied wrongdoing and claimed to The Cut he was being “poisoned” as part of a conspiracy hatched by some of the students and former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik. Mr Ray’s evidence had helped to convict Mr Kerik, eleven his best friend, of tax fraud charges for which he was jailed in 2009.
“Larry Ray is a psychotic con man who has victimized every friend he’s ever had,” Mr Kerik said prior to Mr Ray’s arrest as he denied playing any part in a conspiracy. “It’s been close to 20 years since I last heard from him, yet his reign of terror continues.”
Mr Ray’s lawyers have indicated that they will present the jury with evidence meant to shed light on his mindset during the years of his alleged abuse, including his claim that the Slonim Woods housemates tried to poison him.
His alleged co-conspirator Isabella Pollok, a former Sarah Lawrence student described by prosecutors as his “trusted lieutenant”, has also been charged with sex-trafficking, extortion and racketeering in the case. She is slated to face trial separately.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.