Disturbing claims of torture and sexual abuse at trial of New York ‘cult’ leader

New York is accustomed to high-profile trials, the details picked over like canapés at a cocktail party.

But the trial of Lawrence “Larry” Ray, on federal charges of sex trafficking, extortion and conspiracy has caused revulsion and horror, and raised troubling questions that go far beyond criminal justice.

Over the past three weeks, jurors have heard how Ray, 62, spent years psychologically manipulating and abusing college students who were roommates of his own daughter at the prestigious liberal arts college Sarah Lawrence.

Ray’s methods echo the abuse described in other notorious recent cases such as the Nxivm sex cult and the Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell sex-trafficking cases. It certainly rivals them for allegations of abuse of the victims. The court heard how one graduate, Claudia Drury, was forced to prostitute herself to pay the ex-convict Ray $2.5m in compensation for what prosecutors call their imagined crimes against him.

“I became a prostitute,” Drury said during testimony.

Drury alleged Ray had tortured her for hours, suffocating her with a plastic bag after binding her to a hotel chair. At one point, she said, he stopped to have burgers and fries. Ray has pleaded not guilty to 16 charges against him, including sex trafficking and violent crime in aid of racketeering.

Harvard medical school graduate Felicia Rosario testified that after being introduced to Ray by her brother Santos, a Sarah Lawrence student, she began a relationship, before he urged her into extreme sexual situations, encouraging her to have sex with strangers in Walmart or Home Depot and to consider becoming an escort.

Rosario testified that the encounters had made her feel “disgusting, ashamed, embarrassed, not human, used, trash, small”.

Disturbing video, filmed by Ray himself or by a woman described as his alleged accomplice, Isabella Pollok, who has pleaded not guilty and will be tried separately, was played in court. “He would tie me up with zip ties at my ankles and wrists,” Rosario told the jury. “He punched me in the face. Slapped me. Pulled me by the hair.”

During testimony, Ray sat impassively. He picked Kleenex tissues from a box to wipe his eyes– a gesture that seemed to signal that whatever abuse Rosario, 38, alleges she suffered at his hands, he believed he was in fact the victim.

For experts, that is classic cult leader behavior. “When you manipulate people psychologically to become enslaved like this, it’s a skill,” said former sex crimes prosecutor Wendy Murphy.

“People think that if they send their daughters to Harvard or one of the Ivy League schools, they’ll at least be safe. But that’s not necessarily true,” she added.

During opening statements, Ray’s defense attorney compared the case to Alice in Wonderland, urging jurors to travel “through the looking-glass” and invited them to view the defendant and the students as a group of “storytellers”.

The danger for prosecutors in the case, says Murphy, is that the level of alleged abuse is in a sense unbelievable, because it is outside the realm of most people’s experience.

“We can get unjust results in cases like this, because the horror of it all makes ordinary jurors who don’t have any understanding so uncomfortable that they have to psychologically distance themselves so it feels OK. They have a tendency to disbelieve, because its so painful to accept the reality. It can be tremendously unfair to victims,” she said.

What has become known as the Sarah Lawrence case began in 2019 when New York magazine published a lengthy exposé, “Larry Ray and the Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence”, which triggered an FBI investigation. Ray, who actually participated in the article, was arrested in February the following year.

“It’s remarkable seeing how much of this evidence the government is relying on is generated by him, and things he even put online,” Ezra Marcus, one of the journalists who unearthed the alleged conspiracy after he learned from fellow Sarah Lawrence College alumni about a “troubling” website about an ex-student there, told a Law & Crime podcast last week.

“It was circulating through the alumni community, and just people being like, ‘What’s going on here?’ I mean, this stuff is seriously unsettling,” said Marcus.

Prosecutors allege Ray created a cult-like criminal enterprise after moving into his daughter’s on-campus dorm in 2011. A statement issued by the college said: “While it is not unreasonable to expect that we will know when something is happening on our campus, in fact college officials at the time didn’t know.”

Ray had recently been released from prison for his involvement in the securities-fraud scheme and he set himself up as a father-figure among the students, brandishing impressive credentials, often part true and part false.

It is also a story that has involved in some of New York’s biggest and most bold-faced names.

In 1995 Ray met Bernie Kerik, an NYPD officer who had risen from being Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s driver to the director of the New York City department of corrections’ investigations division. Ray was best man at Kerik’s wedding, drove Mikhail Gorbachev around town on a trip to New York, and travelled to Kosovo, allegedly to buy US-supplied Stinger missiles back before they fell into Russian hands.

He became an FBI informant, duping the agency with promises of informing on the mafia in what would turn out to be a cover for his own involvement in mafia-related stock manipulations. In 2015, he worked as a bodyguard for Donald Trump.

By then, Ray’s alleged prostitution ring was in operation. “He was mind-screwing these kids to the max,” Kerik said after Ray’s arrest. “He was just a sick dude.”

During the trial, the US attorney’s office accidentally released an unredacted list of 121 clients from across all walks of life in New York’s social elite, including – allegedly – a retired state judge, a well-known architect, a successful artist and senior financial figures. Soon after, Ray claimed to be ill and was wheeled out of court on a stretcher for the second time since his trial started.

But Ray’s schemes allegedly went even further than New York.

Last week prosecutors told Judge Lewis Liman that Ray laundered money through his daughter’s links to North Carolina’s Democratic party. The jury later heard Rosario describe funneling money from Ray to his daughter Talia, who was then working for a local political candidate.

According to Joni Johnston, a clinical forensic psychologist, the case not only highlights the vulnerability of young women at college, but speaks to institutional and parental failure to recognize psychological manipulation and enmeshment.

Each of Ray’s alleged victims have testified that their relationship with him started from a place of trust and advanced to romance and then into years of violent sexual abuse. Johnston called them “cults of two”.

“The techniques of manipulation, control, coercion, abuse isolation and humiliation are so similar to more formal cults where one person makes all the rules,” Johnston says. “We used to go, wow, how did 900 people die as a result of one man [as at Jonestown in 1978]? But now I think we’re becoming aware of all sorts of variants of that.”

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