Feb 12, 2020

Sarah Lawrence Parent Accused of Sex Trafficking and Abusing Students

Lawrence Ray was charged with moving into his daughter’s dormitory and targeting her friends for exploitation.

By Benjamin Weiser
The New York Times
February 11, 2020

Lawrence V. Ray showed up at his daughter’s elite college, in a New York City suburb, in late 2010, shortly after being released from prison, and moved into her dormitory. Soon, he started doing “therapy sessions” with her roommates, convincing them he could help with their problems.

Over time, using threats and coercion, he persuaded the young adults he first met at the school, Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y., to confess to crimes they had not committed and then extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from them, prosecutors said.

He eventually compelled some of them to work without pay on his family property in North Carolina, and he threatened others with knives. He forced one young woman into prostitution, taking nearly everything she made from selling sex to strangers, the prosecutors said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ray, 60, was charged in a federal indictment in Manhattan with conspiracy, extortion, sex trafficking, forced labor and related charges. For eight years, through 2018, the indictment said, Mr. Ray “subjected his victims to sexual and psychological manipulation and physical abuse.”

“For the better part of the last ten years, Ray has continued to mentally and physically torture his victims,” William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the F.B.I. office in New York, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The charges depict Mr. Ray as a man who exploited his victims, initially college sophomores, like a cult leader, learning intimate details of their private lives and their mental health struggles under the pretense of helping them.

He alienated several of the young adults from their parents, convincing them that they were “‘broken’ and in need of fixing” by him, the indictment said.

“For so many of us and our children, college is supposed to be a time of self-discovery and newfound independence, a chance to explore and learn, all within the safety of a college community,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said at the news conference announcing the charges.

Mr. Ray “exploited that vulnerable time in these victims’ lives through a course of conduct that shocks the conscience,” Mr. Berman said.

Mr. Ray’s extortion scheme relied on false confessions that he extracted from his victims, using tactics like sleep deprivation, psychological and sexual humiliation, verbal abuse, physical violence and threats of legal action, the indictment charged. He got them to falsely confess to damaging property, stealing from him and in some cases to trying to poison him, then used those confessions as leverage, the indictment said.

Mr. Ray was also accused of laundering about $1 million he obtained from his victims, the indictment said. He was arrested on Tuesday morning at his home in Piscataway, N.J.

The investigation that led to the charges against Mr. Ray was prompted by an article in New York magazine in April titled “The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence,” a law enforcement official said.

Mr. Ray played a central role in the state and federal prosecutions of the disgraced former police commissioner of New York, Bernard B. Kerik, and previously acted as an informant for the F.B.I., law enforcement officials said.

Mr. Ray was best man at Mr. Kerik’s wedding and paid for much of the event, according to news reports.

Weeks later, Mr. Kerik recommended Mr. Ray for a $100,000-a-year job with a New Jersey-based construction firm with tens of millions of dollars in city contracts, law enforcement officials said.

In the New York magazine article, Mr. Kerik was quoted as saying: “Larry Ray is a psychotic con man who has victimized every friend he’s ever had. It’s been close to 20 years since I last heard from him, yet his reign of terror continues.”

Sarah Lawrence said in a statement that the school had just learned of Mr. Ray’s indictment, and called the charges “serious, wide-ranging, disturbing and upsetting.” The school said it would cooperate with investigators if asked.

“As always, the safety and well-being of our students and alumni is a priority for the college,” the statement said.

The school also said that after the New York magazine article was published last year, the school undertook an investigation into the accusations of Mr. Ray’s activities on the campus in 2011, but “did not substantiate those specific claims.”

In 2000, Mr. Ray was indicted with 18 other defendants in what federal prosecutors called a stock fraud scheme run by members of organized crime. He pleaded guilty in 2003 and was sentenced to probation.

He later served time in a New Jersey state prison on charges stemming from a child custody dispute. It was after his release in New Jersey that Mr. Ray moved in with his daughter in student housing at Sarah Lawrence.

During the months he spent living at the school, Mr. Ray “laid the groundwork for psychological conditioning that would eventually lead these young adults to become unwitting victims of sexual exploitation, verbal and physical abuse, extortion, forced labor and prostitution,” Mr. Sweeney said.

In the summer of 2011, the indictment said, some of the Sarah Lawrence students moved with Mr. Ray into a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he continued to exploit them.

The indictment also charged that Mr. Ray subjected his daughter’s friends to interrogation sessions that often lasted hours at a time and escalated into verbal and physical abuse. He would falsely accuse them of damaging his apartment and property and of lying about him and his family, the indictment said.

Around 2013, the indictment said, Mr. Ray took some of his victims to Pinehurst, N.C., where he forced them to perform manual labor on his family’s property, including the installation of an irrigation system, purportedly to repay money he claimed they owed him.

He forced one woman to work as a prostitute from 2014 to 2018, and took more than $500,000 from the money she earned, the authorities said. Mr. Ray was also physically violent with her, and once tied her to a chair, placed a plastic bag over her head and nearly suffocated her, the indictment charged.

The indictment also said that Mr. Ray extorted $1 million from five of his victims, which he shared with two unidentified associates who helped him collect the money. “Some victims drained hundreds of thousands of dollars from their parents’ savings accounts at Ray’s direction,” Mr. Berman said.

On the college campus on Tuesday, a number of students said they had been aware of the New York magazine article and felt relief at Mr. Ray’s arrest. But they expressed concern his actions had evaded the attention of the authorities for so long.

“It’s pretty shocking that it’s taken 10 years to get this guy charged,” said Wyatt Button, 20, a sophomore who is studying film.

Audrey McGonagle, 18, a freshman studying dance, said that although Mr. Ray’s stay on campus was some years ago, she felt uncomfortable when she visited the dorm, Slomin 9, where Mr. Ray had installed himself with his daughter and her friends.

“It’s just creepy,” Ms. McGonagle said.

William K. Rashbaum, Ashley Southall, Sean Piccoli and Laura Dimon contributed reporting.

Correction: Feb. 11, 2020

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the year when students and Lawrence V. Ray moved to Manhattan apartment. It was 2011, not 2010.

Benjamin Weiser is a reporter covering the Manhattan federal courts. He has long covered criminal justice, both as a beat and investigative reporter. Before joining The Times in 1997, he worked at The Washington Post. @BenWeiserNYT


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