Mar 11, 2022

'Violence, Fear, Sex and Manipulation': Sarah Lawrence Cult Trial Begins

Lawrence V. Ray was indicted after a New York magazine story uncovered his cultlike hold over his daughter’s college friends and others.

Colin Moynihan
New York Times
March 10, 2022

One day in 2018, Lawrence V. Ray went looking for a woman he knew — a woman he felt was “slipping from his control,” a prosecutor said Thursday during an opening statement in Mr. Ray’s trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

The prosecutor, Lindsey Keenan, told jurors that when Mr. Ray found the woman inside a hotel in Midtown Manhattan, he directed her to undress, pushed her into a chair, handcuffed her so she could not move and placed a plastic bag over her head.

“He tightened the bag around her head and watched as she suffocated,” Ms. Keenan said, without identifying the woman. The woman survived, said Ms. Keenan, who told jurors that Mr. Ray ordered her to “behave” and to “keep making money for him.”

Ms. Keenan’s dramatic opening statement to jurors served as the most detailed description yet of what prosecutors have said was a decade of crime. Later, one of the government’s first witnesses described to jurors how Mr. Ray had berated and physically attacked him.

Mr. Ray, who moved into his daughter’s dormitory at Sarah Lawrence College after being released from prison, is accused of manipulating her friends and others using cult-leader tactics. He has been charged with several crimes, including racketeering conspiracy, extortion and sex trafficking.

At one point during her opening statement, Ms. Keenan extended her arm and pointed a finger at Mr. Ray, a bald and burly man who was wearing a blue shirt and light-colored sweater and said: “This man, the defendant, Lawrence Ray, used violence, fear, sex and manipulation to get what he wanted — power and money.”

The start of Mr. Ray’s trial came two years after an indictment used dry and almost detached legal language to describe the charges against Mr. Ray. Pretrial court filings by prosecutors largely maintained that tone.

But Ms. Keenan described several instances of what she called “senseless violence” and told jurors that Mr. Ray spent years running a criminal enterprise that included the abuse of young people, many of whom had attended Sarah Lawrence College, just north of New York City.

A few minutes later, the defense’s opening statement offered a different view of the interactions between Mr. Ray and the students. Instead of organizing a criminal enterprise, one of Mr. Ray’s lawyers said, he had been caught up in a spiraling group illusion.

It began, the defense said, when he moved into a dormitory at Sarah Lawrence to “reunite and reconnect” with a daughter who lived there, then amazed her roommates and friends with colorful yarns “full of mystery, intrigue and excitement.”

The lawyer, Allegra Glashausser, said that the students were “a group of storytellers,” some of whom had suffered from mental illness before meeting Mr. Ray. They built upon and embellished his tales, she said, ultimately creating a “fantastic conspiracy” that absorbed Mr. Ray.

“You’re going to hear some outlandish things,” Ms. Glashausser told the jurors, adding that to fully understand what had transpired, “you’re going to have to go through the looking glass, through the magic mirror.”

A former Sarah Lawrence student took the stand on Thursday afternoon and said that he met Mr. Ray at the college in 2010. The witness, Santos Rosario, testified that Mr. Ray was “attentive and friendly” at first. But in 2011, he said, Mr. Ray turned abusive, and sometimes referred to him as “trash” and “scum.”

“He would hit me, he would slap me,” Mr. Rosario testified, adding that Mr. Ray also “held a knife to my genitals.”

A story published in New York magazine in 2019, “The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence,” described Mr. Ray’s indoctrination methods. An investigation followed, and he was arrested in 2020. Since then, he has been in custody, attending court proceedings while flanked by United States Marshals.

Mr. Ray now faces a total of 16 counts, including several connected to forced labor, money laundering and tax evasion and conspiracy and one of violent crime in aid of racketeering.

There is little doubt that Mr. Ray’s life, before he moved to the Sarah Lawrence campus in Westchester County, had been unusual. It included an episode in which he arranged a meeting between Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the mayor of New York City, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and claims that he worked at one point in Kosovo for a United States intelligence agency.

He was friendly in the 1990s with Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, who helped him secure a job with Interstate Industrial Corporation, a construction company reputed to have ties to organized crime.

Mr. Ray was charged in 2000 by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn with taking part in a scheme in which mobsters and stockbrokers were accused of swindling investors out of $40 million. Around the same time, Mr. Ray cooperated with prosecutors investigating Mr. Kerik, who ended up pleading guilty to state and federal charges stemming from their connections to Interstate.

In 2010, Mr. Ray emerged from state prison in New Jersey, where he had served time on charges related to a child custody dispute. He then moved into a dormitory where his daughter, Talia Ray, lived.

Mr. Ray, who was then 50 years old, quickly became a domineering force in the dormitory, called Slonim Woods, according to prosecutors. He began offering what prosecutors called phony “therapy” sessions to his daughter’s friends and roommates, gaining insight into their lives and vulnerabilities.

As those students fell under Mr. Ray’s influence, his behavior, as described in an indictment, became more aggressive. Over the years that followed, Mr. Ray ran what prosecutors said was a criminal enterprise — one that in many ways resembled a cult, with Mr. Ray playing the role of authoritarian leader.

He is said to have used psychological manipulation to convince the students that they were “broken” and in need of his “fixing.” Prosecutors said he indoctrinated the students into his system of beliefs; used threats and coercion to get them to confess to crimes they had not committed; and extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from them.

Prosecutors said that Mr. Ray ordered students to perform unpaid labor, compelled one female student to have sex with a male student and forced that female student into prostitution. He is accused of directing another woman to have sexual encounters with strangers and to document them with video, of which he then took possession.

Several students became estranged from their parents while under his sway, prosecutors said. They added that one of them, Isabella Pollok, became what prosecutors called Mr. Ray’s “trusted lieutenant,” taking part in the abuse of her onetime classmates.

Mr. Ray eventually left the Sarah Lawrence campus and lived with his victims at an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and at homes in New Jersey and North Carolina, prosecutors said.

His pattern of behavior remained consistent regardless of the location, prosecutors added: Mr. Ray was a mercurial taskmaster, bullying his victims into submission, issuing edicts and reacting with fury to any hint of independence or rebellion.

“He threatened to dismember a victim while standing over him with a knife,” Ms. Keenan, the prosecutor, told jurors. “He threatened to shatter a victim’s skull while hitting him with a hammer.”

Ms. Glashausser told jurors that Mr. Ray was not “a saint” and that some evidence presented in the case would be disturbing. But, she added, that did not mean Mr. Ray was guilty of federal crimes.

“Through the looking glass,” she said. “The truth became complicated.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 11, 2022, Section A, Page 21 of the New York edition with the headline: At Trial Over College Cult, An Accusation of ‘Violence, Fear, Sex and Manipulation’

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