Sarah Lawrence College sex-cult trial shows devastated young lives

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Lawrence Ray is accused of corrupting his daughter’s college friends and forcing them into a life of servitude and maniacal rituals.

District attorney Geoffrey Berman announces the indictment of Lawrence Ray on charges of sex trafficking, extortion and forced labor, in New York, Feb. 11, 2020. Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times

NEW YORK – An Ivy League-educated doctor exchanged a promising career for years of physical and psychological torment, allegedly at the hands of Lawrence “Larry” Ray, a man decades her senior. Another woman worked as a prostitute, giving Ray $2.5 million of her earnings even as he allegedly told her — falsely — that she owed him more. The younger brother of the aspiring doctor dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College after being brainwashed by Ray, who allegedly beat him with a hammer and held a blade to his neck.

Ray, now 62, is accused of corrupting the lives of these and other promising young adults — three of them siblings — between 2010 and 2020, dragging them into a life of servitude and maniacal rituals. His trial on racketeering, sex trafficking, money laundering and other charges is expected to wrap up on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, with jury deliberations beginning after that.

Prosecutors say Ray amassed blackmail material on his victims — often by getting them to admit to shameful conduct that they had not actually carried out. He stored recordings of their confessions to use against them if they thought about disobeying him or leaving the cultlike group that he had organized and that he referred to as a “family.”

The case is reminiscent of the 2019 prosecution in Brooklyn federal court of Keith Raniere, who led the Albany, N.Y.-based self-improvement network NXIVM. He was convicted on racketeering and sex trafficking charges involving a group of women he called his “slaves,” but he is appealing the guilty verdict and his 120-year sentence.

Like Raniere, Ray was seen as a source of experience and knowledge who guided his emotionally vulnerable followers through life’s difficulties. “In addition to violence, Ray used classic techniques of coercion to manipulate his victims, such as isolating people from their friends and family, using means of financial control, taking away basic human agency like food and sleep,” said Moira Penza, a former federal prosecutor who tried the case against Raniere.

Marne Lynn Lenox, one of Ray’s defense lawyers, said in her summation Monday afternoon that his accusers engaged in ongoing “storytelling” that grew out of Ray’s notion that there was a “vast government conspiracy” of powerful people wanting to cause him harm.

“The world that [Ray] and others cultivated over the course of a decade may not be one that you or I could ever understand,” Lenox told jurors. She argued that the group’s reality was “through the looking glass” and amounted to a shared belief in alternate truths.

A dad moves into the dormitory

After a federal securities fraud conviction, charges related to a custody dispute and a bail-jumping case, Ray was released from a stint behind bars in 2010. He began living at his daughter Talia’s dorm suite at Sarah Lawrence, a private liberal arts college in Westchester County, just north of New York City.

There, he encountered Talia’s roommates and injected himself into their lives.

Ray cooked meals and hosted late-night chats for the college sophomores, promising them he could help them lead “better, more honest lives,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Danielle Sassoon said in her opening statement.

“He told them that he had special training that could help them gain clarity and discipline,” Sassoon said. “He said if they shared their deepest feelings with him, he could help resolve their problems.”

Claudia Drury was 19 when she met Ray at the dorm suite called Slonim Woods 9. She testified that after drawing her into his orbit, Ray eventually physically abused her. At the same time, she said, he convinced Drury that she had tried to poison him and owed him huge sums of money as a result.

Eventually, Drury told jurors, she worked four years as a prostitute, meeting clients in hotel rooms and paying Ray $10,000 to $50,000 per week. In 2018, she said, Ray suffocated her with a plastic bag after she told a regular client that his name was on a website Ray created to post embarrassing and damaging information he could use to control her.

Santos Rosario also met Ray at Sarah Lawrence. He had dated Talia Ray, who is not charged in the case and did not testify. The elder Ray served as Rosario’s and Drury’s spiritual adviser and life counselor, according to court testimony. Rosario said he grew so enamored with Talia Ray’s father that he told his sisters Felicia and Yalitza that they also should meet him and get the benefit of his guidance.

An apartment in Manhattan

The sisters joined their brother in spending time at a crowded one-bedroom apartment Ray occupied on East 93rd Street in Manhattan in 2011. Felicia Rosario, then 29, had degrees from Harvard and Columbia and was training to become a medical doctor at a hospital in California. She began what she believed was a romantic relationship with Ray — who, she testified, referred to her as his “wife.”

Ray’s demands on the group grew increasingly outlandish, and his hold on them increasingly firm, prosecutors alleged. He regaled them with stories about his contacts in the military, government and law enforcement, including former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, and described impressive personal feats, according to testimony from the Rosarios and Drury. He claimed to have negotiated a cease-fire in Kosovo in the late 1990s and bragged about being the one responsible for landing Kerik in prison on corruption-related charges in 2010.

The young people testified that they confided their secrets and insecurities to Ray, who used that information to compile dossiers on them. Ray allegedly got them to confess on video to poisoning him, his daughter and others, and to other fabricated wrongdoing, and told them he could have them arrested – or worse.

Ray also began tasking the young adults with abusive chores, the Rosario siblings and Drury testified, giving them sexual assignments and instructing them to have sexual encounters with each other.

On one occasion, Felicia Rosario said, Ray ordered her to proposition the doorman on duty at the Waterford condominium building, where they lived. The doorman, Carlos Pagan, testified that the young woman approached him to say Ray “sent her down so she could have sex with me outside in the car.” Pagan noticed she was “shaking” and had a bruise on her face. “Young lady, you need to go back upstairs,” he recalled telling her in reply.

Over time, Felicia assumed an unsettling, childlike demeanor, evidence presented by the prosecutors showed. In videos Ray took of her and her siblings, her gaze is glossy and disconnected. In one disturbing recording, Santos slaps himself in the face repeatedly over the course of an hour, apparently because Ray had convinced him that doing so would be the only way to get his sister to stop speaking. Felicia, rocking back and forth on a black leather couch, appears agitated.

“I learned my lesson. I learned my lesson. I learned my lesson, Larry!” she moaned.

North Carolina, then New Jersey

In 2013, Ray brought Felicia and her sister Yalitza — six years her junior — to Pinehurst, N.C., to do unpaid landscaping and other chores at his stepfather’s property, the siblings testified. They said Ray rationed their food and made the sisters sleep on the front porch. Santos stayed at the New York apartment and worked as a waiter, giving all of his earnings to Ray, he testified.

To meet Ray’s demands for money to “repair” their supposed wrongs, his alleged victims sometimes asked family and friends for money, prosecutors said. The Rosarios’ mother, Maritza, testified that she gave Santos about $150,000 in installments to give to Ray — much of which she had to borrow. She also said her son separately stole nearly $13,000 from her money transfer business in 2014. Santos, who had attempted suicide in high school, said he told his mother that he would take his own life if she didn’t help him.

All three Rosario siblings have been hospitalized for psychiatric issues since their alleged abuse at Ray’s hand, testimony showed. Yalitza said she ran away from the Pinehurst house at one point, walking through the woods along a highway overnight until she reached a Walmart, where she acquired Tylenol that she planned to use for a fatal overdose.

Someone later saw her collapsed next to the Walmart building and called for help. When she was released from the hospital, she went back to Ray. Later, she ran away again and headed to New York. She said she planned to make another suicide attempt there but decided against it.

By 2016, Felicia Rosario and Isabella Pollok were the only members of the “Ray family” still living with him. The trio moved to Piscataway, N.J., into the home of a friend of Ray’s. The young women stayed there for several months following Ray’s arrest in 2020, which came less than a year after a lengthy article in New York magazine describing the cult and his alleged abuse of his victims. Pollok was also eventually arrested, charged with being Ray’s accomplice. She is awaiting trial.

Twice during Ray’s 312-week trial, he was been rushed out of the courthouse on a stretcher after complaining about medical ailments, halting the proceedings for a day or more.

Lawrence Ray is loaded into an ambulance by members of the New York City Fire Department March 22, in New York. – Lawrence Neumeister/AP Photo

Defense attorneys presented their case in just hours on Monday morning. Witnesses included a former attorney for Ray who said Ray had told him about being poisoned, and who said he told Ray it was legal to take money from Drury for “restitution.” Another defense witness for Ray disputed the accuracy of certain cellphone records prosecutors used to corroborate witness accounts.

Ray, who faces the possibility of life and many additional years in prison if convicted on all counts, did not testify.

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