Accused Sarah Lawrence College cult leader Lawrence Ray’s racketeering trial is a tale of “sex, money, and power,” a federal prosecutor told a jury on Thursday, kicking off opening statements with a scene from midtown Manhattan.
“On Oct. 16, 2018, Lawrence Ray went to a midtown hotel,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Keenan said in the first line of the long-awaited trial. “He was with his trusted lieutenant Isabella Pollok.”
Isabella Pollok, a former Sarah Lawrence student previously considered Ray’s victim, will stand trial separately in the summer.
On that date, Ray had been “angry” because he felt that a woman he had forced into prostitution was “slipping from his control,” and he wanted her to continue to “sell her body for profit,” according to the prosecutor.
“He took out a plastic bag and he placed it over her head,” Keenan said, adding that he watched as she “suffocated.”
“She was helpless, unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to scream for help,” Keenan narrated. “As she started to lose consciousness, he took the bag off her face. He towered over her as she was handcuffed to that chair gasping. But he wasn’t done. For hours, he tormented her with that bag, putting it over her head again and again and again. He smothered her with a pillow. He choked her with a leash.”
According to the government, Ray’s “long night of torture” was intended to send the woman a clear message—that she should “behave” and “keep making money.” Ray’s charges allege that this amounted to “millions.”
Through a whirlwind, 30-minute narration, Keenan spoke about the extreme threats that Ray allegedly used to keep the students in line, with a belt, a hammer, and pliers.
“He threatened to dismember a victim while standing over him holding a knife,” Keenan said. “He duct-taped a victim’s mouth shut. He threatened to shatter a victim’s skull while beating him with a hammer.”
Ray’s indictment claims that he preyed upon vulnerable Sarah Lawrence students through a regimen of “indoctrination and criminal exploitation” that manifested in sexual abuse, false labor and financial extortion. He faces 17 separate charges, including sex trafficking, forced labor and money laundering.
Keenan said that Ray exerted control over the students with dayslong interrogation sessions that he recorded, getting them to falsely confess to crimes and compensate him. Ray used these as “leverage” to keep them from coming forward and exposing his crimes, she said. The first day of trial closed with a tape played by one of his alleged victims, who claimed that Ray held a knife to his genitals to threaten and intimidate him.
“Through the Looking Glass”
Ray’s defense attorney Allegra Glashausser used a Lewis Carroll metaphor to persuade the jury that the serious allegations amounted to an elaborate game of make-believe.
“You’re going to need to go through the looking glass,” Glashausser said.
Borrowing an image from “Alice in Wonderland,” Glashausser urged jurors to go through the “magic mirror” into “another world, into the messy, complicated, and yet strange lives of Larry Ray, Claudia Drury, the Rosario siblings, and some old friends.”
Drury is one of Ray’s alleged victims set to testify at trial, and the first witness to testify was Santos Rosario, a former Sarah Lawrence student who dated the accused sex-trafficker’s daughter Talia Ray. Rosario testified that he introduced two of his sisters to Larry Ray, initially believing him to be an “attentive” and intelligent person. Glashausser cast the group as a collective of creative minds.
“This was not a criminal enterprise,” Glashausser, from the Federal Defenders of New York, insisted. “This was a group of storytellers.”
Those who know Ray note that he had elaborate stories to tell.
In the 1990s, Ray mingled with the wealthy and the powerful before an unrelated securities fraud prosecution brought him low. Ex-New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik recounted in an interview with Law&Crime that he picked Ray up at an airport, where former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev and his interpreter tagged along. Kerik also told Law&Crime that Ray brought him along to fundraisers for ex-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and ex-U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), before criminal prosecutions brought down both men and shattered their friendship. Kerik would not intercede in Ray’s prosecution, and Ray turned informant in Kerik’s.
In a phone interview before trial, Kerik said he subsequently learned that Ray was a “conman” and a “master manipulator.”
As Glashausser noted, Ray was a key witness against Kerik, ending the ex-NYPD chief’s then-nomination under George W. Bush for the Department of Homeland Security and rendering him a federal convict (former President Donald Trump went on to pardon Kerik in February 2020).
“Larry did know Bernie Kerik,” Glashausser said. “He was the best man at Kerik’s wedding.”
“Full of Mystery, Intrigue and Excitement”
Ray believed that Kerik’s revenge would be brutal, and Glashausser said her client told the students Kerik would poison his family.
“Larry’s stories were full of mystery, intrigue and excitement,” the defense attorney said.
Those stories, Glashausser said, electrified the students at Sarah Lawrence College, where Ray crashed in his daughter and her friends’ communal home at Slonim Woods 9.
“As they shared their stories, they linked the villains in Larry’s stories to their own,” Glashausser said. “Over time, their stories too were full of mystery, intrigue, and excitement. These were stories of poisoning drug dealers and deceit. Each storyteller jumped off from where the other one had ended, embellishing with their own details and weaving the threads of this story into one fantastic conspiracy.”
Ray’s indictment on his current charges follows the groundbreaking New York Magazine exposé “Larry Ray and the Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence” in 2019. Talia Ray was the Sarah Lawrence student who reportedly introduced her father to his alleged victims.
In February 2020, federal prosecutors charged Ray on nine counts. His criminal exposure ballooned with two superseding indictments, alleging that Ray subjected students to sexual and psychological manipulation, physically abused them through violence and deprivation, and extracted false confessions to extort them for money. Ray allegedly pressured one woman to “engage in frequent prostitution and collecting nearly all the proceeds of that prostitution, amounting to millions of dollars in profits for the enterprise,” according to the superseding indictment.
Prosecutors claim that Ray laundered his ill-gotten gains though various bank accounts and his online domain business.
An FBI agent authenticated government exhibits as witness testimony began late on Thursday morning. Her testimony was followed by one of Ray’s alleged victims: Santos Rosario, the former boyfriend of his daughter Talia Ray. Rosario described how his daughter spoke about her father’s purported persecution.
“She told me that her father was in jail on trumped up charges on a child custody thing, and that he was a hero,” Rosario recounted, adding that Talia Ray described her father as a “good guy” who “exposed” Kerik.
Prosecutor Keenan led Rosario through a series of photographs and renderings of the Slonim 9 dorm, including pictures of him with the other students. She also played a tape of Larry Ray interrogating him, where sounds of Rosario apparently being smacked around were audio in court.
“He would hit me, slap me, held a knife to my throat,” Rosario said. “He hit me with a hammer. He held a knife to my genitals. He put me in a chokehold and put me to sleep.”
Rosario said that it wasn’t the first time Ray had beaten him. His testimony continues on Friday.
Update—March 10 at 3:26 p.m. Eastern Time: This story was updated to include details about the start of witness testimony.
[Image via Stephanie Keith/Getty Images]
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