Larry Ray, accused of being a con man and a cult leader who came to dominate the lives of a group of students at Sarah Lawrence College, will stand trial in federal court in lower Manhattan this month. He’s facing a slew of charges, including sex trafficking, extortion, and forced labor. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. You can sign up here to get our newsletter, Court Appearances, which will feature dispatches from the trial.
Ray’s byzantine life story, which includes his attempts at mind control and has cameos by such characters as former New York City police chief Bernie Kerik and Mikhail Gorbachev, was first told publicly in an April 2019 cover story in New York Magazine. “The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence” sparked an FBI investigation; early in 2020, Ray was arrested in New Jersey. Now the government says that Ray, who is 62, abused the college students verbally, physically, and psychologically and that he stole some $1.7 million from a young woman he forced into sex work.
The Ray case is the latest in a string of high-profile federal sex-crime prosecutions in New York. In 2019, Keith Raniere, who ran the cult NXIVM, was convicted of sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, and other crimes; he was sentenced to 120 years in prison. R. Kelly was convicted on nine counts, including sex trafficking and racketeering, last year; he will be sentenced in May. And in the final days of 2021, Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted on charges that she helped recruit underage victims for the serial predator Jeffrey Epstein. She’ll be sentenced later this year, though the possibility of a mistrial looms. All four cases involve charismatic manipulators exercising power over much younger people; all generate substantial media attention. Each is also a grueling affair for victims and their families.
The Larry Ray case has only gotten more complicated in the nearly three years since New York broke the story. Here, a guide to the essential characters, the most astonishing details (both real and invented), and the likely strategies to be pursued in court.
Born Lawrence Grecco in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Larry Ray has long been described by people who know him as chameleonic. In the 1980s, he traded stocks on Wall Street despite not having a college degree. He consulted in the insurance, gambling, and construction industries. He operated a nightclub in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, and tried to buy the legendary Manhattan hot spots the Tunnel and Limelight. He held fundraisers for politicians, including Patrick Kennedy.
What really made Ray exceptional, though, is the way he expertly mixed real relationships — including connections to top officers in the U.S. Marine Corps — with lies and embellishments. He claimed to have operated for years as a clandestine agent overseas. He said he’d worked for the CIA in Russia and that he’d recovered Stinger missiles on behalf of the government. Plenty of people believed Ray’s tales. He got married in 1988. In 1995, he met an NYPD detective named Bernie Kerik, and they became close friends, with Ray serving as best man at Kerik’s wedding.
In 2000, Ray was indicted as a co-conspirator in a mafia-related pump-and-dump scheme. Around that time, Kerik became police commissioner. But when Ray reached out to Kerik for help in fighting the charges, Kerik snubbed him. That perceived slight seemed to change Ray, who embarked on a long campaign to destroy Kerik’s reputation.
After pleading guilty to securities fraud in 2003, Ray’s life unraveled. He and his wife divorced and fought over custody of their two children; he was incarcerated, paroled, and incarcerated again.
In 2010, days after he was let out of New Jersey’s Northern State Prison, he began sleeping on his daughter’s dorm-room couch.
Ray spent long nights holding court in a common room at his daughter’s building. Some of the students in the house were alienated. Others were spellbound by his stories and flattered by his attention. That summer, Ray convinced five of them to move in with him in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side belonging to an old friend from prison. He began isolating the students from family and friends, and often kept the group up long into the night discussing philosophy and conspiracy theories. The sessions could turn violent; one student said that Ray wrapped his genitals in a homemade garrote. At some point, the group lost touch with reality. Ray accused the students of poisoning him and damaging his belongings and convinced them they owed him substantial sums of money. He also convinced a trio of siblings, one of whom was a student at Sarah Lawrence, to solicit hundreds of thousands of dollars from their parents and goaded Claudia, one of his daughter’s closest friends, into becoming an escort to pay back her supposed debts.
Shortly after New York published its article on the saga, a joint FBI and NYPD sex-crimes task force began investigating Ray. At the time, he was living in suburban New Jersey with two members of the Sarah Lawrence group, including Isabella Pollok, his daughter’s former roommate. That’s where the FBI arrested him early on the morning of February 11, 2020.
There are 17 counts, including racketeering, extortion, sex trafficking, forced labor, use of interstate commerce to promote unlawful activity, money laundering, and a whole bunch of tax evasion. Prosecutors have detailed several incidents of violence, including one where Ray choked an alleged victim with a plastic bag. Ray has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
He has been in jail in New York City since his arrest in February 2020, and he’s been denied bail five times. In August 2020, citing recorded phone calls from jail, prosecutors accused Ray of attempting to get his father to threaten and coerce two of his alleged victims. (Ray’s attorneys dispute this.)
Prosecutors have about 15 terabytes of data recovered from seized hard drives, phones, and laptops. The government says it has more than 150,000 audio files of conversations involving Ray and his alleged victims, as well as numerous videos, some of which are sexually explicit. Prosecutors have told the court that they plan on presenting written summaries of the footage to the jury in order to preserve the alleged victims’ privacy.
At the center of the government’s case is Claudia, who’s being identified in court as Jane Doe 2. Prosecutors say Ray pocketed $1.7 million generated by sex work that she conducted, although they haven’t detailed how the arrangement could have brought in such an astonishing amount. Originally from Los Angeles, she is the daughter of a novelist and a former art director at a newspaper. At Sarah Lawrence, she began meeting Ray for one-on-one counseling sessions, although he is not a psychiatrist; she told people that he diagnosed her with schizophrenia, and she cut off contact with her parents and others. (They’ve since reunited.)
Another key witness will likely be Daniel Barban Levin, who fell under Ray’s influence in his sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence and who says Ray abused him physically and mentally. He lived with the group in the Upper East Side apartment on and off for around three years. In September, Crown published his memoir, billing the book as “a stunning firsthand account of the creation of a modern cult and the costs paid by its young victims.”
In March 2021, the government abruptly shifted its stance toward Isabella Pollok, a student at Sarah Lawrence when Ray arrived on campus. After first characterizing her as one of Ray’s victims, prosecutors accused her of acting as his “lieutenant” and “lead agent.” They charged her with 11 crimes, including extortion, sex trafficking, and money laundering.
Pollok met Ray when she was a sophomore, attending Sarah Lawrence on a full academic scholarship. “I’m 19, I was having a lot of difficulty making sense of things, I wasn’t in a good place,” she said in an interview in 2019. “He started to help me kind of process and make sense of a lot of things I just couldn’t make sense of.” Soon, Ray began instructing Pollok to have sex with other men.
Even after the New York story, Pollok remained loyal to Ray. She wrote an email to one of his alleged victims calling her “vile” and accusing her of attempting to poison five people.
A year ago, Pollok’s attorney requested a psychological evaluation to see if she was fit for trial. She was, the evaluation said, but the attorney withdrew from the case. Pollok now has a public defender and a separate trial date in July. In the meantime, she’s free on $100,000 bail and has been working at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island.
The lead assistant U.S. Attorney is Danielle Sassoon, 36. After graduating from Harvard, she earned her law degree at Georgetown and landed a Supreme Court clerkship with Antonin Scalia. She worked for Kirkland & Ellis and taught at New York University’s law school before becoming a prosecutor. This seems to be the highest-profile case Sassoon has overseen.
Of note: Another prosecutor, Mollie Bracewell, was dining outdoors last year at Muse, a Thai restaurant in Brooklyn, when she was struck in the face by a stray bullet. She recovered and has appeared in court.
Marne Lenox, Peggy Cross-Goldenberg, and Allegra Glashausser — lawyers from the Federal Defenders of New York, an independent nonprofit that defends people who cannot afford their own counsel. This month, Ray’s team filed a motion to withdraw from the case, citing irreconcilable differences with their client, but the judge said the disagreement was insubstantial. They’re stuck with each other.
His attorneys have signaled they intend to dig into his alleged victims’ pasts to discredit the narrative that Ray forced them to do anything. Much of the pretrial court activity has involved access to the individuals’ medical records. Prosecutors have argued that producing the documents would violate the alleged victims’ privacy. The judge, Lewis J. Liman, has largely ruled in favor of Ray.
Ray has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder. According to a 2014 report entered by the defense, Ray “has characteristics that are strongly suggestive of pseudologia fantastica, or Munchausen’s disorder.” That would help to explain how he created a compelling, if far-fetched, version of reality that he delivered to his captive audiences. Much of the pretrial litigation grappled with how his psychological issues may have influenced his actions.
For example: Ray has claimed for years that he is the victim of a sprawling conspiracy and that his daughter’s friends poisoned him at Bernie Kerik’s direction. Ahead of the trial, defense attorneys sought to secure the testimony of an expert witness, Dr. Joseph Pierre. They hoped he would argue to the jury that Ray genuinely believed some of the things he said. Pierre had interviewed Ray for hours, determining that he has “delusion-like beliefs and belief in primarily a conspiracy theory.” He told the judge that while he did not himself believe Ray’s claims, they were “at least partially supported by medical evidence of Mr. Ray’s elevated mercury levels.” Judge Liman ended up blocking Pierre from testifying at the trial, writing that the doctor lacked training in toxicology and “admitted that he did not contemplate that the account Ray was giving Pierre was a self-serving narrative to minimize his criminal culpability.”
One of the most detailed looks into Ray’s character comes from a 2005 psychological examination that was commissioned by his ex-wife’s lawyers as part of a custody battle. “He is able to manipulate and control almost any situation in which he finds himself, including a psychological interview with a forensic examiner, no matter how experienced that examiner may be. Mr. Ray is very good at what he does,” the examiner wrote. Ray, he continued, “can be utterly charming and one can be disarmed by his childlike simplicity and smile. But Mr. Ray is no child; he is a calculating, manipulative, and hostile man.”
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