An ex-convict who moved into his daughter’s dorm at Sarah Lawrence College is facing several charges for allegedly using “fear, violence and coercion” to recruit her classmates into a sex cult, according to federal prosecutors in New York.
Lawrence Ray, 60, is accused of bilking his followers out of nearly US$1 million over a decade of “sexual and psychological manipulation and physical abuse,” according to the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
He also allegedly forced his victims into performing unpaid labour, coerced them into providing false criminal confessions for extortion and pushed one woman into prostitution.
Ray is facing nine federal charges including sex trafficking, extortion, money laundering and forced labour, according to a news release from the DA’s office. He was taken into custody at his residence in New Jersey on Tuesday. As of this writing, neither Ray nor any legal representative has addressed the accusations publicly.
DA Geoffrey Berman said the investigation was prompted by The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence, an article published in New York magazine last April. In the article, one of Ray’s alleged victims described the group as a “cult.”
“After gaining his victims’ trust, Ray turned on them, falsely accusing them of harming him by attempting to poison him or to deliberately damage his property,” Berman said at a news conference on Tuesday. “Ray subjected his victims to almost unspeakable abuse.”
The suspect allegedly started building his following after he was released from a New Jersey prison in 2010. He moved into his daughter Talia’s campus dorm a short time later at Sarah Lawrence College, a prestigious school in upstate New York, and started preaching his own “personal philosophy” to her roommates and friends.
Ray allegedly presented himself to his daughter’s friends as a “father figure” and self-help guru who could fix “broken” people through his therapy sessions and lectures, the DA’s office said.
Ray convinced his victims that they were indebted to him and would subject them to “gruelling interrogations,” sleep deprivation and starvation, prosecutors allege.
He would alienate his victims from their families, and often convinced them to drain their parents’ bank accounts and borrow money so they could pay him, the indictment alleges. He also allegedly pressured his followers into confessing to unsubstantiated crimes on camera, and held a knife to one man’s throat in order to get that false confession.
The suspect allegedly tied one woman to a chair, put a plastic bag over her head and left it there until she nearly suffocated to death. He is also accused of pressured a woman to give him more than $500,000, then forced her into prostitution to continue paying her “debt” to him, according to prosecutors.
“The conduct alleged here is outrageous,” William Sweeney Jr., assistant director-in-charge of the FBI in New York, said at the news conference Tuesday. “It makes you angry. If you’re not angry, you don’t have a soul.”
Ray’s first alleged victims were his daughter’s roommates, but he eventually expanded that circle to include other college sophomores at the school. He convinced several victims to move into a one-bedroom apartment with him in Manhattan in 2011, then later moved them to a property in North Carolina, according to the indictment.
Ray allegedly convinced at least seven victims to make false confessions and extorted money out of five of them.
Sarah Lawrence College said Tuesday that it has not been contacted by federal prosecutors but would cooperate “if invited to do so.”
The college added that it investigated the allegations raised in the New York magazine article. It was not able to substantiate the article’s specific claims.
“The charges contained in the indictment are serious, wide-ranging, disturbing and upsetting,” the college said in a statement. “As always the safety and well-being of our students and alumni is a priority for the college.”
Ray went by the name “Lawrence Grecco” with his followers, prosecutors said, but “Larry” Ray was already well-known in New York for helping to send New York City’s former police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, to prison.
Ray was the best man at Kerik’s wedding, and Kerik was a close confidant and police driver for former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Ray gave authorities evidence that Kerik had failed to report thousands of dollars in gifts he’d received while working for the city. Ray was facing an indictment for a $40-million stock scam at the time.
Kerik ultimately served four years in prison over the scandal. He told Fox News on Tuesday that he hasn’t spoken to Ray in nearly 20 years. Kerik also accused the FBI and the Justice Department of ignoring Ray’s “lies, deceit and inconsistencies” in their “zeal” to prosecute him.
“Hopefully, this indictment will be the end of his reign of terror on everyone he has conned, manipulated, or deceived, and the children he has hurt,” Kerik told Fox News in an emailed statement.
Ray served prison time in New Jersey until 2010 for charges stemming from a child custody dispute, the New York Times reports.
The new indictment against Ray does not mention his daughter, Talia Ray. New York magazine reported last year that she graduated from school and no longer lives with her father.
“It’s pretty shocking that it’s taken 10 years to get this guy charged,” Sarah Lawrence student Wyatt Button, 20, told the New York Times on Tuesday.
Ray faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if he is convicted.
He was scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday.
—With files from The Associated Press