Accused Sarah Lawrence “cult” leader Larry Ray wants to assert a remarkable defense to testimony that he took his alleged sex trafficking victim’s money. His lawyer said he could do it, he claimed in a startling defense filing.
Known as an “advice of counsel defense,” Ray’s attorneys provided the broad outlines of the argument in a four-page letter on Wednesday evening.
“Honestly and in Good Faith Sought the Advice of Counsel”
Ray’s sex trafficking accuser Claudia Drury delivered five days of harrowing testimony about her alleged exploitation by the defendant. She testified that she became a prostitute at Ray’s suggestion, making $2.5 million that she turned over to him. She told a jury that she worked seven days a week for the better part of four years, including holidays and her birthday. She said that she lived primarily out of hotels and serviced up to five men a day.
Ray demanded that she turn over her client list, and he blackmailed both her and one of her johns on a now-defunct website established in Drury’s name, she testified.
When she alerted the client about the website, she said, Ray punished her with what prosecutors call her “long night of torture“: stripping her naked, handcuffing her to a chair, suffocating her with a bag, choking her with a chain, and dumping water over her head, according to her testimony. Ray’s accused co-conspirator Isabella Pollok allegedly recorded Drury’s torment.
As the government’s case draws to a close, Ray’s federal public defenders previewed a remarkable defense. They say that Ray’s counsel authorized him receiving compensation from Drury’s sex work because he believed she had poisoned him.
“A defendant is entitled to an advice of counsel defense if there is evidence from which ‘a reasonable juror could find that the defendant ‘honestly and in good faith sought the advice of counsel,’ ‘fully and honestly laid all the facts before his counsel,’ and ‘in good faith and honestly followed counsel’s advice,’” Ray’s lead counsel Marne Lenox wrote in a legal brief.
Charged in a 17-count indictment, Ray stands accused of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor, extortion and other crimes. Prosecutors say he coerced Sarah Lawrence students into false confessions that they harmed him by damaging his property, poisoning him and colluding with his enemies. Drury testified that she falsely confessed to poisoning Ray. He would then use those written or recorded confessions to extract money in compensation, prosecutors say.
Ray’s current legal defense wants to call his former attorney Glenn Ripa to the witness stand.
The defense’s legal brief breaks down his anticipated testimony into four bullet points:
- First, as Mr. Ripa will testify, Mr. Ray sought his advice regarding the legality of accepting money from Ms. Drury as “compensation” for Ms. Drury’s poisoning of him.
- Second, as Mr. Ripa will testify, Mr. Ray (and Ms. Drury) disclosed that Ms. Drury was working as a prostitute and Mr. Ripa knew that was how she made her money.
- Third, as Mr. Ripa will testify, he advised Mr. Ray that it was permissible to accept money from Ms. Drury as compensation or damages for the tort that she had committed against Mr. Ray, and that this need not be reduced to a formal legal requirement. Mr. Ripa will also testify that he advised Mr. Ray that the money Mr. Ray received from Ms. Drury for this purpose was not taxable.
- Fourth, there has already been evidence elicited at trial that Mr. Ray accepted money from Ms. Drury as damages, repairs, or compensation for the poisoning she had purportedly committed, after receiving this advice.
The defense claims that Ripa’s advice is exculpatory to his charges of extortion, extortion conspiracy, using interstate commerce to promote unlawful activity, money laundering and tax evasion. His lawyers notably do not assert it as a defense against Ray’s sex trafficking charge.
“I Had No Idea We Were Talking About That Kind of Money”
On Wednesday afternoon, Ripa wrote an email to Assistant U.S. Attorney Danielle Sassoon acknowledging he advised Ray on the subject of “restitution” from Drury.
“Larry Ray had mentioned to me that Claudia was giving him money as restitution for the poisoning and I did mention to him that money received as restitution is non taxable,” the email, attached as an exhibit to the government’s filing, states. “Nevertheless, I have read in the papers that Larry was getting millions of dollars from Claudia and I had no idea that we were talking about that kind of money. Let’s talk.”
Ripa did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s email requesting comment.
Federal prosecutors want to preclude the jury from hearing this defense, writing that Ray withheld key facts from Ripa.
“In representing to Mr. Ripa that the money from Claudia was restitution, he did not tell Mr. Ripa about the violence inflicted on Claudia, the wrongful threats made against her, and the extortion and sex trafficking that gave rise to her payments,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mollie Bracewell wrote. “In presenting Mr. Ripa with Claudia’s supposed confessions to poisoning, the defendant also did not disclose the coercive circumstances that gave rise to these confessions. He also did not tell Mr. Ripa about the amount of money he was receiving from Claudia. The size of the payments alone clearly would have affected Mr. Ripa’s supposed tax advice to the defendant, as his email today to the prosecution makes plain.”
Prosecutors added that the extortion charges at issue are not subject to an advice of counsel defense.
“There is no mention in the Ripa Letter of hours-long interrogations, unpaid manual labor, hospitalization for mental health issues, or the years of threats, force, and violence that preceded Ms. Drury’s 2015 admission in housing court that she and others poisoned the defendant,” the government’s brief states.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Liman, a Donald Trump appointee presiding over the case, has not yet ruled on the permissibility of that defense’s argument.
Attorney Mitchell Epner, a former federal prosecutor who led intake on sex-trafficking cases in the District of New Jersey in 2003 and 2004, called Ray’s defense argument “creative” in a phone interview. He also predicted that cross-examination would be a minefield.
“When Ripa takes the stand, which he would have to do in order to try to put this defense forward, privilege will be waived,” noted Epner, who is a partner with the firm Rottenberg Lipman Rich PC.
“If I were the prosecution in this case, I would spend three or four hours asking Ripa whether or not Larry Ray informed him that when he was living in this apartment with these people, he was depriving them of food; he was blasting ‘Baba O’Riley’ at six o’clock in the morning and just go through the litany of every awful deed that Larry Ray did, and ask whether or not at the time he provided this advice, he knew that fact,” he added. “There is no good answer to any of those questions.”
The chorus of The Who’s rock anthem “Baba O’Riley,” written by Pete Townshend, features singer Roger Daltrey crooning “Teenage Wasteland” in the chorus. One of Ray’s alleged victims, Dan Levin, wrote in his memoir that Ray would blast that song in the mornings, in what he later perceived to be a veiled message to the college students.
It is unclear whether Ripa’s testimony ultimately will be permitted. One of Ray’s alleged victims, Yalitza Rosario, finished testifying on Thursday morning.
Hear more about the Larry Ray case on Law&Crime’s podcast “Objections: with Adam Klasfeld“:
Read the defense and prosecution filings, below:
(Photos via DOJ)
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