The trial of accused Sarah Lawrence “cult” leader Larry Ray has astounded many with tales of depravity, including “gangbangs,” hours of torture, forced prostitution, and a multimillion-dollar empire based on physical, mental, emotional and sexual exploitation. To the defense, such accounts represent the imaginations of a group of student “storytellers.”
Deploying thousands of documents, text messages, audio recordings and videos, a prosecutor acknowledged that the trial may have produced the “stuff of nightmares,” but she said that every word of it is true.
“This is not a case about storytellers, and it’s certainly not Alice in Wonderland,” remarked Assistant U.S. Attorney Danielle Sassoon, ridiculing a “through-the-looking-glass” comparison made by Ray’s defense.
As both sides wrapped up their closing arguments on Tuesday morning, a federal jury will now decide which version to believe.
“It Never Happened”
After being instructed by U.S. District Judge Lewis Liman, the jury began deliberations to consider whether to convict Ray of more than a dozen charges, including racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor, money laundering, tax evasion, extortion and other charges.
This much of the story is undisputed: In 2010, Ray got out of prison and visited his daughter’s dormitory in Sarah Lawrence College, a prestigious liberal arts school renowned for nurturing young creatives. Many of the students from the dorm, Slonim Woods 9, initially were dazzled by Ray’s stories of his past. His daughter Talia Ray told them her father blew the whistle on ex-New York City Police chief Bernard Kerik and had been facing retribution ever since.
The students eagerly listened to Ray’s tales of military, intelligence and business contacts and acumen, and he expounded upon his self-styled guide for living Q4P: “quest for potential.”
Eventually, prosecutors say, Ray systematically forced students to confess to a variety of infractions. Torrents of audio and video recordings and written statements entered into evidence show Ray’s alleged victims claiming that they damaged his property, poisoned him, and colluded with Kerik to somehow harm him. On Monday, a prosecutor told the jury that Ray “got rich” by using those confessions to extract payments, ranging from the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Ray’s followers allegedly funneled the ill-gotten loot through thousands of transactions to his GoDaddy account, in a charged money laundering and tax evasion scheme.
Perhaps none of Ray’s followers allegedly suffered as much extreme exploitation as Claudia Drury, the woman prosecutors describe as his sex trafficking victim. Once a student skilled in advanced mathematics, Drury testified for five days that Ray transformed her into a prostitute and took $2.5 million of her earnings. Over the course of four years, she said, she saw up to five men a day, seven days a week and worked over holidays and her birthdays. Ray constantly urged her to raise her price and lose weight, giving her an eating disorder in the process, she said.
When Drury told a client that Ray tried to blackmail them both with a website under her name, she said, Ray responded with what prosecutors call a “long night of torture.” She testified that Ray stripped her naked, suffocated her with a bag, choked with a leash, drenched her with water next to an air conditioner and threatened to kill her.
Trying to sow doubt over the grisly tale, Ray’s public defender Marne Lenox flatly denied that it occurred.
“There was no assault in the Gregory Hotel in Oct. 15, 2018,” Lenox said. “It never happened.”
Prosecutors introduced reams of corroborating evidence, including an audio recording that Drury said was taped by Ray’s accused co-conspirator Isabella Pollok. The more than 20-minute recording ends with the sounds of gagging, and Ray could be heard muttering: “Pass me the bag.”
Drury claimed that she did not eat throughout the seven- to eight-hour ordeal, but Ray and Pollok allegedly picked up food at the nearby Starlight Diner, in midtown Manhattan. Cell site records placed Pollok and Drury in the area of the hotel on the night of the encounter. A receipt from that diner from that night found in Ray’s home showed the exact meal Drury testified they had: burgers.
Ray’s defense counsel said the receipt showed a meal for three and claimed that all three of them ate. Lenox also put a different spin on Ray’s request for the bag. It was not for suffocating Drury, but a request to pass the food, Lenox insisted.
“If You Believe Claudia Drury, Then the Defendant Is Guilty”
Though in many ways a symbol of Ray’s alleged racketeering scheme, Drury was far from the only person the government counts as a victim. A jury heard testimony from three siblings Santos, Felicia, and Yalitza Rosario, all three of whom attempted suicide during the time of their association with Ray. A prosecutor alluded to the method used by the last of the three in describing how she allegedly tried to leave Ray.
“Her exit plan was to take a bottle of Tylenol in the parking lot of a Walmart,” Sassoon said.
Felicia Rosario, whom Ray called his “wife,” testified that he ordered her tape herself having sex with strange men. An FBI agent testified that she authenticated the videos showing that Felicia Rosario did just that, repeatedly. Santos Rosario told a jury that he felt intense pressure to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars that Ray claimed he owed him for property damage and other offenses. His mother Maritza Rosario testified that he pressured her to give him the money, which Santos allegedly turned over to Ray. Jurors saw a video of Santos Rosario repeatedly slapping himself in the face in front of his sister, as Ray could be heard behind the camera, filming.
Jurors also saw videos of Ray pulling the tongue of ex-Sarah Lawrence student Daniel Barban Levin with a set of pliers and threatening him with a hammer pulled under his chin. Multiple witnesses testified that Ray used Saran Wrap as a makeshift garrote on Levin’s testicles. Levin himself spoke about the alleged incident in his memoir about his time in Ray’s “cult,” named after his former dorm: “Slonim Woods 9.”
The defense’s theory of the case circles around claims that the recorded events were the voluntary actions of people all convinced about the stories that they heard.
Through the looking glass of the defense, Drury’s testimony was a journey of her sexual awakening.
“Claudia enjoyed sex, and there’s nothing wrong with that, frankly,” Lenox told. “It’s perfectly natural and normal.”
Drury testified that her interest in extreme sexual experiences like BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism and masochism) and “impact play” stemmed from self-loathing that Ray instilled in her. She said that she worked at a sex club because Ray kept pushing her into ever more risky and anonymous forms of sex. And she testified that she became a prostitute because Ray suggested it as a way to repay her supposed debts.
Using Drury’s words against her, Ray’s attorneys quoted from her journal entries, where she worried about the experience of incarceration. She testified that Ray constantly lorded the prospect of prison over her for her alleged poisoning crimes.
In prison, she fretted, there would be: “No more sex. No more men,” the defense noted.
To the detractors of her new career, the Sarah Lawrence-educated woman wrote in a message: “Sexwork [sic] is awesome.”
Prosecutors depicted this as Ray’s attorneys trying to “shame” Drury as a “slut.”
“Those suggestions are outrageous and insulting,” Sassoon said.
That indignant characterization sparked defense objections. After the jury left the room, Judge Liman said that he would instruct them not to consider characterizations of the lawyers. Prosecutors denied having accused Lenox of “slut-shaming” the victim, never having used those two words together in a compound. Sassoon described it as fair argument in rebuttal because of how the defense portrayed sex work.
“Sex work is a crime,” the prosecutor said.
The intense focus on Drury among her many peers is significant: Prosecutors note Ray’s attorneys have to discredit Drury in order to prevail.
“If you believe Claudia Drury, then the defendant is guilty of all of the charges of the indictment,” Sassoon added.
After lengthy and detailed instructions, the jury began their deliberations at 4:17 p.m.
(Photos by DOJ)
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