National News

Sex trafficking case links elite NY college, Pinehurst home

Posted February 11, 2020 10:11 p.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2020 7:06 p.m. EST

— Lawrence V. Ray showed up at his daughter’s elite college, in a New York City suburb, in late 2010, shortly after being released from prison, and moved into her dormitory. Soon, he started doing “therapy sessions” with her roommates, convincing them he could help with their problems.

Over time, using threats and coercion, he persuaded the young adults he first met at the school, Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, to confess to crimes they had not committed and then extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from them, prosecutors said.

He eventually compelled some of them to work without pay on his family property in North Carolina, and he threatened others with knives. He forced one young woman into prostitution, taking the hundreds of thousands of dollars she made from selling sex to strangers, the prosecutors said.

On Tuesday, Ray, 60, once a close associate of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik, was charged in a federal indictment in Manhattan with conspiracy, extortion, sex trafficking, forced labor and related charges. For eight years, through 2018, the indictment said, Ray “subjected the victims to sexual and psychological manipulation and physical abuse.”

“For the better part of the last 10 years, Ray has continued to mentally and physically torture his victims,” William F. Sweeney Jr., head of the FBI office in New York, said at a news conference Tuesday.

The charges depict Ray as a man who exploited his victims, initially college sophomores, like a cult leader, learning intimate details of their private lives and their mental health struggles under the pretense of helping them.

He alienated several of the young adults from their parents, convincing them that they were “'broken’ and in need of fixing” by him, the indictment said.

“For so many of us and our children, college is supposed to be a time of self-discovery and newfound independence, a chance to explore and learn all within the safety of a college community,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said at the news conference announcing the charges.

Ray “exploited that vulnerable time in these victims’ lives through a course of conduct that shocks the conscience,” Berman said.

Ray’s extortion scheme relied on false confessions that he extracted from his victims, using tactics like sleep deprivation, psychological and sexual humiliation, verbal abuse, physical violence and threats of legal action, the indictment charged. He got them to falsely confess to damaging property and in some cases to trying to poison him, then used those confessions as leverage, the indictment said.

Ray was also accused of laundering about $1 million he obtained from his victims, the indictment said. He was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in Piscataway, N.J., and was ordered jailed overnight after a brief hearing in federal court. Ray was escorted into the courtroom smiling, dressed in a flannel shirt, cargo pants and work boots with his legs shackled.

The investigation that led to the charges against Ray was prompted by an article in New York magazine in April titled “The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence,” Berman said at the news conference.

The startling accusations are all the more remarkable for the environment in which prosecutors say they first played out: the verdant Sarah Lawrence campus, where red brick buildings frame wide lawns and a wisteria arbor dominates the grounds.

Equally remarkable is Ray’s own strange history, a life where he seemed to seesaw between mob figures on the one hand and top law enforcement and military officials on the other; he even has made claims, largely credited, that he worked for a United States intelligence agency in Kosovo.

He was an FBI informant in the late 1990s, dishing dirt about a Gambino crime family soldier, but his efforts to cooperate with the bureau failed, and he was later charged with more than a dozen other men in a federal racketeering and stock fraud case in Brooklyn.

Perhaps the most unusual public episode in Ray’s career came in 1997, when he arranged a City Hall meeting for Mayor Rudy Giuliani with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Earlier in the 1990s, Ray became close to Kerik, whom Giuliani had appointed as New York’s City’s correction commissioner and later named the police commissioner.

Ray was the best man at Kerik’s wedding and paid for part of the celebration; a short while later, Kerik helped Ray get a $100,000-a-year job with a construction company, Interstate Industrial Corp. Part of Ray’s responsibility was to help the business get a license from city regulators, despite allegations it was tied to organized crime.

But Ray and Kerik had a falling out in 2000, around the time of the racketeering indictment, and Ray began cooperating with prosecutors investigating Kerik, who ultimately pleaded guilty, first to state and then later to federal charges stemming from the renovations and his efforts on behalf of Interstate.

In the New York magazine article, Kerik was quoted as saying: “Larry Ray is a psychotic con man who has victimized every friend he’s ever had. It’s been close to 20 years since I last heard from him, yet his reign of terror continues.”

Sarah Lawrence said in a statement that the school had just learned of Ray’s indictment and called the charges “serious, wide-ranging, disturbing and upsetting.” The school said it would cooperate with investigators if asked.

Ray later served time in a New Jersey state prison on charges stemming from a child custody dispute. It was after his release in New Jersey that Ray moved in with his daughter in student housing at Sarah Lawrence.

During the months he spent living at the school, Ray “laid the groundwork for psychological conditioning that would eventually lead these young adults to become unwitting victims of sexual exploitation, verbal and physical abuse, extortion, forced labor and prostitution,” Sweeney said.

In the summer of 2011, the indictment said, some of the Sarah Lawrence students moved with Ray into a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he continued to exploit them.

The indictment also charged that Ray subjected his daughter’s friends to interrogation sessions that often lasted hours at a time and escalated into verbal and physical abuse. He would falsely accuse them of damaging his apartment and property and of harming him and his family, the indictment said.

Around 2013, the indictment said, Ray took some of his victims to Pinehurst, where he forced them to perform manual labor on his family’s property, including the installation of an irrigation system, purportedly to repay money he claimed they owed him.

"Ray used psychological and physical abuse, including food and sleep deprivation and violence against three female victims in order to force them to perform extensive physical labor on a family member's property in North Carolina, sometimes forcing them to work in the middle of the night, all for no pay," Berman said.

Ray's father, Gordon Ray, still lives in Pinehurst and defended his son on Thursday.

"I do know that he has been charged erroneously and he is going through a difficult period," Gordon Ray said before asking a WRAL News crew to get off his property.

Denise Price, who lives a few doors down from Gordon Ray, said she was shocked at the allegations against his son.

"It's definitely shocking to think it could be true. Let's hope, let's hope it's not," Price said.

Lawrence Ray also forced one woman to work as a prostitute from 2014 to 2018 and took more than $500,000 from the money she earned, authorities said. He was also physically violent with her and once tied her to a chair, placed a plastic bag over her head and nearly suffocated her, the indictment charged.

The indictment also said that Lawrence Ray extorted $1 million from five of his victims, which he shared with two unidentified associates. “Some victims drained hundreds of thousands of dollars from their parents’ savings accounts at Ray’s direction,” Berman said.

On the college campus Tuesday, a number of students said they had been aware of the New York magazine article and felt relief at Lawrence Ray’s arrest. But they expressed concern his actions had evaded the attention of authorities for so long.

“It’s pretty shocking that it’s taken 10 years to get this guy charged,” said Wyatt Button, 20, a sophomore who is studying film.

Audrey McGonagle, 18, a freshman studying dance, said that, although Lawrence Ray’s stay on campus was some years ago, she felt uncomfortable when she visited the dorm, Slomin 9, where Ray had installed himself with his daughter and her friends.

“It’s just creepy,” McGonagle said.


WRAL News Fayetteville reporter Gilbert Baez contributed to this report

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