Shortly after his release from a New Jersey prison in 2010, Lawrence Ray had an opportunity to start fresh.

Instead, prosecutors alleged, the then-50-year-old father moved into his daughter’s Sarah Lawrence College dorm room and allegedly ran a sex cult for nearly a decade under the guise of “therapy sessions” as a “father figure.”

“When [Larry Ray] arrived at Sarah Lawrence in 2010, he was not there to help students improve their lives. He was there to help himself,” Assistant United States Attorney Lindsay Keenan said during opening statements Thursday at Ray’s trial in Manhattan federal court. “He used violence, fear, sex and manipulated to get what he wanted. Sex, money, and power,”

Ray, 62, has pleaded not guilty to several charges, including sex trafficking, extortion, and racketeering conspiracy, for allegedly physically, sexually, and psychologically abusing several college students at the liberal arts school in upstate New York—in addition to laundering over $1 million from one woman he forced into sex work. Eventually, prosecutors said the abuse continued in his Manhattan apartment, North Carolina, and other locations.

Lawrence Ray is alleged to have used his daughter’s dorm room at Sarah Lawrence College to run a sex cult.

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To ensure his victims’ silence, Ray allegedly extracted false confessions using sleep deprivation, psychological and sexual humiliation, verbal abuse, physical violence, and threats of legal action. Ray’s alleged extortion and sex-trafficking scheme was first detailed in a New York Magazine expose in April 2019.

“When shame and embarrassment weren’t enough to get what he wanted, [Larry Ray] resorted to violent,” Keenan said, adding that he “threatened to dismember a victim while standing over him with a knife” and “threatened to shatter a victim’s skull while hitting him with a hammer.”

As Keenan walked jurors through all of Ray’s harrowing alleged crimes, the 63-year-old, wearing a blue shirt and beige sweater, was staring intently at the prosecutor just feet away from the defense table. Ray appeared to barely move throughout the prosecution’s brief opening statement, only fidgeting to touch what appeared to be a black headphone or hearing aid.

Ray’s defense, however, took a different route to explain the case against their client: the allegations are simply “stories” from a group of misguided young adults. “This case is about a group of storytellers,” Allegra Glashausser, from the Federal Defenders of New York, told jurors. “Over time, their stories grew and details were added. This is not a criminal enterprise, this was a group of storytellers.”

The start of Ray’s trial marks the latest in a string of high-profile federal sex-crimes trials in New York. In 2019, Keith Raniere was convicted of sex trafficking for running the sex cult NXIVM—months later a jury found Harvery Weinstein guilty of abusing women under the guise of jumpstarting their careers. Last year, disgraced R&B star R. Kelly was found guilty of leading a criminal enterprise geared to help him prey on women and girls for his own sexual gratification. Months later, Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted for helping recruit underaged girls for Jeffrey Epstein.

In all the cases but Weinstein, prosecutors alleged that these master manipulators had female co-conspirators who helped recruit followers into their inner circle. Prosecutors have named two female co-conspirators in Ray’s case: Isabella Pollock, a former student who became his “trusted lieutenant” and is facing conspiracy charges; and his own daughter, who has not been charged. Both women plan to introduce statements during this trial.

Prosecutors say the misdeeds began in 2010 when Ray was released from prison on charges stemming from a child custody dispute and eventually moved into his daughter’s on-campus housing at the elite college. The Brooklyn native was known in New York law enforcement circles—including being the best man at ex-New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik’s wedding—and had at one time even had mob-ties.

Prosecutors said Ray used his history to tell his daughter’s friends stories before eventually preaching about “his personal philosophy” and conducting “therapy sessions.”

“He made them feel special… so he could extort them,” Keenan said Thursday.

During the “therapy” sessions, court documents state Ray learned “intimate details about their private lives, vulnerabilities, and mental health struggles under the pretense of helping them.

Ray alienated several of the victims from their parents and convinced several of the victims that they were “broken” and in “need of fixing.”

At least one of the college students also engaged in prostitution for Ray’s financial benefit, prosecutors allege. If any of the students ever made a mistake or went against his teachings, prosecutors argued that Ray would accuse them of “sabotage”—which often led to cruel physical and emotional punishment. In one harrowing act of violence, Ray allegedly used a plastic bag to choke one woman—identified in court documents as Jane Doe 2 who he had forced into prostitution—inside a Manhattan hotel room.

Keenan added on Thursday that at the hotel room, Jane Doe 2 was subjected to hours of “torture” before Ray almost suffocated her with the plastic bag, “smothered her with a pillow” and “choked her with a leash.”

“He told her to behave. He told her to keep making money,” Keenan said.

To ensure their loyalty and silence, Ray allegedly forced the students to write fake emails and journal entries, give him thousands of dollars—often making them drain their parents’ bank accounts—and even took explicit photos of them.

Even after his arrest, court documents argued, Ray tried to regain control of his group—including asking his father to let Pollok know that they “signed on forever.” A few months later, in March 2021, Pollok was hit with a slew of crimes, including money laundering, associated with being Ray’s alleged “lead agent” who willingly joined his “criminal scheme.”

But Glashausser insisted that all the evidence in the case against Ray is just the result of a group of students who believed their stories—who in turn made Ray believe too.

“I am not saying Larry Ray is a saint,” Glashausser admitted. “You don’t have to like him. But these things are not federal crimes.”

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