Anyone who spent time with Talia Ray during her first year at Sarah Lawrence College heard her talk about her father. He was a truth teller, she’d explain, who’d been silenced by a group of powerful, vindictive men. He’d been sent to prison for his heroic efforts to save her and her younger sister from their abusive mother, and his incarceration was the result of deep-seated government corruption. Talia, who had grown up in New Jersey, was old for a freshman and had become the de facto leader of her group of friends, organizing their housing for the next year at Slonim Woods 9, a drab two-story brick dorm in the middle of campus. So in late September 2010, at the beginning of sophomore year, when Talia told her housemates that her father was getting out of prison and needed to crash with them for a while, they were mostly unfazed.
Within days of his release, Larry Ray moved onto Sarah Lawrence’s campus. He planted himself in the common area, cooking steak dinners and ordering expensive delivery for Talia and her seven housemates. While they ate, he told them stories in a nasal Brooklyn accent about his long and decorated history as a government agent, his former work as an international CIA operative, how he recovered Stinger missiles off the black market and engineered a cease-fire in Kosovo. He loved to preach the values of the Marine Corps and dropped references to his relationships with high-ranking American military officers.
Larry was of average height and overweight, yet he could be intimidating. He had a clean-shaven head and favored polo shirts cut to make his 50-year-old frame look hulking. His machismo was out of place on the liberal-arts campus. “Do you work out?” Larry would ask Talia’s friends. “Can you defend yourself? You look really weak.”
He could also be charming. He was a good listener and engaged the group on heady concepts like truth and justice. “He did all of our cleaning and definitely took on the dad role in the house in a big way,” says Juli Anna, one of the Slonim 9 roommates. He screened Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in the common room, where the students watched from pillows on the floor, and followed it with an impromptu lecture on the nature of the universe. At night, he’d retire to an air mattress in Talia’s room or the common-room couch.
Located just above the city limits of New York, Sarah Lawrence looks as if it had been plucked from a New England town and plopped 15 miles north of Times Square. It can feel whimsically sheltered, even more so than most liberal-arts colleges. The school’s head of security once sent out safety alerts because a small fox had been seen on campus. The residents of Slonim 9 were in some ways typical Sarah Lawrence students: an artistic, bookish group of introverts with good grades. (“We’re different, so are you,” goes one of the school’s slogans.) They were also sensitive and, in ways common to 19-year-olds, searching for guidance. There was Daniel Barban Levin, who had begun exploring his sexuality. Claudia and Santos had both struggled with depression. Another roommate, Isabella, went through a bad breakup soon after Larry arrived. (The last names of many of the students have been withheld at their request.)
They were a receptive audience for their unusual ninth roommate. “I don’t think anyone really questioned it because it was such a huge part of Talia’s life,” says Daniel of Larry’s presence. “We were talking about getting a big bag of sand and dumping it out on the kitchen floor to make a tiny beach — it’s not like we were trying to have a normal household.”
Larry would sometimes tell the kids they had come together in part because of a shared obsession with taking their own lives. And in fact, Santos, according to his parents, had tried to kill himself in high school. Larry claimed he could help them. He said he knew techniques to discipline the mind, training he’d received from the government. He began counseling a few of the roommates, including Isabella, Talia’s best friend.
Isabella had come to Sarah Lawrence on a full academic scholarship from an all-girls Catholic high school in San Antonio. After her breakup, she seemed to take comfort in Larry’s company. “I’m 19, I was having a lot of difficulty making sense of things, I wasn’t in a good place,” Isabella says. “He started to help me kind of process and make sense of a lot of things I just couldn’t make sense of.” Talia’s boyfriend at the time remembers seeing Larry and Isabella reclining on Talia’s bed. Larry was stroking Isabella’s hair, soothing her. “He’s like, ‘Nobody’s going to hurt my baby girl,’ ” the ex-boyfriend says. Larry said he was going to start sleeping in Isabella’s room, an arrangement that made the boyfriend uncomfortable. “You’re acting like I’m going to be sleeping with her,” Larry responded, “but I’m going to be sleeping on the floor. She needs someone to help her.”
“Isabella was pretty fragile,” says Juli Anna. “In fact, a lot of people in that building were pretty fragile.”
That December, the night before Isabella was to return home for winter break, Larry called her family. According to Isabella’s aunt, Larry told her mother that Isabella had been sexually abused as a child by a family friend and that if Isabella were to go home for break, she might commit suicide. Isabella’s mother was taken aback. She had been very close to her daughter and had never heard her say anything about an assault. “You let this happen to her,” Larry told Isabella’s mom, according to her aunt.
Isabella spent winter break with Larry, Talia, and Talia’s boyfriend in a one-bedroom condo on East 93rd Street owned by Lee Chen, an old friend of Larry’s. Talia and her boyfriend slept in the living room, while Isabella and Larry shared the bedroom. “He controlled every aspect of our lives once we were in the apartment,” the boyfriend says. “When we ate, what we did, when we went to bed.” Larry told Talia’s boyfriend to stop taking his prescribed antipsychotic medication. He was so disturbed by Larry’s behavior that he broke up with Talia as soon as winter break ended.
Larry returned to Slonim 9 for the spring semester, spending most of his nights in Isabella’s room. His “house meetings” and “family dinners” continued and, to some, started to feel mandatory. One night, Larry gathered everyone in the common room and began lecturing on Q4P, a philosophy based on the supposition that all energy in the universe is powered by the “quest for potential.” Q4P was the brainchild of Larry’s friend David Birnbaum, a Diamond District dealer who moonlights as a philosopher.
Another roommate, Claudia, was particularly intrigued by the presentation and began having weekly counseling sessions with Larry. Claudia had grown up on the outskirts of Los Angeles. In high school, she was part of a group of close friends who spent weekends writing poetry, taking pictures, and talking about boys. “She was so smart and creative,” says one of her best friends from high school. “I think what she was best at was telling stories.”
Sometimes Claudia stretched the truth for effect, though in innocent ways. Her friends called her out for claiming to like a band she’d never listened to. Another time, she pretended to faint in Spanish class. Claudia, her friend says, wanted to “make herself more exciting.”
Claudia had initially been unnerved by Larry, particularly by his relationship with Talia. But Claudia seemed to change after she started meeting privately with Larry. “It was like something had snapped in her,” says Juli Anna. Before, Claudia had been funny and self-aware; now she seemed artificially chipper. She kept posting about the Marines on Facebook. More concerning to her friends, Claudia began telling people she thought she might be schizophrenic, a diagnosis that Larry, who had no medical training, had given her during one of their sessions.
Daniel too had initially found Larry’s philosophical musings incoherent and thought Claudia’s newfound trust in his amateur mental-health counseling seemed weird. “Claudia definitely had some complex issues. She had real stuff going on,” Daniel says. “It was all stuff that a therapist would really be the right person to turn to. But Larry claimed to have some superhuman level of empathy or ability to talk to young people and help them work through their issues.”
Near the end of the school year, Daniel found himself unmoored. His relationship with his girlfriend was crumbling, and he had nowhere to live that summer. Santos and Claudia urged him to speak with Larry. The two met in a Starbucks one afternoon and talked for hours. Larry gave him advice that felt refreshingly straightforward: Dump your girlfriend. On the question of Daniel’s sexuality, Larry shut down the suggestion conclusively: “Oh no, you’re not gay,” he said. “I can tell you that for sure.”
“I was directionless, and suddenly this ‘real man’ came into my life,” Daniel says. “It was this incredible feeling of such intense validation, of being seen and heard finally.” Larry offered to help Daniel “achieve clarity.” After their conversation, Larry walked Daniel outside and into a limousine idling up the block, where his roommates were waiting. They went to the apartment on East 93rd Street. When they arrived, Larry suggested Daniel live there for the summer with him and some of the other Sarah Lawrence kids. He agreed.
“I didn’t want to go back home, and this was my alternative,” Daniel says. “Part of why I got in a cult at all was because I had no idea how one finds a place to live in New York.”
Every morning that summer in the apartment on 93rd Street started the same way: Larry would blast the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” The message was clear. Larry planned to personally guide the young adults — Daniel, Talia, Claudia, Isabella, and Santos — through the teenage wasteland.
Living in the apartment wasn’t all that different from living in a college dorm. There were family meals, movie nights, and a self-serious camaraderie that fostered intense discussions that could drag on all night.
Daniel worked at a vegan-ice-cream shop in the East Village that summer. Larry seemed to have several streams of income: He was a life consultant for a wealthy friend and was building a domain-name business he’d enlisted the kids’ help with. He could be extravagantly generous. Sometimes he bought his young roommates expensive clothing or shoes, and he would occasionally take the group out for dinners at upscale steakhouses — always paid for with a wad of cash he kept in a backpack that he carried with him at all times. He had a limo driver on call to take them home, no matter the hour.
Larry’s core program of personal transformation happened on nights they stayed in. After a late dinner, everyone would gather in the living room for a marathon discussion in which the group interrogated one person about anything and everything. Usually, the person being questioned had landed in the hot seat because he or she had done something Larry didn’t like. Trivial mistakes, such as scratching a pan or breaking a plate, were considered intentional manifestations of childhood trauma. The group session’s purpose, Larry explained, was to reveal deep personal truths.
The meetings would often end in “breakthroughs” that followed a disturbing dream logic. On one occasion, Larry convinced Daniel that the reason he played the ukulele was because of trauma inflicted on him by his father. Larry told Daniel to smash the instrument in front of the group as an act of catharsis. When he did, the group applauded Daniel for achieving “closure.” Daniel felt immense pressure to find explanations for his actions. Once, after spending hours in the hot seat with no end in sight, Daniel told a story that finally got Larry’s attention: “I said when I was a kid I found a baby bird in my driveway and it was injured, and I held it in my hand and crushed it. I claimed this was a traumatic thing that formed me.” The story was entirely made up, but it ended the session.
Daniel would wake up the next morning to “Baba O’Riley” and go to his job exhausted. Larry himself never seemed to get tired. He preached the benefits of prescription amphetamines and, according to multiple acquaintances, took them in such high doses he rarely needed sleep.
Larry prodded his young roommates to live healthier lifestyles. Claudia was particularly motivated to adopt Larry’s eating and exercise regimen. According to her mother, she became fixated on losing weight and increasingly unhappy with how she looked. From the first time they’d heard about Larry, Claudia’s parents were suspicious of him. When they realized he was living in Slonim 9, they met with Allen Green, Sarah Lawrence’s dean of student life. Green told them he’d received other complaints about Larry but his hands were tied; a father had a right to visit his daughter on campus, he explained. A second meeting ended similarly. (Green did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Sarah Lawrence said it “had no record that Larry Ray lived on campus at any time.”)
Claudia’s parents had moved to the Upper East Side after she started at Sarah Lawrence. That summer, they were living a few blocks from the 93rd Street apartment. They saw their daughter about once a week when she came home to get a change of clothes or drop something off.
“She was on ‘Larry behavior,’ ” her mother says. “She’d be saying things that sounded like they came out of Larry’s mouth. ‘In the Marines you do this, you exercise, and you only eat healthy food.’ ” Claudia became very critical of her parents. “She would be disparaging about how we were running the household: ‘Look, you can’t even get dinner on the table on time.’ ”
On 93rd Street, small mistakes weren’t just symbols of childhood trauma. They were evidence that the kids were trying to “sabotage” Larry’s program of self-improvement. Subversive behavior was explored in painstaking detail and required written, signed confessions. In one, Santos wrote, “I threw out around five checkbooks and ripped out pages from at least two,” and detailed plans to “interfere with Larry’s business and not let him work by making sure to take up his time and waste it.”
Daniel remembers delivering handwritten letters to Larry listing items he had damaged as part of an intentional effort to harm Larry’s family. Daniel now believes the confessions served to cement Larry’s psychological conditioning. “All this pressure had been put on all of us to believe that we had done all these terrible things to him and his family,” he says. The confession process demanded that Daniel reconfigure his own memories to reconcile them with Larry’s accusations. Over the years, Larry would collect hundreds of pages of such confessions from the students. Many of them used almost identical language.
Things became more difficult for Daniel when Larry took a deeper interest in his sexual education. One night, Isabella came out of the bedroom and began kissing Daniel on the couch. At first, he thought Isabella was acting on a crush, but a few weeks later Larry ushered the two of them into the bedroom, instructing Daniel and Isabella to have sex while he watched. The sessions became regular, and Larry would sometimes participate. He made it seem as if his presence were part of Daniel’s and Isabella’s journeys to clarity. Once, Larry invited Chen, his friend the landlord, to join them.
“I got so freaked out,” Daniel says. “There was no consent in that situation. Isabella may have seemed to be pursuing all of this, but her mind was being twisted by Larry.”
Still, Daniel didn’t leave the apartment. “It was a combination of feeling like, This is unusual, and I feel kind of weird,” he says, “but my immediate next thought was, Everyone else seems to think this is really good. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, and I need to lean into this.”
At the end of the summer, Claudia and Daniel left to study abroad in England. Before leaving, Claudia sent a long email to Green, the Sarah Lawrence dean, with the subject line “The Truth.” She wrote that when Larry first moved into Slonim 9, she had expressed “fears and concerns about Larry Ray being a bad, dangerous, manipulative, and sexually deviant man.” After spending the summer with Larry, Claudia took it all back and claimed that Larry’s ex-wife had tricked her into making her initial statements.
Born Lawrence Grecco (he eventually took his stepfather’s last name) in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in 1959, Larry had lived on the blurry edges, both professionally and socially, for most of his adult life. He hung around politicians, top military officials, restaurateurs, and business owners. According to someone who was there, a capo in the Genovese family, Salvatore “Sally Dogs” Lombardi, even attended his wedding in 1988. Larry was the kind of guy who spouted a lot of bull, but there was usually a whiff of truth, just enough to keep people’s attention.
“Larry was a chameleon,” says one person who knew him back then. “He could be a good ol’ boy or a patriot, or he’d pull out a pipe and fake glasses and he’d be an intellectual. He would juggle ten different people at the same time, telling each of them one piece of a story he wanted them to know and convincing them that he wanted them to be part of his master plan.”
Larry worked on Wall Street in the early ’80s despite not having a college degree. He later became a consultant, helping clients in the insurance, construction, finance, and gambling industries. He claimed to be a partner in a popular Italian restaurant, where he held fund-raisers for politicians, including one for Patrick Kennedy in 1993. He also co-owned Malibu, a nightclub in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, and took meetings with Peter Gatien in an effort to buy Gatien’s Manhattan nightclubs, including Tunnel and the Limelight.
“He would say, ‘Look, you have to meet [New Jersey representative] Bob Franks. He’s a great guy,’ ” Frank DiTommaso, who ran a large construction firm, once testified. DiTommaso, who was friends with Larry, eventually hired him to help make introductions. “Here he is, dealing with government officials, very credible and prominent politicians. He introduced me to Marine generals and colonels.”
According to official records, Larry’s military service was limited to 19 days in the Air Force in 1981. But he hung around many prominent Marines, including General Charles Pitman and retired Marine Commandant General James L. Jones. Larry claimed that he and Pitman once planned an operation to capture and extradite Assata Shakur from Cuba. It was just one of many stories about his international daring laid out in court documents. In the early 1990s, Larry had tried to make inroads with the post-Soviet Russian economy and even contracted with the CIA. He also repeatedly said that NATO officials had dispatched him to Moscow in 1999 to stop a bombing campaign in Kosovo, even though, by his own admission, he knew nothing about the war. Whenever someone challenged him on this claim, Larry would present a letter written on official NATO letterhead thanking him for his “efforts to ensure good communication and understanding between ourselves and the Russian leadership.” At least some of this is true.
“I remember him being around,” says Chris Donnelly, the NATO official who wrote the letter. “He was connected and may have made some calls for us, as many other people did at the time. I wrote a letter for anyone who was involved.”
Of all Larry’s relationships with powerful people, one would prove the most significant in the years to come. In 1995, Larry met a young NYPD detective named Bernie Kerik. Kerik had recently been promoted from being Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s driver to the director of the New York City Department of Correction’s investigations division. Kerik was impressed by Larry, who exuded a macho, streetwise charisma and had valuable connections. The two became friends. A few years later, Larry served as Kerik’s best man at his wedding. For a time, Kerik would sign emails to Larry “Love, B.”
Larry was happy to further Kerik’s professional advancement. While in Russia, Larry had befriended Pavel Palazhchenko, Mikhail Gorbachev’s longtime interpreter. In 1997, Larry and his friends played host to Gorbachev when the statesman visited New York, arranging security and transportation (in Larry’s own car). When Gorbachev made a stop in Los Angeles, Larry even orchestrated a meeting between Gorbachev and Robert De Niro. (De Niro remembers thinking it was odd that “this guy” was the one who’d arranged the meeting.) As a favor to Kerik, Larry also arranged for Gorbachev to sit down with Giuliani. Photographs of the meeting made national headlines. One month later, Giuliani appointed Kerik commissioner of the Department of Correction.
Kerik helped introduce Larry to some of his law-enforcement contacts, including an FBI agent named Gary Uher. Larry claimed he could provide Uher with information on his Mafia contacts, so Uher took on Larry as an informant. The two began meeting three or four times a week. One of the most promising bits of evidence Larry claimed to have was information on a pump-and-dump stock scheme operated in part by a capo in the Gambino family, Eddie Garafola. Larry had told Uher he could provide information about the scheme, so when Larry later said that Garafola had put a hit out on him, Uher believed him. According to FBI reports, the agency paid approximately $10,000 for a security system to be installed in Larry’s home.
The reports, however, paint Larry as an unreliable informant who dangled the prospect of critical evidence only to later obfuscate. After a few years of working with Larry, Uher realized that Larry had used his role as an FBI informant as a cover for his own involvement in Garafola’s scheme. “Uher hates Ray for all of Ray’s lies,” one document reads. “The FBI was Larry’s biggest mark,” says one former law-enforcement official familiar with Larry’s role in the case. (Uher did not return multiple requests for comment. In 2015, he worked as a bodyguard for Donald Trump; Kerik made the introduction.)
In March 2000, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn indicted 19 defendants, including Larry, for their involvement in the securities-fraud scheme. Larry was charged with agreeing to pay a $100,000 bribe to the executive of a bond brokerage on behalf of Garafola. Prosecutors acknowledged that Larry had provided useful background information to the FBI but nothing that had helped the investigation in any significant way. In fact, they argued, Larry had repeatedly lied to the FBI.
In asking for leniency, Larry pointed to his efforts to help the U.S. government in other capacities. In addition to his work in Kosovo, he said Uher had once dispatched him to Russia to lure now-infamous Trump crony Felix Sater, an unindicted co-conspirator in the pump-and-dump scheme, back to the United States. Larry also claimed to have recovered Stinger missiles off the black market for the U.S. government, something Sater has also reportedly done.
The court was unmoved. When it was clear a conviction was inevitable, Larry made a desperate plea to Kerik, who was by then a year into yet another new job — commissioner of the NYPD. Larry wrote Kerik an email, begging his friend to put in a good word with the U.S. Attorney’s office: “Please be there for me.” Kerik responded the next day. “I would do anything for you,” he wrote, but in his present position, he couldn’t intercede. “I’m sure you understand.”
Larry pleaded guilty to securities fraud, and in 2003 he was sentenced to five years’ probation. At his sentencing hearing, the judge accused Larry of “manipulating” the court and promised to “throw the book” at him if he violated his probation.
While Larry was on trial, Kerik’s star was on the rise. The police commissioner’s visibility in the wake of 9/11 springboarded him to the national stage. He appeared regularly on TV and did a stint as an adviser in Iraq. The city renamed Manhattan’s jail the Bernard B. Kerik Complex. Then, on December 3, 2004, George W. Bush nominated Kerik to be secretary of Homeland Security. A week later, Kerik withdrew his nomination, citing the fact that he had once employed an undocumented nanny.
Two days after Kerik’s withdrawal, the Daily News broke a story that chronicled a slew of improprieties stemming from his relationship with Larry. The story alleged that Larry had paid for Kerik’s wedding, bought Kerik $4,300 worth of furniture, and given him a customized Tiffany police badge. Larry was the story’s primary source.
If revenge was what Larry was after, he got it. Kerik was publicly humiliated. The city took his name off the jail; his affair with editor Judith Regan was made public; and he faced city, state, and federal investigations. Eventually, in 2009, Kerik pleaded guilty to felony tax and false-statement charges and served three years in prison.
Kerik’s perceived betrayal seemed to shift something inside Larry. Or perhaps Larry’s duplicity was catching up to him. Whatever the reason, the conviction marked a change in Larry’s behavior. He became more malicious, and his targets became more personal.
In 2004, his wife, Teresa, filed for divorce. A few months later, Teresa called the police to their house and claimed Larry had hit her. A source close to the family said that when police showed up, Larry and Talia, then 15, accused Teresa of child abuse. New Jersey’s child-welfare department gave Larry temporary custody. Over the next few months, the department received multiple anonymous complaints accusing Teresa of physical and sexual abuse. Talia also accused her grandfather, cousin, and aunt of abusing her. Larry created websites and posted graphic accusations of child abuse against Teresa and her family. Often, Larry’s blogs featured letters supposedly written by Talia that read like journal entries. “You were the single most dangerous thing to me in my entire life,” one letter to Teresa starts.
Child-welfare investigators determined that the allegations against Teresa were unfounded. A psychological evaluation of the family members commissioned by Teresa’s lawyers and submitted to the court characterized Larry as “literally impossible to evaluate” because “he is able to manipulate and control almost any situation in which he finds himself, including a psychological interview with a forensic examiner, no matter how experienced that examiner may be. Mr. Ray is very good at what he does.” The report went on to say that Larry “can be utterly charming and one can be disarmed by his childlike simplicity and smile. But Mr. Ray is no child; he is a calculating, manipulative, and hostile man.”
The report concluded that Larry had manipulated Talia into making abuse allegations that “fit no discernible pattern ever reported to this examiner, who has been evaluating families for 20 years.” The examiner found that neither Talia nor her younger sister had been abused physically or sexually and characterized Larry and Talia’s accusations against Teresa as “rehearsed.” When the examiner asked Talia’s 4-year-old sister if her mother hit her, she started laughing. “That’s what Daddy tells me to say,” she said.
When a final court order demanded Larry turn his children over to Teresa, he refused and was charged with contempt and interference with custody. He spent six months in jail. Instead of living with her mother, Talia chose to live in youth shelters. “She was his soldier,” says someone familiar with the divorce. “Talia is a really loving person, and she is the biggest victim of all.”
Behind this mass plot to undo him, Larry claimed, was his former friend Bernie Kerik. “Kerik aligned himself with my wife in 2004 and Giuliani and his whole camp, and he used the family court against me,” Larry told conspiracy theorist A. J. Weberman for his book Homothug: The Secret Life of Rudy Giuliani. According to Larry’s blog posts at the time, judges, prosecutors, police, federal agents, and even his own lawyers were working on behalf of Kerik. Larry gave shifting explanations for Kerik’s motivations; sometimes the former commissioner was out for revenge, and other times Kerik — along with Giuliani, Bush, and Dick Cheney — was trying to silence Larry because he knew secrets about 9/11. He told a city investigator looking into Kerik that on three occasions, people in mysterious vehicles had pulled up beside him and shot at his car, barely missing him each time.
Soon, everything in Larry’s life would connect to Kerik. In 2006, Larry was arrested after his then-girlfriend accused him of trapping her in their apartment, pinning her down, and putting his hand over her nose and mouth. After making bail, Larry spoke with a detective who, in his report, wrote that Larry said “that he is currently involved in a ‘major government investigation,’ and that this domestic-violence incident was made up to place him in a bad light.” (She withdrew her complaint and the case was dismissed.)
The domestic-violence arrest was one reason federal prosecutors argued in 2007 that Larry had violated his probation in the pump-and-dump conviction. The government declared him a fugitive, and U.S. Marshals spent weeks trying to find him. Eventually, they tracked his cell phone to Chen’s apartment on East 93rd Street. Five marshals broke down the door and found Larry and Talia inside. The marshals pinned Larry to the ground and handcuffed him, breaking his arm. According to the Washington Post, one marshal recalled hearing Talia scream, “Police corruption! This is because of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bernard Kerik!”
Even the distance of the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t enough to keep Larry from Daniel and Claudia. On one occasion, the two met up so Larry could Skype in for a “family meeting.” He proceeded to coach them through sex.
Both Claudia and Daniel spent their winter break in the apartment on the Upper East Side, and when their time abroad was over, Larry welcomed them back for the summer. Once school started again, Daniel continued to live in the apartment, commuting to Bronxville for class. Claudia got on-campus housing but still visited the apartment and stayed close with Larry.
The already small space started to shrink as Larry began doing his own renovations. He removed the door handles on both bathrooms, which meant that no one was afforded privacy. “It was so firmly established that anything Larry did was for a good reason,” Daniel says. “I don’t remember anyone questioning anything.”
Meanwhile, Daniel’s relationship with his parents was splintering. “I can’t reach you. What changed? I don’t understand,” his father wrote to him in an email during winter break of Daniel’s senior year. “This only seems to happen when you are at Larry’s, but I can’t figure it out. Are you in a trance? Drugs?”
Though Daniel’s parents were distressed by their son’s relationship with Larry, they never attempted any dramatic intervention. Daniel understands why. “There was nothing that was going to dissuade me. They were justifiably afraid — and I made this clear to them whether through my words or my actions — that if they weren’t onboard with Larry that I would just stop talking to them. In some ways, that’s the more dangerous thing; you could just lose contact altogether and have absolutely no lifeline.”
Claudia’s mother had similar fears. “We talked to Claudia many, many times and had many, many arguments about how we thought Larry was not good for her, but there was no convincing her,” she says. “Still, we didn’t get how serious it was until it was too late.”
One weekend night, Claudia showed up at her parents’ apartment with Larry and began asking about her mother’s first child, a girl, who had died at birth. Larry said it must have been difficult for her to love Claudia, having just gotten over the loss.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘What are you talking about? When Claudia was born, it was the joy of my life. Claudia was everything to me. I had a daughter, and I was so happy,’ ” her mother says. “And he dug in until I just exploded crying. He was trying to break us down. She was on his team, and her father and I were on another team. She said, ‘I don’t believe you, Mom. I don’t believe you could have loved me because of her.’ ” Then Claudia left with Larry. “And that’s when we knew he had total control over her.”
Daniel experienced the worst of Larry’s attentions his senior year, after Talia missed the application deadline for Stanford Law School. Larry accused Daniel of intentionally sabotaging his daughter by distracting her. In a confession session that night, Daniel denied having anything to do with the missed deadline. Unhappy with Daniel’s denial, Larry crushed pieces of aluminum foil into little balls and rolled them up inside a string of Saran Wrap, fashioning what Daniel described as a “necklace” of metal lumps. Larry called it a garrote. In front of the group, Larry ordered Daniel to wrap the contraption around his testicles and penis, then Larry began twisting it. The metal cut off circulation to his genitals and dug into his flesh.
It wasn’t the first time Larry had shown flashes of violence. According to Chen, Larry would regularly abuse Santos, often putting the 20-year-old in a sleeper hold until he passed out. “Did the darkness envelop you?” he would ask when Santos woke up. Once, after Daniel supposedly damaged the oven, Larry asked him to kneel and then stood over him with a knife and threatened to dismember him.
On one of Daniel’s final visits to the apartment, he told Larry he was still feeling unsure about his sexuality. “Enough of this,” Daniel remembers Larry replying. “Go get one of your dresses,” Larry told Isabella. In front of the assembled kids, Larry told Daniel to put on the dress and retrieve the mail from the building’s lobby. When he returned, Larry handed Daniel a dildo and ordered him to penetrate himself. Daniel followed Larry’s command as his friends laughed at him.
“I was horrified and scared and crying,” he says.
Larry had always told Daniel that everything that happened in the apartment was for his own good. But after that experience, Daniel finally found the courage to leave. In 2013, spring semester of his senior year, he acquired on-campus housing. He stopped responding to phone calls or emails from anyone living in the 93rd Street apartment.
Just as Daniel was leaving Larry’s orbit, others were being drawn in. In the fall of 2011, while Daniel and Claudia were abroad, Santos had introduced Larry to his older sisters, Yalitza and Felicia. Santos’s parents had immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx in the early 1980s. They operated a small travel agency and a grocery store in Washington Heights and had saved enough to buy a home in the Bronx. They had given their kids top-tier educations. Yalitza was an undergrad at Columbia when she first started visiting the apartment on 93rd Street. Felicia, the eldest of the three and a Harvard graduate, had a medical degree from Columbia. She had started her residency in Los Angeles when Larry began calling her regularly. It wasn’t long before Larry had convinced Felicia that people were after her.
“I was concerned because of my parents, because this whole thing involved Bernard Kerik and the police,” Felicia says. “Going to the police in California, in Los Angeles, which is incredibly corrupt, it was like, Is this really going to be effective?” Felicia abandoned her residency program and moved in with Larry. They quickly began a romantic relationship, often talking about marriage and having children together. Larry has referred to both Felicia and Isabella as his wife.
Larry has a long history of manipulating women. According to multiple people who knew him in the 1990s, it was common for Larry to offer sex with his girlfriend (he had a long-term girlfriend while married to Teresa) to friends and business associates. And not doing what Larry wanted had consequences. According to one person, when his girlfriend tried to leave their relationship, Larry sent graphic pictures of her to her parents. When a different girlfriend broke up with him, Larry purchased a GPS tracking device and, according to a police report, tried to get someone to attach it to her car. At least two associates of Larry’s described witnessing situations in which they felt some of the women Larry lived with were being offered up for sexual purposes.
Larry also constructed scenarios that required his roommates to pay him. “His most classic tactic was to claim that people had either stolen things from him or ruined things of value and therefore owed him money,” Daniel says. Santos once sent an email to Larry with the subject line “Prices of Your Things I Damaged/Ruined With Preliminary Total.” The email was a five-page accounting of more than 50 items ranging from painting tape ($9.87) to a gas range ($6,780). The total, he calculated, was $47,726.79.
Santos turned to his parents, threatening suicide if they did not give him the money to repay Larry. His father tried to visit the apartment to see the damage his son had supposedly done, but when he arrived, Larry appeared in the lobby and blocked him from going up. Out of fear for their son’s safety, Santos’s parents gave him as much as they could.
Toward the end of senior year, Larry brought Claudia, Isabella, Yalitza, and Felicia to his stepfather’s house in Pinehurst, North Carolina. There he put them to work installing a new drainage system in the yard. When they returned, Claudia, Yalitza, and Isabella began asking their friends and family for money, saying they’d damaged Larry’s property.
Santos’s parents estimate that they gave Larry more than $200,000 over three years. They were forced to sell their house to cover the costs. They went to the NYPD three times with their story, but police told them there wasn’t much that could be done if their children were over 18. Claudia’s parents also alerted the police and were told the same thing. In 2017, the police conducted a wellness check on Claudia and determined that she was acting of her own free will. From her parents’ perspective, nothing could be further from the truth.
One night in 2013, Yalitza’s parents got a call from a doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital. Yalitza had attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of Tylenol and was in a coma. When she woke, she was transferred to a hospital in White Plains, where her parents visited her every day. One day, security wouldn’t let them into their daughter’s room. And if they wanted to meet with Yalitza’s doctor, they needed to do it with Larry present. “He was able to examine me when I was in a coma, look at lab results, and make suggestions to my medical team,” Yalitza later said in court. “He saved my life.”
When Claudia’s parents rushed to Mount Sinai, in 2014, after their daughter swallowed a bottle of Tylenol, they found a similar scene. Claudia would talk to Larry but not to them. “What is he doing here?” her mother asked the head nurse. According to her mother, the nurse replied, “This is not the first time we’ve seen him.”
According to family and friends, only Santos tried to take his own life before meeting Larry. Since then, Isabella, Yalitza, and Claudia have all attempted suicide. Larry later estimated their cumulative number of attempts at more than 12.
Daniel, Talia, and Isabella graduated in the spring of 2013. Santos never graduated. Claudia graduated a semester late, in the winter of 2013. Larry attended her commencement ceremony. According to Claudia’s mother, Green, the dean of students, approached her and Claudia’s father and said, “Well, I’m glad I won’t be seeing him anymore.”
That night, Claudia’s parents arranged a celebratory dinner. “The only people she knew were Larry and the girls,” her mother said. “We left early because we didn’t feel welcomed.”
After graduation, Claudia began a certificate program at Columbia and later worked part-time at a data-analytics firm. She bounced between her parents’ apartment and East 93rd Street.
“You’re talking to a young adult, not a 6-year-old,” her mother says. “If she made a decision to go to Larry’s against our will, there was nothing, other than physical intervention, we could do to stop her. It was like she was literally hypnotized.”
Claudia’s parents separated in 2013, in large part because of the stress Larry had injected into their relationship. Her mother eventually moved out of the city, and Claudia started living in hotels. In 2014, Claudia began working as an escort under a nom de guerre that was a combination of Larry’s daughters’ names. Her website advertised services for $8,000 a night. She would give her profits to Larry in order to pay for the damage she believed she’d done in North Carolina.
Isabella, Felicia, and Larry continued to live in the apartment on 93rd Street. Santos and Yalitza came and went regularly.
In 2014, Chen evicted Larry. Chen was increasingly disturbed by Larry’s treatment of the young adults living in the apartment, not to mention the “renovations” he had undertaken. Larry responded by countersuing Chen, listing Felicia, Isabella, and Talia as co-plaintiffs. The case went to trial in early 2015, and Claudia, Isabella, and Yalitza testified as witnesses. One of the first questions Larry’s attorney, Glenn Ripa, asked Claudia was how long she’d known Larry.
“The first time I heard his name mentioned,” she answered, “I was probably 9 years old.” Over the course of her hourlong testimony, Claudia laid out an elaborate conspiracy tracing back through three generations of her family. She testified that, as a child, she’d overheard her grandfather talking about Larry “making trouble.” Even then, she said, she knew Kerik and Giuliani were somehow involved. As Claudia neared college age, she testified, Larry’s mother had contacted Claudia’s mother and told her to send Claudia to Sarah Lawrence “in order to hurt Larry and Talia.”
Claudia went on to testify that after she enrolled at Sarah Lawrence, her family began receiving money from Kerik and those working with him. Kerik ordered Claudia to poison Larry using arsenic, cyanide, mercury, silver, and lead. (Kerik denies any involvement in a conspiracy against his former friend. “Larry Ray is a psychotic con man who has victimized every friend he’s ever had,” he says. “It’s been close to 20 years since I last heard from him, yet his reign of terror continues.”) Eventually, her list of targets expanded to include Talia, Isabella, and others. “Bernie’s really happy with your performance,” Larry’s mother had said, according to Claudia’s testimony.
Yalitza’s testimony echoed Claudia’s in both its strangeness and distance from reality. She claimed her parents had once been drug dealers and money launderers who’d pimped Felicia out when she was a child. She claimed to have mixed poison into Larry’s coffee and, like Claudia, she detailed an exhaustive list of toxins she’d used, including heroin, fungicide, LSD, and “fecal matter to contaminate his bandages.” She said her parents promised to pay her $1 million for her efforts.
Throughout the trial, the girls painted a picture of Larry as a guardian of vulnerable youth. Isabella described him as a loving “father figure.” Claudia called him “the nicest, most compassionate person I ever met,” explaining that after years of poisoning him she had started to care for him. She believed her testimony was penance.
Yalitza similarly described feeling guilty about the supposed poisonings. “I went to the hospital again, in December of 2013, for another suicide attempt. It was my third attempt,” she said. “I was feeling badly about everything that I was doing to Larry.”
Chen won the eviction case, though it would take almost another year to get Larry out of the apartment.
In September 2015, nine months after the trial, Larry was in the lobby of the Hudson Hotel with Claudia and Santos when DiTommaso saw him. Surveillance footage shows DiTommaso approach Larry and begin to violently beat him while Claudia and Santos try to stop him.
The assault became more fuel for Larry’s quest to prove the conspiracy against him. He sent a letter to then–U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara outlining the conspiracy against him and met with a special agent at the EPA to try to persuade him to investigate the poisonings. He created a website documenting Claudia’s purported confessions: “[I] would poison [Talia] at least once a day and make sure her entire fridge was poisoned. Put mercury on her toothbrush. Began sleeping over in her room more and more frequently to accomplish this goal. Also put arsenic and mercury in her undergarments.” She claimed to have poisoned beverages at dorm parties.
One tab on the website linked to a video in which Claudia sits on a duvet-covered bed in dark-green Sarah Lawrence Gryphons sweatpants, looking dazed. “I never stopped poisoning Lawrence Ray, Talia Ray,” as well as Felicia and Isabella, she says drowsily, facing the camera.
“Are you making this by your own free will?” asks Larry, offscreen.
“Yes,” Claudia responds immediately.
“And you want to make this because of what?” Larry asks her.
“Because I just want to tell the truth,” she says.
It’s clear they want to kill us,” Larry says, walking across midtown Manhattan at a gentle pace on a recent afternoon. He is talking about Kerik and DiTommaso. “They’re arrogant, they’re violent, they’re terrible people.” Isabella, a few strides ahead, is on a fool’s errand, browsing Yelp for a quiet restaurant in Murray Hill during happy hour. “In a way, it’s so wild,” Larry continues, stopping dead in his tracks for dramatic effect. “Why all of this for me?”
In more than ten hours of interviews this April, Larry could be playful, funny, and engaging, sometimes even thrilling. Once, in the backseat of a car chauffeured by his personal driver, he saw a man asking for money and holding a cardboard sign: MARINE. TWO TOURS OF DUTY IN IRAQ. Larry told Isabella to give the veteran some money. She handed him a $100 bill. Another time, unprompted, Larry pulled out his laptop and opened a spreadsheet he said listed the total estimated valuation of his 8,867 domain names on GoDaddy.com — it was more than $28 million.
His primary conversational tactic is to overwhelm. He can go on 20-minute unbroken monologues, especially if the subject turns to his victimhood. Everyone in his past, from his defense attorneys to his own mother, is “corrupt” or “biased.” He firmly believes that he, Felicia, Isabella, and Talia have been poisoned — and are still being poisoned. “We’ve suffered so much, and we’re still suffering so much,” he says. But when he’s pushed for specifics, his reasoning turns circular. Why would his former friends have it in for him? “ ’Cause they’re in a conspiracy,” he says. What conspiracy? “You tell me.” The psychological profile conducted during his 2005 custody proceeding had observed that Larry’s “power and control are exhibited through the process of wearing down the other person to the point of sheer exhaustion, where one must acknowledge that he has no control of the situation. But Mr. Ray has the control.”
At the Moonstruck Diner on Third Avenue, Isabella orders sliders with Cheddar cheese; when Larry orders the same thing, she corrects him tenderly. “You want yours with American cheese?” she asks. “Oh, yes, American cheese,” Larry tells the waiter. Larry says he’s now living with Isabella and Felicia in New Jersey. His relationship with Isabella is as opaque as everything else in his life. Sometimes she acts like his assistant, carrying his computer and screening his phone calls; other times she’s more clearly his girlfriend, as when they flirt on the streets of Manhattan, or his corroborating witness, confidently answering questions about her poisoning. When asked if he is romantically involved with Isabella and Felicia, Larry says only that he hasn’t been able to have sex in years on account of the poisoning.
Now 59, he is, he explains, in tremendous pain. He’s lost teeth, he gets headaches, sometimes he limps. He seems to have divided the former students into camps. On one side are Talia, Felicia, and Isabella, who were poisoned. On the other, Claudia, Yalitza, and Santos, who he believes are behind the poisoning.
“Talia was talking to me just a couple days ago about how she finds it sometimes difficult that she’s not able to do certain things in the regular time it would take,” Larry says. Talia no longer lives with Larry; she moved in with his stepfather in North Carolina. He says they still talk almost every day.
Larry refused to talk about some parts of his past because they’re either “classified” or would “endanger other people.” Through Ripa his lawyer, Larry, Talia, Isabella, and Felicia denied almost every assertion in this article, including the sexual humiliation of Daniel. In conversation, however, Larry admitted to taking Claudia’s money from escorting. In fact, he was pleased with Claudia’s efforts to pay him back for the damage he says she did. “I genuinely always believed that Claudia genuinely felt very guilty. I genuinely believed that Yali felt very guilty. And I genuinely believe that Santos felt genuinely guilty. But they didn’t end up doing the right thing. The only one who tried to do something was Claudia.” What’s clear is that he feels he’s done nothing wrong, that he’s helped guide the young people he took under his wing. “We know what is and is not. We know what’s truth and what’s wrong.”
And yet Larry has caused untold devastation in the lives of the people around him. Dozens of people contacted for this story refused to speak on the record for fear of Larry’s retribution. For years, he has silenced his victims by intimidating them physically, psychologically, legally, and, when all else fails, by public shaming and harassment. “My intentions are honorable intentions,” he says. “It’s the way I’ve lived my life, even through 20 years of this.”
Larry claims to have lost touch with Santos and Yalitza, as have their parents, who have not spoken to their children since 2013. According to one source, Santos spent time in Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric center and then lived in a homeless shelter as recently as 2016. As the years pass, their parents are haunted by a loss that they cannot begin to understand. “It doesn’t fit in my mind still,” their mother says, sitting below a large framed portrait of Felicia in her Columbia graduation gown. “They were smart and good with everyone.” Asked what she would say to her children if she could speak to them, she did not hesitate: “We forgive them because they’re our kids. We love them.”
Isabella’s family also hasn’t heard from her. After Larry called that winter break, Isabella’s mother, who suffers from depression, was distraught when she could not get in touch with her daughter. Isabella hasn’t seen her mother since, though she has occasionally called her father (her parents are divorced) to ask for money. At one point, one of Isabella’s aunts traveled to New York in the hope of bringing Isabella home. At dinner, Larry spoke for Isabella, who looked, to the aunt, unfocused. Larry said that she was sick and that he was medicating her. “You don’t need to ask these questions, I’m fine,” the aunt remembers Isabella saying. They planned to meet up again the next day, but Larry called and canceled.
As for Daniel, he moved to New York after graduation. One night, he stumbled on a website that bullet-pointed the characteristics of a cult. He realized each one tracked Larry’s tactics. Larry had brought them into a moneymaking venture, he had alienated them from their family and friends, and he had put them in the hot seat. He tried talking to a psychologist, but Larry’s behavior had so closely mimicked therapy that the process felt impossible. Even the act of making friends felt unsafe. When he went to parties he worried he wouldn’t be allowed to leave.
Daniel finally found a group for cult escapees and slowly opened up to roommates and girlfriends (he now identifies as straight) about his experience. Their horrified reactions have helped him gain perspective. Eventually, he shared the full extent of what happened with his parents.
In early April, Larry called to say he couldn’t reach Claudia, and for good reason: She’d recently heard from a former employer, who hadn’t spoken with her since she’d asked him for $500,000 to pay back Larry for damaging his property. When they met up, Claudia told him that Larry had strapped her to a chair and put a plastic bag over her head until she almost passed out. She feared Larry might kill her. Her former employer bought her a ticket out of the city that night. She turned off her phone and left without packing her stuff. Soon after, she sought and received care. “I’ve been smiling and crying and smiling and crying for the past two days,” said her mother after hearing of her daughter’s escape. “What’s really amazing is she is strong enough to be getting through this. She was strong enough to say, ‘Okay, this is enough, I’ve got to get out of here.’ ”
Two weeks after Claudia left New York, Larry was still trying to find her. “You said you would never run and hide and I have no understanding as to why you are doing so now,” he wrote in an email, which was provided by a friend of Claudia’s. “In my experience the Truth has always been important to you and proper regard for the Truth has always helped you,” he went on. “You asked me to promise to never abandon you, and I have not.”
*This article appears in the April 29, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!