What Happened to the Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence?

As Lawrence Ray faces trial, two parents wonder if they’ll finally reunite with their children.

Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold/Intelligencer/Shutterstock/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold/Intelligencer/Shutterstock/Getty Images

On a cloudy afternoon last May, Cindy Pollok waited anxiously in the lobby of the Courtyard by Marriott at Newark Liberty International Airport. Four days earlier, New York Magazine had detailed the exploits of Lawrence Ray, the ex-felon who had moved into a dorm at Sarah Lawrence College in 2010 and drawn Cindy’s daughter Isabella and her friends into his dark web. Soon after publication, Cindy received a tip with the address in suburban New Jersey where Isabella was living with Ray. Cindy and her sister, Liz Jeffrey, flew to Newark from San Antonio with a plan to rescue Isabella. Now, the women waited for Maritza, the mother of one of Isabella’s roommates, who hoped to pry her own daughter, Felicia, from Ray’s grip. Cindy and Maritza had never met, but their pain was indistinguishable.

“It was very sobering to watch both of the mothers there in the same room,” said Jeffrey. “They were introduced and they just looked at each other. It was just sadness.”

Though the women didn’t know it, their hotel was 1,000 feet from Northern State Prison, where, nine years earlier, Ray had emerged after finishing a three year sentence for child custody violations. Days after his release, he moved into his daughter Talia’s dorm at Sarah Lawrence, where he met her friends, including Isabella and Felicia’s brother, Santos. Santos, Felicia, their sister Yalitza, Isabella, and several Sarah Lawrence students would end up living with Ray on and off for the next several years, during which time Ray psychologically and sexually manipulated them, extorting them and their families for hundreds of thousands of dollars while drawing them away from their loved ones. A few found a way out of his circle, but Isabella and Felicia had not. Neither Cindy nor Maritza had spoken to, or heard from, their daughters in years.

Cindy and Maritza had attempted, unsuccessfully, to stage interventions before. But the magazine story seemed to afford them a new window of opportunity. Maybe an accounting of Ray’s long history of psychological manipulation had shaken something loose in their daughters. Maybe, if they could tell Isabella and Felicia that they loved them in person, their daughters would listen.

By that April, Ray, Felicia, and Isabella had been living in the Piscataway home for about four years. The house was owned by Scott Muller. Ray met Muller in Somerset County Jail, where Muller served a short sentence for drunk driving in 2008 and Ray had been awaiting his trial. According to two longtime friends of Muller’s, after his release, Muller often talked about Ray, whom he described as a former CIA agent. (Muller recently told the New York Post that he first met Ray while working as a bouncer at a club part-owned by Ray. Muller declined multiple requests for comment.)

Before moving in with Muller, Ray, Isabella, and Felicia had been living in an apartment on the Upper East Side owned by Lee Chen. In 2015, Chen successfully evicted Ray from the apartment. Not long after, Ray, Felicia, and Isabella showed up at Muller’s house. They claimed they had been poisoned and needed somewhere to recover.

Ray promised Muller he would help him turn his life around. “[Muller] was drinking a half a gallon of vodka a day. He was 405 pounds,” Ray told New York last April. “We got him to lose over 100 pounds. Got him back to work.”

Muller’s friends said that Ray did help Muller get over his drinking problem. “Scott drank to excess every single day to the point where he lost his job,” said one of the longtime friends, who asked not to be identified, citing Ray’s history of retaliation. “Larry helped him to recover. So there is this feeling of indebtedness about that.”

In ways reminiscent of how Ray insinuated himself into the lives of his daughter’s classmates, Ray used that indebtedness as a foothold into Muller’s life. “Since they moved in, they’ve taken over his house, forcing out roommates and destroying his property and incurring massive property fines,” said Muller’s friend, who visited the home frequently, “while at the same time making my friend feel like it was his fault for not acting the way Larry wanted him to.” At one point, Ray padlocked the doors in Muller’s house.

Muller’s new roommates made a big impression in the otherwise quiet neighborhood. “You’d show up and [Isabella] would be doing yard work naked,” said the first friend. “So obviously you start attracting all the middle-aged single guys.”

“They did whatever Larry wanted,” said Muller’s second friend about Isabella and Felicia. “He would say things like, ‘Do you need anything? Can Isabella do anything for you?’”

The yard work was part of Ray’s initial pitch to Muller: Let us stay here and we’ll get you sober and clean up your property. Ray even showed Muller plans for a new pool. At first, Ray planted some trees and flowers. But it wasn’t long before he began making larger alterations. “What started out as 20 trees, a year later there was like a 20-by-ten-foot deep hole in the backyard,” said the first friend. “All of the trees are gone, all of the grass is torn up. Some of the trees were planted but not many of them, and Scott got commercial-grade equipment to do this. The running joke was that he must be burying bodies in the backyard.”

Muller’s yard began to look like a construction site, complete with industrial equipment, including a massive loader, an excavator, a dump truck, a backhoe, an external generator, and a concrete mixer. In satellite images, the backyard sticks out on the residential street like a blast site in the middle of suburban New Jersey. The new pool never materialized. Both friends independently described a dispute between Muller and Ray around Halloween in 2018, when Ray dug a hole in the front yard and dropped Muller’s boat into it. “Felicia and Isabella go out there and they spray-paint the fucking boat and put blow-up dinosaurs in it. They say, ‘Oh, we made a funny thing for the kids for Halloween,’” said the second friend.

By the time New York interviewed Ray last April, he falsely suspected Muller of poisoning him. “We have been exposed out there, it’s probably him,” Ray said. “Now why would he do that? We were helping the guy with money, trying to help him with problems he had in his yard, things he wanted to do. It made no sense and still doesn’t.” According to Muller’s friends, Ray dug a hole to connect the house to the city water supply, claiming that Muller’s well had been contaminated. Inside the house, Ray ripped up Muller’s carpeting looking for black mold, according to one friend.

Ray has long claimed to be the victim of poisoning. A childhood friend of Ray’s daughter, Talia, recalled that “as early as second grade, Talia told me their house had poison in the walls or in the attic,” something Talia had learned from her father. Later, when living in Chen’s apartment with multiple Sarah Lawrence students, Ray would falsely accuse them of poisoning him and his daughter on behalf of his onetime friend, former NYPD commissioner Bernie Kerik.

Ray’s yard work also fit a pattern. Chen said that Ray damaged his home with heavy machinery and unnecessary remodeling projects. “He had a 650-pound metal lathe in my living room,” Chen recalled. “The condominium board wrote a complaint letter to me about the noises that were emanating from my apartment all hours of the day and night. He was using a lot of electricity, and he didn’t pay a single bill — over $7,000 in electricity bills in one year.”

Later, around 2013, when Ray decamped with the young adults to Pinehurst, North Carolina, he instructed his daughter’s friends to tear up his 86-year-old stepfather’s property using industrial-grade equipment. In 2013, the Pinehurst Police Department received multiple complaints about machinery being used at the house after hours, according to police records obtained by a local newspaper, the Pilot. A 2014 photo of the property on Google Street View shows Larry and two other people standing in the front yard with shovels and a weed whacker.

Ray’s home renovations and landscaping were key to his manipulation, ways to justify extorting those around him of hundreds of thousands of dollars. While living on the Upper East Side with Ray, Santos sent Ray an email with the subject line “Prices of Your Things I Damaged/Ruined With Preliminary Total.” The total was $47,726.79. In North Carolina, Ray blamed another friend of Talia’s named Claudia, as well as Isabella and others, for damaging the property. Claudia’s mother later found a contract that read, “This is an agreement between Claudia and Lawrence Ray to settle reparations occurring July/August 2013 for the amount of $20,000.”

Ray often threatened to report his victims to the police for their supposed wrongdoing. In September 2013, Ray called the Pinehurst Police Department to say that Isabella had “walked off” after doing damage to his stepfather’s garage. Ray called back 40 minutes later to say that Isabella had returned. In October, Ray called the police again because Yalitza had run away. Alarmed by the number of holes in the yard, the officer who responded to the call summoned cadaver dogs to search the property. While the dogs were searching, Yalitza was found in a parking lot unconscious from a drug overdose and taken to a hospital.

In New Jersey, Ray’s landscaping would also arouse police attention. According to public records, in 2017, Muller was cited by town officials a dozen times for thousands of dollars for infractions like soil erosion, noise complaints, and building permits.

At times, Muller seemed tired of the way his house guests were treating him and his property. One friend says Muller recently broke down crying, saying, “These people took over my house.” Last year, Muller’s friends encouraged him to take out a temporary restraining order against Ray. In his interview with New York last year, Ray confirmed that Muller filed a restraining order against him, but both of Muller’s friends say that Muller let the order lapse, and it wasn’t long before Ray moved back into the house.

On the day of their rescue attempt last April, the three women decided their approach would be simple: They’d go to the house and knock on the door. If no one answered, they would call the police.

The Piscataway house was a typical three-bedroom ranch-style home on a quiet residential street. The yard, though, still looked like a construction site. “There was a cherry-picker parked there. There was a hitch trailer. It looked like they had dug a moat,” Jeffrey said. As they approached the house, they could see Ray and Felicia peering out a window before closing the shades. No one answered. They tried again and then returned to their car and called 911, asking the police to do a welfare check. About ten minutes later, more than a dozen officers showed up. While the women stayed in their car, the officers went to the door. This time Ray and Felicia answered.

“I could see the look on Maritza’s face. She was so excited to see Felicia,” said Jeffrey. “For the first time I saw her smile — that was a hopeful look. But it was so bittersweet because the cop came back and said, ‘She doesn’t want to see you.’”

Jeffrey insisted that police check on Isabella as well. The officers returned to the house. This time they entered. When they came back to the car, they delivered the same message: Isabella didn’t want to see her mother or her aunt. The police told Jeffrey if she or Cindy or Maritza went on the property again, they would be arrested for trespassing.

“There was one officer sort of looking after us,” Jeffrey said. “I won’t forget him. He could feel. You could tell he had empathy for us. I was just about crying and I asked, ‘Do you have children? Do you have daughters? Do you understand what we’re feeling right now?’ He said, ‘Yes, I do.’ You could tell his hands were tied.”

The mothers would not communicate again until two weeks ago, when Ray was indicted by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Prosecutors filed eight charges against Ray, including sex trafficking, extortion, and forced labor. The poisoning and yard work formed the basis of the extortion charge. “Ray ultimately extracted false confessions from at least seven victims that they had intentionally damaged Ray and his family members’ and other associates’ property and/or had poisoned Ray and his family members and other associates,” read the indictment.

Ray’s next court appearance is Wednesday, February 26. At his arraignment, Felicia and Isabella, who are still living in Muller’s house, came to support him. According to one of his friends, when Muller got home from work on the day Ray was arrested, he had to break a window to get inside. He no longer had a key to his own house.

Isabella’s family is once again hopeful. “We’ve now consulted experts,” Jeffrey said about trying to get through to her niece. “We’re going to give it some time, but at least the monster is behind bars.”

What Happened to the Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence?