crime

What It Was Like to Face the Monster of Sarah Lawrence

My encounters with Larry Ray.

Photo: Dana Scruggs
Photo: Dana Scruggs

Larry Ray arrived in a federal courtroom Tuesday wearing the standard khaki shirt and pants issued to inmates awaiting trial. He glanced at his girlfriend and co-defendant, Isabella Pollock, who was sitting toward the back of the courtroom, and seated his imposing body down between his attorneys. It was the first time I’d seen Ray since February 2020, after he was arrested and charged with a slew of crimes because of a New York Magazine article Ezra Marcus and I wrote about him. We detailed how Ray had spent years psychologically and sexually abusing his daughter’s friends, some of whom he’d met while living in his daughter’s dorm room at Sarah Lawrence College. I had interviewed Ray at length for the story, and, as I sat ten feet away from him, I wondered whether he would recognize me through my mask if he turned around. But he never did.

Ray is scheduled to stand trial in February on racketeering, money laundering, forced labor, and sex-trafficking charges. The 61-year-old is accused of “sexually grooming,” in the words of prosecutors, his daughter’s friends, with whom he lived on and off for years, and coercing at least one them into sex work and taking her earnings. Tuesday’s court hearing was, in part, to address whether Ray’s defense team might subpoena the medical files of his alleged victims, including records from family-therapy sessions.

When I tell people that I spent a considerable amount of time with Larry, as I knew him back then, they almost always ask some version of the question “Did you see his appeal?” The simple answer is no. By the time we met, I was well acquainted with Larry’s tricks, though I gleaned traces of his charisma. He exuded a particular kind of tristate-area machismo that was tempered by a surprising politeness. For example, he seemed genuinely concerned when I told him a loved one was scheduled to have surgery and was sure to follow up the next day. He also played up his contradictions. A supposed Marine who bragged about reading Marcus Aurelius, a man who worshipped law enforcement but railed against the Man, a salt-of-the-earth Jersey boy who had stories to tell about Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert De Niro, Rudy Giuliani, and Mario Cuomo as well as seemingly every shady figure who had passed through the Lincoln Tunnel in the 1990s. I understand why these contradictions may have felt outré to college sophomores. He appealed to them because he offered fatherly guidance, free steak dinners, and tales of adventure. Larry was proof that life beyond their liberal-arts campus could be exhilarating.

On a March afternoon in 2019, I sat down for a day of writing when my phone started vibrating. “Blocked,” read the caller ID. I had been reporting on Larry for months (and Ezra had done so for even longer), but had not yet reached out to him. A paranoid conspiracy theorist, Larry was exactly the type of person who would call from a blocked number. I answered. “I hear you’ve been asking people about me,” he said in the same voice I’d heard in a now-deleted video Larry had posted to YouTube. In the video, Larry interrogates Claudia, one of his daughter’s roommates, drawing a false confession out of her for poisoning him. Now, the same voice — nasal, slow, withdrawn — was in my ear. “I heard that Ezra was doing a story about me being a cult leader,” he said, laughing as if it was an absurd premise.

Over the next month, I spent about 12 hours talking to Larry, interviewing him twice in person. The experience was unsettling and, as someone who had spent months learning how he had earned his daughter’s friends’ trust only to manipulate them and their families for money and pleasure, unfulfilling. Larry was nearly impenetrable. Hopped up on amphetamines, he strung together hours of unintelligible ramblings that always circled back to an elaborate conspiracy theory against him involving former NYPD commissioner Bernard Kerik brainwashing his daughter’s roommates to poison him. He regularly cut me off as I was asking a question to offer clauses littered with indefinite pronouns that added up to nothing. When I could decipher his non sequiturs, they often amounted to vague attacks on people from his past. I assumed he was trying to discredit potential sources: family members, ex-girlfriends, attorneys, his former followers, former friends, and a former landlord. These people were unreliable, liars, mentally unstable, or agents of Kerik.

Late in our reporting, Ezra and I obtained a psychological evaluation of Larry conducted during a 2005 child-custody battle with his ex-wife. “If [Larry] did not wish to answer a question, he would never overtly refuse,” it read. Getting a straight answer from Larry was like trying to catch a feather in a hurricane. Whether on the phone or in person, he obfuscated and deflected. “We’ll get to that,” was a common response. “What do you think?” was another. Ezra had heard a story about Larry working an undercover operation for the FBI (or was it the CIA? Or the Defense Intelligence Agency?) on a yacht in New York Harbor. It was a tantalizing lead that seemed far-fetched, but with Larry you never really knew what was real and what was fake. When I asked Larry about it, he paused for a long time and responded, “What kind of yacht?” Another time, I asked Larry how he’d met Gorbachev’s interpreter. Larry’s response: “On foot.”

I’d read court transcripts dating back to a 2000 case in which Larry pleaded guilty to securities fraud in a mob-connected stock pump-and-dump scheme. At his sentencing hearing, Larry’s attorney argued that his client was “a scientific oddity and a medical mystery” whose “preposterous and indeed unexplainable behavior” in court was a result of brain fog. Each time we ended our conversations, I was left wondering if Larry really did have brain fog or if there was some engineering behind all of the dross, drawing out our conversations, dodging every question I asked him, in an effort to manipulate me.

“His 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 over the situation. But Mr. Ray has the control,” the psychologist wrote in a description that perfectly correlated with my own experience. “He is able to manipulate and control almost any situation in which he finds himself … Mr. Ray is very good at what he does.”  

Daniel Barban Levin, one of the victims Larry met at Sarah Lawrence and who recently wrote a book about his experience, once told us that the most dangerous thing someone can be around Larry is polite. That analysis resonated with me. Our second face-to-face interview at a midtown photo shoot for our story, then dinner, lasted more than three hours, and I was exhausted by the end. As we were walking up Park Avenue, Larry offered to give me a ride home to Brooklyn. At that moment, I saw a subway entrance, said that this was my train (it was not), and scurried down the stairs.

Trying to get away from Larry reminded me of something else Dan had said. Larry’s “therapy sessions” only ended when Larry extracted false confessions from his victims. “It was this endurance test,” Dan once told us. “Larry would be interrogating you. If you were resisting it or weren’t saying what he wanted to hear, this would go on for eight or nine hours.” By the end of my interactions with Larry, I understood why someone would lie to make him stop.

Buried deep in my interviews with Larry were a handful of revealing moments, including one in which he seemed to freely admit to the most damning allegations in our article. For years, Larry had extracted money from his victims and their families by claiming they owed him for damage they’d done to his property (an apartment he did not own and a house owned by his stepfather). The damage could range from painting tape ($9.87) to a gas range ($6,780) or more. Parents estimated they gave hundreds of thousands to their children so they could pay Larry for this “damaged” property. When parents stopped paying Larry, he turned to their kids. Prosecutors allege that Larry coerced Claudia, one of his daughter’s roommates, into sex work in order to pay for damage he claimed she did to Larry’s stepfather’s home in North Carolina. The Feds say they found two spreadsheets accounting for “pickups (repairs)” in 2017 and 2018 totaling some $1.7 million, money they say Claudia earned as a sex worker to “satisfy these fake debts,” as one prosecutor put it during a hearing. Once, I asked Larry if Claudia had been giving him her earnings. Not only did he say yes but he also told me that, on at least one occasion, he had spent the day watching clients come and go from Claudia’s apartment to see if the numbers added up.

JAMES: I had looked at Claudia’s escort page, and it looks expensive. I’m wondering if …


LARRY: I couldn’t understand what you said, James. 


JAMES: … I’m just wondering, Claudia’s escort page, her prices are expensive; did she ever, like, pay you back with that? 


LARRY: Wait, excuse me? Is it what?


JAMES: Was she ever able to pay you back with damages? Just cause it looks like she was making a shitload of money. 


LARRY: Yeah, no, she was. She paid. There’s times she would pay — she would want to give us money, enough that, you know, I didn’t even believe she was making it all from escorting. She could have been, but it was hard to believe that. And in the beginning, she was saying that she, you know, saw this many clients or whatever and I actually went to her apartment, the apartment building she was living in, and I sat down the hall to watch for hours, and she did not have that many clients at that time. She never knew I was there and I left and we just all said to each other, “Let’s see what happens.” And she ended up calling later on that night and said she had x amount of clients, did really well, she was all excited. You know, kind of excited anyway. That was clearly, I guess she wanted us to see her be excited, I guess. There’s no way she had that many clients. No way. I was sitting right there, I couldn’t miss them. 


JAMES: She was excited, though, to be able to, like, pay you back? 


LARRY: Yeah, she wanted it to be acknowledged that she was paying us back. I genuinely always believed — and so did everybody else, you can talk to them yourself — that Claudia genuinely felt very guilty. I genuinely believed that Yali [another alleged victim] did, felt genuinely guilty. And I genuinely believed that Santos [another alleged victim] felt genuinely guilty. But they didn’t end up doing the right thing, and the only one that wanted to really try and do something, or did try — for whatever reason, whatever the real reason is you’d have to know from Claudia — was Claudia.

What Larry was really good at was insulating himself from the truth. For decades, Larry has created paper trails of dubious journal entries, videos, audio recordings, and even public records that seemingly supported his conspiracy theories. (The FBI seized some 15 terabytes of data from Larry, including more than 150,000 audio files.) Some of his victims testified under oath in a housing-court trial that they’d poisoned him. Adults have penned glowing letters about him. “I am writing this letter to unequivocally apologize for my malicious and spiteful behavior and actions taken for the purpose of hurting and destroying you,” wrote one woman under his spell. “You’re smart, handsome, funny, effective, an alpha male.” Larry has spent a lot of time in courtrooms — in the pump-and-dump case, family court, housing court, as a witness in a criminal case, and more — and it’s as if he has lived his adult years counterfeiting evidence that might help him in court one day.

In the run-up to the publication of our story in April 2019, Claudia cut ties with Larry and left New York. During our conversations around that time, Larry seemed to be probing to figure out if Ezra and I were talking to Claudia. At least once, Larry seemed to want me to deliver a threat to Claudia. Larry said that he was in control of a website documenting Claudia’s “confessions.” To me, it seemed as if Larry used the website — and the threat of posting more content aimed at humiliating her — as a means of control.

LARRY: Claudia’s been involved in the website, in as far as putting things up, and she felt it was a good idea from the start. But, you know, we actually own the website.


JAMES: Okay, so, okay.


LARRY: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t think we talked about that. 


JAMES: No, no, no. Okay. 


LARRY: And I’m about to put some stuff up. Isabella has some ideas; she wants to put more stuff up, and so does Felicia. And I don’t see any reason not to, because that was the intention anyway. 


JAMES: Okay, okay, so you guys want to put stuff up to get it kind of noticed? 


LARRY: Yeah. 


JAMES: Okay …


LARRY: You know or whatever, but it really, just, it’s never, you know, really had the … you know, formal plan to do that but started out and still is like at least, you know, put the stuff up there, and it is what it is. You know, like the stuff … handwritten stuff you see there … That’s Claudia’s handwriting.

LARRY: We also feel that, you know, what calms and grounds Claudia is putting something else up on the website. 


JAMES: You think that will surface her, you mean? 


LARRY: Yeah.


JAMES: I see, I see. Smoke signals?


LARRY: Well, sort of. You know, it grounds her back to reality. See what I’m saying? I have to say that Claudia is consistent the whole time, you know what I’m saying. She’s never walked away from and, you know, she has said this many times and it is true. I can’t say she has … you know, I don’t like, uh, agree with this … you know, her not having told us everything yet … but that’s not new … that’s always … you know … kind of been what she maintained.

My relationship with Larry came to a screeching halt as soon as Ezra and I started the fact-checking process. When we called Larry to give him a chance to respond to the allegations in our story, he refused to continue while Ezra was on the phone. (Larry was still convinced Ezra was “biased,” or “influenced,” and part of the Kerik conspiracy.) When we sent Larry an email bullet-pointing each allegation, we received a cease-and-desist letter from his attorney.

In February, Larry’s defense will likely be predicated on discrediting his victims. To do so, his lawyers may use information from their medical records and false confessions Larry extracted over the years. But aside from his co-defendant, Isabella Pollock, his victims may no longer be willing to go along with Larry’s conspiracy theory. Awaiting trial behind bars, Larry has not been allowed to contact them, giving them time and space to untangle their lives from him. At a hearing last year, the constellation of Larry’s depravity was summed up not by a psychiatrist or a prosecutor but by Larry’s own defense attorney. “Your honor, on their own these allegations are only illegal insofar as you connect the dots,” she said. For years, Larry was the only one who could connect the dots. Now, they are on full display for all to see.

What It Was Like to Face the Monster of Sarah Lawrence