Before defendants can plead guilty in federal criminal court, judges ask them a series of questions to make sure they’re lucid and aware of the decision they’re about to make. Have you had any alcohol recently? Are you on any medications that might impair your judgment? Has your defense team adequately explained the potential consequences of your guilty plea? Among the questions U.S. District Judge Lewis Liman asked the defendant Isabella Pollok on Wednesday morning: What level of education have you completed?
“A college degree,” Pollok, dressed in a blue suit jacket, pearl earrings, and glasses, responded.
“Was that Sarah Lawrence?” Liman followed up.
“Yes, Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County, New York,” Pollok replied.
It was a simple question, one that countless federal judges have asked countless defendants, and yet Pollok’s answer was haunting.
At Sarah Lawrence in 2010, Pollok, then a 19-year-old sophomore, met Larry Ray, her housemate’s 50-year-old father. Pollok was a quiet scholarship student from San Antonio, Texas, who didn’t have a lot of friends when she met Ray. “I’m 19, I was having a lot of difficulty making sense of things, I wasn’t in a good place,” she told New York Magazine in 2019. “He started to help me kind of process and make sense of a lot of things I just couldn’t make sense of.” Ray soon began sleeping on his daughter’s dorm-room couch, and eventually he started sleeping in Pollok’s dorm room.
After moving into his daughter’s Sarah Lawrence dorm room, Ray wreaked havoc on the lives of Pollok, her roommates, and their siblings, subjecting them to constant verbal, physical, and psychological abuse. In April, a jury convicted Ray on 15 counts, including sex trafficking, forced labor, and financial crimes.
And now, Pollok has pled guilty as Ray’s co-conspirator in a money-laundering scheme.The FBI began investigating Ray after prosecutors in the Southern District of New York read an April 2019 New York cover story detailing his abuse. Pollok, now 31, was living with Ray in Piscataway, New Jersey, when he was arrested in February 2020.
Pollok’s guilty plea brings to a close a year-and-a-half-long saga during which many wondered whether the U.S. Attorney’s office was trying to get her to testify against Ray. At first, prosecutors painted Pollok as a victim of Ray’s machinations. But a year later, they indicted her, describing her as Ray’s “lieutenant.” Prosecutors claimed that Pollok helped launder some $2.5 million of proceeds Ray reaped from Claudia Drury, another former Sarah Lawrence student whom Ray coerced into prostitution.
In February 2021, Pollok’s then-attorney asked Liman to order a psychological evaluation of his client, worrying she “may not be competent to stand trial.” Pollok disagreed with the need for an evaluation but nonetheless consented. Two months later, after Pollok passed that evaluation, her attorney asked to be removed from the case, citing a difference in defense strategy. Pollok was assigned new counsel.
“I know what I was doing was wrong and against the law,” Pollok read from a written statement during her plea on Wednesday.
Pollok featured prominently in Ray’s trial, often appearing in audio and video recordings of Ray verbally, physically, and psychologically abusing his victims. In one memorable incident, Pollok could be heard on an audio recording made in a midtown hotel room as Ray psychologically and physically tortured Drury, tying her to a chair and placing a plastic bag over her head so she couldn’t breathe.
At one point during his trial, prosecutors accused Ray of using his father to send coded messages to Pollok.
Ray is expected to be sentenced in early December and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. Pollok, who has been out on bail since her arrest, will be sentenced in February 2023. She faces a maximum of five years in prison and three years of supervised release. Outside of the courtroom, Pollok’s attorney, David Bertan, told reporters that he was pleased with the plea because it afforded his client the chance to move on with her life.