WARNING: Disturbing video. Viewer discretion advised.
(NewsNation) — The unthinkable: an alleged sex cult on a major American college campus that prosecutors say was started by a student’s father. That’s what a jury has been hearing about in the case of Lawrence Ray.
Investigators say that for nearly 10 years, Ray victimized students at Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County, New York, reportedly beating and trafficking them for sex, among other acts. And they say the abuse began inside his own daughter’s dorm room, where he lived after being released from prison for federal securities fraud in 2010.
The 62-year-old now stands trial on a slew of charges including sex trafficking, extortion, forced labor and money laundering.
According to the indictment, Ray subjected a group of college students and other victims to sexual and psychological manipulation and physical abuse, often captured on video. Authorities say his tactics included sleep deprivation, psychological and sexual humiliation, verbal abuse, threats of physical violence, threats of criminal legal action, alienating victims from their families and exploiting vulnerabilities in victims’ mental health.
Prosecutors told the jury that Ray referred to the cult as “the family” and that he dragged students into a life of servitude, maniacal rituals and extortion.
Per the indictment, Ray extorted approximately $1 million from at least five victims. Prosecutors say through manipulation, Ray made the victims give false confessions about damages and extorted payment from them.
“The victims made payments to Ray by draining their parents’ savings, opening credit lines, soliciting contributions from acquaintances, selling real estate ownership, and at Ray’s direction, performing unpaid labor for RAY and earning money through prostitution,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said.
Investigators report that through fear, violence and coercion, Ray forced a 19-year-old female victim into prostitution to pay damages to Ray she never owed. She testified that Ray physically abused her and convinced her that she had tried to poison him and owed him huge sums of money.
From that point on, investigators say the victim worked for years as a prostitute and paid Ray anything from $10,000 to $50,000 per week. In total, the indictment states that Ray collected more than $500,000 in forced prostitution proceeds from her.
“Beginning when she was just a college student, Ray sexually groomed this victim, and collected sexually explicit photographs and other personal information which he then used to coerce her into continued commercial sex acts. Ray also used physical violence. On one occasion, as alleged, Ray tied his victim to a chair, placed a plastic bag over her head, and nearly suffocated her,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York added.
Ray is also accused of making three female victims perform unpaid extensive physical labor, sometimes in the middle of the night, at a family member’s property in North Carolina.
“College is supposed to be a time of self-discovery and new-found independence. But as alleged, Lawrence Ray exploited that vulnerable time in his victims’ lives through a course of conduct that shocks the conscience,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said. “Through his manipulative interrogation sessions, Ray made his victims confess to alleged wrongdoing and then compelled them to repay Ray alleged damages owed to him, through payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars, or worse, forced labor and sex trafficking.”
Prosecutors report that Ray had two associates that helped him collect and transfer money from victims. They say Ray would then launder the proceeds through an internet domain business and continue to abuse his victims.
“For the better part of the last decade, we allege there was no limit to the abuse Ray’s victims received, and there is no way of knowing the amount of damage he may have caused them in the years to come,” FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said.
With all the accusations and video gathered in the case, what is Ray’s defense?
Adam Klasfeld, managing editor for Law and Crime, has been following the trial step by step and broke down a portion of Ray’s defense strategy Tuesday on NewsNation’s “Dan Abrams Live.”
“It’s called the advice of counsel defense,” Klasfeld said. “Ray has said that his lawyer instructed him that he could collect money from his alleged sex trafficking victim, Claudia Drury, as compensation for her supposed poisoning (of Ray), and that he relied on that advice of counsel for the tax evasion charge that (for Ray) … such compensation wouldn’t be taxable.”
Defense attorneys also say Ray honesetly “believed that he was being persecuted by shadowy powers … and that belief, the alleged belief, is being used in his own defense,” Klasfeld said.
In February 2020, authorities arrested Ray in New Jersey. His fate is now in the hands of a Manhattan jury, who began deliberations Tuesday.