Sarah Lawrence Cult Jury Hears From Key Witness: ‘I Became a Prostitute’

In journals, emails and videos, Claudia Drury cataloged the transgressions Lawrence V. Ray convinced her she had committed.

Damaging Mr. Ray’s vacuum. Eating all of his food. Even poisoning him with cyanide.

In reality, Ms. Drury now says, none of it happened. But Mr. Ray demanded reparations anyway. And although she was short on money, she said, Mr. Ray steered her toward a way of having “fun” — while earning cash to pay him.

“I became a prostitute,” Ms. Drury said during testimony that ended on Friday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, where Mr. Ray is being tried on 16 counts of charges that include tax evasion and extortion. “It was Larry’s suggestion.”

Her testimony, coming near the trial’s midpoint, is pivotal to the prosecution’s case, offering an inside account in support of some of the most serious charges against him, sex trafficking and violent crime in aid of racketeering.

Over several days, Ms. Drury added new details about how Mr. Ray, according to prosecutors, moved into a dormitory at Sarah Lawrence College in 2010 and spent years manipulating and abusing students he met there.

Ms. Drury, one of those students, described how Mr. Ray exploited her at a time when she felt “anchorless and anxious.”

He gained her trust by pretending to be a mentor, Ms. Drury testified. Then, she said, he turned abusive, pressuring her to admit to the phony infractions and using her confessions to extract payments.

Mr. Ray was arrested in 2020 after he was the subject of a New York magazine article.

In her testimony, Ms. Drury detailed how Mr. Ray had wielded power over her and other impressionable students at Sarah Lawrence, a private, liberal arts college in Westchester County, N.Y., just north of New York City.

Ms. Drury described how Mr. Ray made her believe she had committed crimes, alienated her from her parents and groomed her for abuse. He first spoke about sex, she testified, then initiated sexual contact with her and encouraged her sexual contact with others.

Finally, she worked for years as a prostitute, Ms. Drury testified, soliciting clients over the internet and giving about $2.5 million in earnings to Mr. Ray.

She also testified that Mr. Ray became enraged after she confided in a client about aspects of her life. At one point, she said, he threatened her with waterboarding and held a plastic bag over her head in a Manhattan hotel as she struggled to breathe.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I was trembling.”

Mr. Ray’s lawyers have suggested that a group of storytelling students, some of whom have had mental health problems, had created a “fantastic conspiracy” about him.

Under cross-examination, Ms. Drury acknowledged that she had a history of embellishing anecdotes and she said she had fabricated a detailed account of being accosted on the street by mysterious men with a message from Mr. Ray’s onetime friend, Bernard B. Kerik, a former New York police commissioner.

Ms. Drury entered Mr. Ray’s orbit after he appeared at the Sarah Lawrence dormitory where his daughter, Talia Ray, lived. He had recently completed a stateprison term in New Jersey stemming from a child custody dispute.

At the dormitory, Mr. Ray regaled Ms. Drury and the other roommates with tales of intrigue. She testified that she learned of his time in the military and hisrole in the downfall of Mr. Kerik, who was nominated for a top federal job but ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of tax fraud and accepting free work from a contractor suspected of being tied to the mob.

Mr. Ray had a “very magnetic and charismatic kind of personality,” Ms. Drury testified, adding that she believed that he had exposed a plot to “rip up the Constitution and hurt America.”

He described a philosophy he had helped create called “Quest for Potential” and compared himself to the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, Ms. Drury said. She began to look upon him as a “confidant” who could help improve her life.

But even as he was offering counsel, he was also displaying conspiratorial tendencies, Ms. Drury testified. She said Mr. Ray believed that Mr. Kerik and others were determined to harm him.

In summer 2011, she said, she and other students frequently stayed at Mr. Ray’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he provided so-called therapy sessions meant to make them “more developed people.”

Mr. Ray also brought up sex, Ms. Drury testified, talking about “swing clubs” and sometimes touching her sexually.

He urged her to have sex with a fellow student and with a salesman who visited the apartment, Ms. Drury testified, adding that according to Mr. Ray, “being very open and uninhibited” showed a “higher level of personal development and self-comfort and honesty.”

At the same time, he began making accusations.

He said the students were damaging his property, hiding his possessions and throwing out important documents. Hourslong interrogations followed, Ms. Drury said, with Mr. Ray quizzing the students until he gained a confession. He also threatened the students, she said, and sometimes lashed out violently.

Ms. Drury said she admitted to things she had not done partly because Mr. Ray insisted that she had and partly because the other students were confessing to imagined infractions.

“It was very easy for me to be like, well, maybe I did damage that,” she testified. “Once I sort of started confessing to those things, each one was like further proof of all the others.”

Ms. Drury eventually confessed to poisoning Mr. Ray. In a video he created, which was introduced as evidence, he can be heard asking Ms. Drury for details. She said she had put “mercury, cyanide and arsenic” in his food and on his toothbrush.

Mr. Ray said he could send her to prison, Ms. Drury testified, and made her read Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago”so she would know what was ahead.

A recorded phone conversation from 2012, also introduced as evidence, captured Mr. Ray prompting Ms. Drury as she told her mother that she fantasized about pushing her from a window and strangling her father and that she wanted to go to a hospital.

Ms. Drury testified that it was Mr. Ray who first suggested she wanted to harm her parents and that she had not consciously thought about doing so. While she was hospitalized, she added, he told her that her parents wanted to hurt her and “distort the truth.” She said her relationship with her parents worsened until she lost touch with them entirely.

“Larry would tell me essentially that they were trying to hang me out to dry,” she testified. “I became really paranoid toward them.”

In 2014, Ms. Drury testified, she began working at sex clubs at Mr. Ray’s suggestion. He encouraged her to have sex with a cabdriver in lieu of paying a fare and to have sex with a stranger in Central Park, she added. She also said he was “impressed” after she told him she had let a man run a knife over her body and strike her with a heavy object during sexual activities.

All the while, Ms. Drury testified, she was scared that she would go to prison if she did not give Mr. Ray money he said she owed him as compensation for harm she had caused him, especially the supposed poisonings. Mr. Ray told her that prostitution would be “fun” and a “sexual rush,” she said.

Ms. Drury said she was a prostitute from early 2015 until spring 2019, living in hotels, seeing up to five men a day, seven days a week, and charging them up to $2,000 for an hour. She testified that she gave the money to Mr. Ray and Isabella Pollok, a former Sarah Lawrence roommate who prosecutors say became Mr. Ray’s “trusted lieutenant” and who has been charged with conspiring with him to commit sex trafficking, extortion and racketeering.

“I felt immense pressure from Larry to get money,” Ms. Drury testified, adding that she also wanted to get “off my soul” that she had behaved toward him in an “unforgivable” way.

In late 2018, Ms. Drury said, Mr. Ray showed up at a Midtown hotel where she was staying, ordered her to remove her clothes and then handcuffed her to a chair. Over about seven hours, she said, he placed a pillow over her face, choked her with a collar and leash and covered her head with a plastic bag, at one point saying: “I am going to kill you.”

That, she testified, was a turning point.

“I was scared for my life,” she said. “I was increasingly anxious over whether he was actually who I thought he was.”

She said she had fled New York about six months after the encounter. She did not see or speak with Mr. Ray again.

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