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The Stolen Kids Of Sarah Lawrence
The Stolen Kids Of Sarah Lawrence

When Larry Ray visited his daughter at college, her roommates were happy to let him spend the night. Nine years later, they are still struggling to get out from under his grip.

Ezra Marcus And James D. Walsh

I. Anyone who spent time with Talia Ray during her first year at Sarah Lawrence College heard her talk about her father. He was a truth teller, she’d explain, who’d been silenced by a group of powerful, vindictive men. He’d been sent to prison for his heroic efforts to save her and her younger sister from their abusive mother, and his incarceration was the result of deep-seated government corruption. Talia, who had grown up in New Jersey, was old for a freshman and had become the de facto leader of her group of friends, organizing their housing for the next year at Slonim Woods 9, a drab two-story brick dorm in the middle of campus. So in late September 2010, at the beginning of sophomore year, when Talia told her housemates that her father was getting out of prison and needed to crash with them for a while, they were mostly unfazed.

Within days of his release, Larry Ray moved onto Sarah Lawrence’s campus. He planted himself in the common area, cooking steak dinners and ordering expensive delivery for Talia and her seven housemates. While they ate, he told them stories in a nasal Brooklyn accent about his long and decorated history as a government agent, his former work as an international CIA operative, how he recovered Stinger missiles off the black market and engineered a cease-fire in Kosovo. He loved to preach the values of the Marine Corps and dropped references to his relationships with high-ranking American military officers.

Larry was of average height and overweight, yet he could be intimidating. He had a clean-shaven head and favored polo shirts cut to make his 50-year-old frame look hulking. His machismo was out of place on the liberal-arts campus. “Do you work out?” Larry would ask Talia’s friends. “Can you defend yourself? You look really weak.”

He could also be charming. He was a good listener and engaged the group on heady concepts like truth and justice. “He did all of our cleaning and definitely took on the dad role in the house in a big way,” says Juli Anna, one of the Slonim 9 roommates. He screened Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in the common room, where the students watched from pillows on the floor, and followed it with an impromptu lecture on the nature of the universe. At night, he’d retire to an air mattress in Talia’s room or the common-room couch.

Located just above the city limits of New York, Sarah Lawrence looks as if it had been plucked from a New England town and plopped 15 miles north of Times Square. It can feel whimsically sheltered, even more so than most liberal-arts colleges. The school’s head of security once sent out safety alerts because a small fox had been seen on campus. The residents of Slonim 9 were in some ways typical Sarah Lawrence students: an artistic, bookish group of introverts with good grades. (“We’re different, so are you,” goes one of the school’s slogans.) They were also sensitive and, in ways common to 19-year-olds, searching for guidance. There was Daniel Barban Levin, who had begun exploring his sexuality. Claudia and Santos had both struggled with depression. Another roommate, Isabella, went through a bad breakup soon after Larry arrived. (The last names of many of the students have been withheld at their request.)

They were a receptive audience for their unusual ninth roommate. “I don’t think anyone really questioned it because it was such a huge part of Talia’s life,” says Daniel of Larry’s presence. “We were talking about getting a big bag of sand and dumping it out on the kitchen floor to make a tiny beach—it’s not like we were trying to have a normal household.”

Larry would sometimes tell the kids they had come together in part because of a shared obsession with taking their own lives. And in fact, Santos, according to his parents, had tried to kill himself in high school. Larry claimed he could help them. He said he knew techniques to discipline the mind, training he’d received from the government. He began counseling a few of the roommates, including Isabella, Talia’s best friend.

Isabella had come to Sarah Lawrence on a full academic scholarship from an all-girls Catholic high school in San Antonio. After her breakup, she seemed to take comfort in Larry’s company. “I’m 19, I was having a lot of difficulty making sense of things, I wasn’t in a good place,” Isabella says. “He started to help me kind of process and make sense of a lot of things I just couldn’t make sense of.” Talia’s boyfriend at the time remembers seeing Larry and Isabella reclining on Talia’s bed. Larry was stroking Isabella’s hair, soothing her. “He’s like, ‘Nobody’s going to hurt my baby girl,’ ” the ex-boyfriend says. Larry said he was going to start sleeping in Isabella’s room, an arrangement that made the boyfriend uncomfortable. “You’re acting like I’m going to be sleeping with her,” Larry responded, “but I’m going to be sleeping on the floor. She needs someone to help her.”

“Isabella was pretty fragile,” says Juli Anna. “In fact, a lot of people in that building were pretty fragile.”

That December, the night before Isabella was to return home for winter break, Larry called her family. According to Isabella’s aunt, Larry told her mother that Isabella had been sexually abused as a child by a family friend and that if Isabella were to go home for break, she might commit suicide. Isabella’s mother was taken aback. She had been very close to her daughter and had never heard her say anything about an assault. “You let this happen to her,” Larry told Isabella’s mom, according to her aunt.

Isabella spent winter break with Larry, Talia, and Talia’s boyfriend in a one- bedroom condo on East 93rd Street owned by Lee Chen, an old friend of Larry’s. Talia and her boyfriend slept in the living room, while Isabella and Larry shared the bedroom. “He controlled every aspect of our lives once we were in the apartment,” the boyfriend says. “When we ate, what we did, when we went to bed.” Larry told Talia’s boyfriend to stop taking his prescribed antipsychotic medication. He was so disturbed by Larry’s behavior that he broke up with Talia as soon as winter break ended.

Larry returned to Slonim 9 for the spring semester, spending most of his nights in Isabella’s room. His “house meetings” and “family dinners” continued and, to some, started to feel mandatory. One night, Larry gathered everyone in the common room and began lecturing on Q4P, a philosophy based on the supposition that all energy in the universe is powered by the “quest for potential.” Q4P was the brainchild of Larry’s friend David Birnbaum, a Diamond District dealer who moonlights as a philosopher.

Another roommate, Claudia, was particularly intrigued by the presentation and began having weekly counseling sessions with Larry. Claudia had grown up on the outskirts of Los Angeles. In high school, she was part of a group of close friends who spent weekends writing poetry, taking pictures, and talking about boys. “She was so smart and creative,” says one of her best friends from high school. “I think what she was best at was telling stories.”

Sometimes Claudia stretched the truth for effect, though in innocent ways. Her friends called her out for claiming to like a band she’d never listened to. Another time, she pretended to faint in Spanish class. Claudia, her friend says, wanted to “make herself more exciting.”

Claudia had initially been unnerved by Larry, particularly by his relationship with Talia. But Claudia seemed to change after she started meeting privately with Larry. “It was like something had snapped in her,” says Juli Anna. Before, Claudia had been funny and self-aware; now she seemed artificially chipper. She kept posting about the Marines on Facebook. More concerning to her friends, Claudia began telling people she thought she might be schizophrenic, a diagnosis that Larry, who had no medical training, had given her during one of their sessions.

Daniel too had initially found Larry’s philosophical musings incoherent and thought Claudia’s newfound trust in his amateur mental health counseling seemed weird. “Claudia definitely had some complex issues. She had real stuff going on,” Daniel says. “It was all stuff that a therapist would really be the right person to turn to. But Larry claimed to have some superhuman level of empathy or ability to talk to young people and help them work through their issues.”

Near the end of the school year, Daniel found himself unmoored. His relationship with his girlfriend was crumbling, and he had nowhere to live that summer. Santos and Claudia urged him to speak with Larry. The two met in a Starbucks one afternoon and talked for hours. Larry gave him advice that felt refreshingly straightforward: Dump your girlfriend. On the question of Daniel’s sexuality, Larry shut down the suggestion conclusively: “Oh no, you’re not gay,” he said. “I can tell you that for sure.”

“I was directionless, and suddenly this ‘real man’ came into my life,” Daniel says. “It was this incredible feeling of such intense validation, of being seen and heard finally.” Larry offered to help Daniel “achieve clarity.” After their conversation, Larry walked Daniel outside and into a limousine idling up the block, where his roommates were waiting. They went to the apartment on East 93rd Street. When they arrived, Larry suggested Daniel live there for the summer with him and some of the other Sarah Lawrence kids. He agreed.

“I didn’t want to go back home, and this was my alternative,” Daniel says. “Part of why I got in a cult at all was because I had no idea how one finds a place to live in New York.”

EVERY MORNING that summer in the apartment on 93rd Street started the same way: Larry would blast the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” The message was clear. Larry planned to personally guide the young adults—Daniel, Talia, Claudia, Isabella, and Santos—through the teenage wasteland.

Living in the apartment wasn’t all that different from living in a college dorm. There were family meals, movie nights, and a self serious camaraderie that fostered intense discussions that could drag on all night.

Daniel worked at a vegan-ice-cream shop in the East Village that summer. Larry seemed to have several streams of income: He was a life consultant for a wealthy friend and was building a domain name business he’d enlisted the kids’ help with. He could be extravagantly generous. Sometimes he bought his young roommates expensive clothing or shoes, and he would occasionally take the group out for dinners at upscale steakhouses—always paid for with a wad of cash he kept in a backpack that he carried with him at all times. He had a limo driver on call to take them home, no matter the hour.

Larry’s core program of personal transformation happened on nights they stayed in. After a late dinner, everyone would gather in the living room for a marathon discussion in which the group interrogated one person about anything and everything. Usually, the person being questioned had landed in the hot seat because he or she had done something Larry didn’t like. Trivial mistakes, such as scratching a pan or breaking a plate, were considered intentional manifestations of childhood trauma. The group session’s purpose, Larry explained, was to reveal deep personal truths.

The meetings would often end in “breakthroughs” that followed a disturbing dream logic. On one occasion, Larry convinced Daniel that the reason he played the ukulele was because of trauma inflicted on him by his father. Larry told Daniel to smash the instrument in front of the group as an act of catharsis. When he did, the group applauded Daniel for achieving “closure.” Daniel felt immense pressure to find explanations for his actions. Once, after spending hours in the hot seat with no end in sight, Daniel told a story that finally got Larry’s attention: “I said when I was a kid I found a baby bird in my driveway and it was injured, and I held it in my hand and crushed it. I claimed this was a traumatic thing that formed me.” The story was entirely made up, but it ended the session.

Daniel would wake up the next morning to “Baba O’Riley” and go to his job exhausted. Larry himself never seemed to get tired. He preached the benefits of prescription amphetamines and, according to multiple acquaintances, took them in such high doses he rarely needed sleep.

Larry prodded his young roommates to live healthier lifestyles. Claudia was particularly motivated to adopt Larry’s eating and exercise regimen. According to her mother, she became fixated on losing weight and increasingly unhappy with how she looked. From the first time they’d heard about Larry, Claudia’s parents were suspicious of him. When they realized he was living in Slonim 9, they met with Allen Green, Sarah Lawrence’s dean of student life. Green told them he’d received other complaints about Larry but his hands were tied; a father had a right to visit his daughter on campus, he explained. A second meeting ended similarly. (Green did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Sarah Lawrence said it “had no record that Larry Ray lived on campus at any time.”)

Claudia’s parents had moved to the Upper East Side after she started at Sarah Lawrence. That summer, they were living a few blocks from the 93rd Street apartment. They saw their daughter about once a week when she came home to get a change of clothes or drop something off.

“She was on ‘Larry behavior,’ ” her mother says. “She’d be saying things that sounded like they came out of Larry’s mouth. ‘In the Marines you do this, you exercise, and you only eat healthy food.’ ” Claudia became very critical of her parents. “She would be disparaging about how we were running the household: ‘Look, you can’t even get dinner on the table on time.’ ”

On 93rd Street, small mistakes weren’t just symbols of childhood trauma. They were evidence that the kids were trying to “sabotage” Larry’s program of self- improvement. Subversive behavior was explored in painstaking detail and required written, signed confessions. In one, Santos wrote, “I threw out around five checkbooks and ripped out pages from at least two,” and detailed plans to “interfere with Larry’s business and not let him work by making sure to take up his time and waste it.”

Daniel remembers delivering handwritten letters to Larry listing items he had damaged as part of an intentional effort to harm Larry’s family. Daniel now believes the confessions served to cement Larry’s psychological conditioning. “All this pressure had been put on all of us to believe that we had done all these terrible things to him and his family,” he says. The confession process demanded that Daniel reconfigure his own memories to reconcile them with Larry’s accusations. Over the years, Larry would collect hundreds of pages of such confessions from the students. Many of them used almost identical language.

Things became more difficult for Daniel when Larry took a deeper interest in his sexual education. One night, Isabella came out of the bedroom and began kissing Daniel on the couch. At first, he thought Isabella was acting on a crush, but a few weeks later Larry ushered the two of them into the bedroom, instructing Daniel and Isabella to have sex while he watched. The sessions became regular, and Larry would sometimes participate. He made it seem as if his presence were part of Daniel’s and Isabella’s journeys to clarity. Once, Larry invited Chen, his friend the landlord, to join them.

“I got so freaked out,” Daniel says. “There was no consent in that situation. Isabella may have seemed to be pursuing all of this, but her mind was being twisted by Larry.”

Still, Daniel didn’t leave the apartment. “It was a combination of feeling like, This is unusual, and I feel kind of weird,” he says, “but my immediate next thought was, Everyone else seems to think this is really good. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, and I need to lean into this.”


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April 29, 2019