NEW YORK — A year ago, Isabella Pollok was portrayed by prosecutors as the victim of a Svengali-like older man who moved into his daughter’s dormitory at Sarah Lawrence College and recruited her friends into a cult, subjecting them to years of sexual exploitation and physical abuse.
Pollok was only 19 when she fell under the sway of the man, Lawrence Ray, prosecutors said. She cut off ties with her family and followed him up and down the Eastern Seaboard for a decade. When Ray was arrested last year at a house in New Jersey, Pollok was one of two women living with him.
Now, in a surprising twist, prosecutors have accused Pollok of being a willing accomplice who assisted Ray, 61, in various criminal schemes, even helping him collect millions of dollars in profits from one of her former classmates whom prosecutors said he had forced to become a prostitute.
That the government started out depicting Pollok as Ray’s victim and now has charged her as his co-conspirator speaks to the complexity of the psychological manipulation he is said to have used and how it may complicate a prosecution.
For Pollok’s family, the sudden change in her legal status has been bewildering. Her aunt, Liz Jeffrey, said that Ray brainwashed her niece and it made no sense to her that prosecutors repeatedly described Pollok, 29, as “a victim, a victim, a victim — up until they want to charge her.”
“I don’t care what they found,” Jeffrey said. “It is all under duress. She has been under his spell for 10 years.”
Experts on human trafficking and cults said the line between victim and accomplice can be hard to judge.
Taryn Merkl, a former federal prosecutor who supervised human-trafficking cases in Brooklyn, said prosecutors must decide “where duress ends, and victimization can no longer be the understood reason for behavior that crosses the line over to more deliberate criminality.”
Rick Alan Ross, founder of the Cult Education Institute and an expert on persuading people to leave cults, said that if Pollok was unwilling to cooperate with the prosecution, “she’s cast her lot with Larry Ray.”
Ross said the same phenomenon could be seen in the case of Keith Raniere, the convicted leader of the Nxivm cult in Albany, New York, in which some women were branded and coerced into serving as sexual slaves.
Five of Raniere’s most ardent followers ended up being charged with him and later pleaded guilty to charges like conspiracy and visa fraud. Other former Nxivm members who had been branded stood by Raniere after his conviction.
The investigation that led to Ray’s arrest in February 2020 was prompted by a New York magazine article titled “The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence.” It described how Ray, in the fall of 2010 when he was 50, insinuated himself into the lives of his daughter’s classmates, including Pollok, whom the magazine identified only by her first name.
Ray had finished serving prison time in New Jersey on charges stemming from a child custody dispute.
In the magazine article, Pollok was quoted saying that she sought guidance from Ray after a breakup. The magazine said Ray spent many nights in her room.
“I’m 19, I was having a lot of difficulty making sense of things, I wasn’t in a good place,” Pollok said. “He started to help me kind of process and make sense of a lot of things I just couldn’t make sense of.”
After graduating in 2013, Pollok spent time with Ray in North Carolina, New York and at a house in Piscataway, New Jersey, where she and another woman lived with him, New York magazine reported.
(One of the reporters of the magazine article, Ezra Marcus, is now a reporter for The New York Times and worked on this article. He attended Sarah Lawrence at the same time as Pollok but did not know her.)
The original indictment, released in February 2020, named Ray as the sole defendant and said he gained control over the students through lengthy “therapy” sessions, during which he “learned intimate details about their private lives, vulnerabilities and mental health struggles under the pretense of helping them.”
Ray also subjected them to “interrogation sessions that typically involved verbal and physical abuse,” the indictment said.
The new indictment, unsealed Jan. 29, for the first time named Pollok as a co-defendant with Ray. It said he had recruited her “to join the criminal scheme.”
The indictment charged her and Ray in various conspiracies to commit racketeering, extortion and sex trafficking.
It said that Ray and Pollok tried to gain their victims’ trust “before psychologically manipulating and controlling them,” through threats and violence and by depriving them of food and sleep.
Prosecutors, as well as lawyers for Pollok and Ray, all declined to comment. The two defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Last year, prosecutors presented a different portrait of Pollok.
At a hearing in March 2020, they successfully argued against bail for Ray, noting that there were still victims under his control at the time of his arrest, including the two women living with him.
“Both are women he exploited and abused for years, including physical abuse and sexual exploitation,” one of the prosecutors, Danielle R. Sassoon, said.
Sassoon did not identify the two women, but the government made it clear that Pollok was one of them during her recent arraignment in federal court in Manhattan. The other woman who was living with Ray has not been charged.
In August, prosecutors wrote to the judge, claiming that Ray, using his father as an intermediary, was sending coded messages from jail to the two women. “Ray also amassed videos that contain graphic sexual content of these two women, including sexual acts performed at Ray’s direction that appear designed to debase and control them,” the prosecutors said.
Ray’s messages from jail to the women were “plainly designed to tamper with witnesses and deter these women from cooperating in the government’s investigation,” the prosecutors said. In one call, for example, Ray told his father to tell the women that they had “signed on forever.”
“Most troubling,” the prosecutors wrote, “the calls suggest that Ray’s ongoing communications are designed to ensure the ongoing loyalty of these women and to inhibit their ability to detach from the influence he commanded over them for nearly a decade.”
One sign that Ray’s influence still looms large over Pollok surfaced at her arraignment, where her lawyer, Peter M. Skinner, said he was concerned that Pollok “may not be competent to stand trial,” and suggested the judge order a psychological evaluation of his client.
Then Skinner noted that Pollok disagreed with his view.
“She feels that she is competent to proceed and doesn’t feel that any hearing on competency is necessary,” Skinner said.
On Wednesday, the judge, Lewis J. Liman, ordered that Pollok undergo the evaluation.
Prosecutors have not said why they chose to charge Pollok now or whether they still are seeking her cooperation against Ray, perhaps in return for a recommendation of leniency at sentencing. Some counts against her carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Ross, the cult expert, suggested the prosecutors may be trying to send Pollok a message.
“The worst place for a cult is in court,” Ross said. “It’s no longer a place of myths and make-believe and whatever the leader says is right.”
“Regardless of whether she chooses to deal with reality or not,” he added, “reality will deal with her.”
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