In 2005, five years before he moved into his daughter’s dorm at Sarah Lawrence College and took a cult-like hold over her young friends, Larry Ray received a psychological evaluation. It was conducted as part of a custody trial with Ray’s ex-wife, and the judgment was alarming.
“It is literally impossible to evaluate Mr. Ray in the usual clinical manner,” concluded the evaluator. “His personality dynamics are so configured that he is able to manipulate and control almost any situation in which he finds himself, including a psychological interview with a forensic examiner, no matter how experienced that examiner may be. Mr. Ray is very good at what [he] does.”
The report, which is uncovered in Hulu’s new three-part docuseries Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence, goes on to call Ray a “calculating, manipulative, and hostile man who masks his hostility, presenting instead a boyish, charming façade.”
The summary proved prophetic in 2010, when Ray began posing as a mentor to his daughter’s college-age friends and brainwashing them. He systematically isolated them from their families and friends, pressured them into degrading and sometimes sexual scenarios, controlled what they ate and to whom they spoke, and ultimately exploited them for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In Stolen Youth, a group of Ray’s followers sit down with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Zach Heinzerling (Cutie and the Boxer) to retrace their traumatic journey with Ray—revealing how, bit by bit, they fell under Ray’s bizarre spell.
“I think in cult situations, there can be judgment of the victim—how could you fall for that?” Heinzerling tells Vanity Fair. “There’s no acknowledgement of the complicated nature of that experience.” The survivors were willing to open up on camera to bridge that knowledge gap, says the filmmaker—“to explain what happened, what it was like to be 19 and introduced to your girlfriend’s dad or your friend’s dad. And how, over a slow, methodical progression, it metastasized into something horrible.”
Ray’s trial last year concluded with the 62-year-old being found guilty of 15 federal counts including extortion, sex trafficking, and racketeering conspiracy. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison. The most devastating survivor testimony was given by Claudia Drury, a former follower who became a prostitute at Ray’s urging—working seven days a week, she claimed, and earning about $2.5 million. She described one evening in 2018 when Ray handcuffed her to a chair, covered her head with a plastic bag, choked her, and threatened to kill her.
“Things came out of the trial that you could only describe as sickening,” says Heinzerling, noting that the trial included video evidence of Ray torturing and interrogating his followers. In one video, a follower confesses to poisoning Ray with cyanide after Ray convinces her that she had done so. Another video shows Ray threatening a male follower and forcing pliers into his mouth. A selection of these disturbing and difficult-to-watch videos are interspersed in the docuseries, supplementing the survivors’ accounts of abuse.
“A lot of the [filmmaking] process was deciding what not to include because each video seemed more horrible than the next,” says Heinzerling. But strangely, Ray offered the filmmaker use of his own incriminating audio. “He described [them] as confessions,” says the filmmaker, “but [they were] pretty clearly more of an interrogation session.”
In one audio segment, which was presented at trial, Ray asks for his “sharpest razor,” requests a hammer, and shouts at a young man named Santos Rosario, “I swear I’ll put this through your skull.”
Heinzerling says the project began when one survivor, Daniel Levin, reached out in the hopes that the filmmaker would make a documentary told from the survivors’ point of view. Heinzerling got in touch with other victims, who were at different points in their recovery process, and convinced them to participate as well. “The Rosario siblings [Santos and Yalitza], when I first spoke to them, were out [of Ray’s hold] physically, but still not sure what to make of what had happened and still processing it,” says Heinzerling. “Talking about their [experiences was a way to] strengthen their sense of their own story, which had been stolen from them by Larry, who was telling a version of themselves and their story that wasn’t real.”
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