After announcing sex trafficking and extortion charges against Lawrence Ray on Tuesday, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman noted that the investigation was sparked by an April 2019 magazine article.
Berman may not have known it, but that article was actually sparked by online rumors.
Ezra Marcus, a 2014 graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, said he began digging into the stunning story around June 2018 when fellow alumni sent around strange online postings from people affiliated with Ray.
"I just didn't think any of it was real," Marcus told CNN.
But after more than 50 interviews over about 10 months, he and James D. Walsh reported and wrote a 9,000-word story titled "The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence" in New York magazine that details stunning allegations against Ray.
Ray, a 60-year-old father of a former Sarah Lawrence College student, was charged in an indictment unsealed Tuesday with extortion, sex trafficking, forced labor trafficking, money laundering and other charges.
According to the indictment, Ray moved into on-campus housing with his daughter and her sophomore roommates in late 2010. Starting on campus and, later, at an apartment in Manhattan and in North Carolina, he allegedly extorted and abused several students from the prestigious school and forced at least one student into prostitution over the past decade, according to the indictment.
Ray "exploited and abused young women and men emotionally, physically and sexually for his own financial gain," ultimately extorting approximately $1 million from five victims, Berman said. He was arrested Tuesday morning in Piscataway, New Jersey, Berman said.
Ray pleaded not guilty in court at his arraignment on Wednesday. His attorneys had no comment from him when asked by CNN.
Marcus and Walsh said they were in touch with law enforcement as the story was going to press out of concern for the safety of the story's subjects. But they said they didn't hear anything from authorities afterward.
Until Tuesday morning. That's when they got a courtesy heads-up from authorities; Ray had been arrested and charged.
Prosecutors told the judge in court Wednesday they executed a search warrant the day before at a storage facility associated with Ray, where they recovered journals and electronic devices that Ray would allegedly have victims take sexually explicit photos and video on, that he would then seize in order to extort them.
A prosecutor said her team has issued more than 100 subpoenas for evidence ranging from email accounts to financial information, and Backpage prostitution ads. A prosecutor said they have interviewed 17 witnesses.
How the story came together
The indictment against Ray gave them some feeling of gratification, Marcus said.
"I'm happy that the victims and sources who spoke to us can feel some measure of relief," Marcus said. "I know that that is something some of them have expressed."
Back in the summer of 2018, Marcus, a freelancer, pitched the story to New York magazine and he continued to interview and report on it for five or six months.
Staff editors asked Walsh, a staff writer at New York, to work with Marcus to check out whether this crazy story they had been hearing about was real, he said. He was skeptical.
"(I) read some of Ezra's notes and thought it was bogus," Walsh said. But over time, he checked on the information and with sources and the story came together.
"Every single turn of reporting was something new and stranger and inevitably it would check out when we called up sources," he said.
Sarah Lawrence College said it investigated after the story came out.
"In April 2019, New York Magazine published a range of accusations about this former parent," spokeswoman Patricia Pasquale said Tuesday. "At that time, the College undertook an internal investigation regarding the specific activities alleged in the article to have occurred on our campus in 2011; the investigation did not substantiate those specific claims."
The indictment does not detail which, if any, of the alleged criminal activity occurred on campus. Pasquale said the college has not been contacted by the Southern District of New York but will cooperate in the investigation.
Marcus and Walsh declined to comment on the college's statement.