Isabella Pollok met Lawrence V. Ray in 2010 when he got out of prison in New Jersey and went straight to Sarah Lawrence College, where his daughter, Talia, was enrolled and Ms. Pollok was also a student.
Over the next decade, she was among a group of Talia’s friends and roommates who fell under the influence of Mr. Ray, who was 50 when he first came to Sarah Lawrence, a small liberal arts school in Westchester County. The authorities said that he used cult-leader tactics while threatening and assaulting the young people and demanding they provide him with payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Bit by bit, Ms. Pollok emerged as, in prosecutors’ words, Mr. Ray’s “trusted lieutenant,” helping him sexually and psychologically manipulate her friends and roommates, first as he gained their trust and then as he exploited them.
One of those former roommates said that Ms. Pollok held onto video recordings that Mr. Ray created to falsely incriminate the younger people he commanded. Another said that Ms. Pollok routinely picked up money from her after Mr. Ray had steered her into prostitution, prosecutors said.
Mr. Ray was convicted in April on more than a dozen offenses, including extortion, sex trafficking and racketeering conspiracy. Ms. Pollok, 31, whose case had been severed from his but who faced some of the same charges, was out on bail and had been expected to stand trial soon in Federal District Court in Manhattan.
But on Wednesday she switched her plea from not guilty to guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to launder money, telling Judge Lewis J. Liman that she had agreed to take part in financial transactions involving money that had been extorted and adding: “I knew what I was doing was wrong and against the law.”
A prosecutor, Mollie Bracewell, told the judge that Ms. Pollok was not being asked to plead guilty to any sex crime but that the money laundering conspiracy she was admitting to took place in the context of extortion and sex trafficking.
The story, first reported by New York magazine, of how Mr. Ray controlled the lives of young people is filled with perplexing questions, including how he managed to abuse several students while seeming to turn one of their friends into a participant in that abuse.
Mr. Ray, who had a history of ties to law enforcement and organized crime, had served prison time in New Jersey on charges stemming from a child custody dispute but presented himself to the world as a whistle-blower who was wrongly imprisoned after exposing corruption by his onetime friend, Bernard B. Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner.
When investigators first began gathering information related to Mr. Ray’s influence over the students, they did not see Ms. Pollok as an accomplice. Like other young people who were under his sway, she cut off ties with her family after meeting him. And she followed Mr. Ray from residence to residence, living with him on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in North Carolina and in New Jersey.
After Ms. Pollok was charged last year, some of her relatives contended that she had fallen prey to a sophisticated Svengali figure. “It is all under duress,” said an aunt, Liz Jeffrey. “She has been under his spell for 10 years.”
Students who testified during Mr. Ray’s trial said that they first viewed him as a wise and beneficent figure who could help them better understand their lives. Ms. Pollok may have started out with a similar perspective, according to statements she made to New York magazine, which identified her only by her first name.
“I’m 19, I was having a lot of difficulty making sense of things, I wasn’t in a good place,” Ms. Pollok was quoted as saying. “He started to help me kind of process and make sense of a lot of things I just couldn’t make sense of.”
Claudia Drury, a former Sarah Lawrence student who testified at Mr. Ray’s trial, described Ms. Pollok as “very, very reserved and very, very quiet.” Ms. Drury added that Mr. Ray began sleeping with Ms. Pollok in her dorm room and telling other students that “he was helping her through some psychological issues or emotional issues she was having.”
Later, she added, Mr. Ray called Ms. Pollok “extremely uninhibited.”
Ms. Drury eventually worked as a prostitute at Mr. Ray’s suggestion, she testified, turning over to him perhaps $2.5 million in earnings over about four years.
It became routine, Ms. Drury said, for her to deliver those earnings to Ms. Pollok, sometimes handing over cash in the parking lot of a White Castle restaurant in New Jersey.
Ms. Drury finally left Mr. Ray for good after an episode in the fall of 2018 in the Gregory Hotel in Manhattan when she said he held a plastic bag over her head as she struggled to breathe and then threatened to kill her.
During that visit, Ms. Drury testified, Mr. Ray also choked her with a leash and collar, “smothered” her with a pillow and placed her next to an air conditioner while she was tied to a chair and poured cold water over her body.
Ms. Pollok was present in the hotel room, Ms. Drury testified, making a chilling audio recording that would later be played in court and taking a break with Mr. Ray for burgers and fries from a nearby diner. At one point, Ms. Drury said, Ms. Pollok accused her of pretending to be distressed.
“When Larry was pouring water over me and lowering my body temperature,” Ms. Drury testified, “She at one point was like, ‘Claudia, you’re such a faker, this water is room temperature. It’s not even cold.’”