It was the day before New Year’s Eve and most of Palm Beach society was in residence. Preparations for the following evening’s parties were in full flow when a motor launch drew level with Jeffrey Epstein’s $16 million waterfront villa and turned up the volume on its sound system.
“You’re 16,” came the warbling sound of Ringo Starr, “you’re beautiful and you’re mine.”
Starr’s version of Johnny Burnette’s 1960 hit is peculiarly creepy. In the video he wears pyjamas and a middle-aged comb-over. As the music rang out across the intra-coastal waterway that passes Palm Beach’s most valuable real estate, it resonated in more ways than one.
It was a swipe not only at Epstein – a powerful investment manager with a predilection for molesting and enslaving teenage girls and a mysterious knack of evading justice – but also at those who for 14 years have spun a curiously protective cocoon around him.
That cocoon is now under siege. The truth about Epstein is being pursued in courtrooms and Congress by an army of lawyers and advocates as calls for justice for his victims grow louder. Recent court rulings and filings, the opening of a Department of Justice investigation, a push for hearings on Capitol Hill and the dawn of the #MeToo era have amplified a tawdry, politically charged saga that has threatened at times to ensnare the Duke of York, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump – and nudged it towards a new chapter in which key players could be forced to face the music.
The case has acquired a notoriety all its own, not least because of Epstein’s money: “The reason he got the treatment he did is because of who he was, how wealthy, how many friends in the system,” says Spencer Kuvin, a lawyer for three of Epstein’s prey.
Timing was another factor. “All this was way back before the #MeToo movement emerged,” Kuvin continues. “Before the concept of really fighting for women’s rights, before the huge influx of the [Bill] Cosby and [Harvey] Weinstein women speaking out, long before that tipping point… Back then it was just different. If this case had been brought in this day and age, I really think it would been straightforward – not this travesty.”
The travesty he describes is as involved as it is sleazy – a tangled web of suspects, victims, lawsuits and court documents – some still under seal to protect not only victims but also alleged co-conspirators.
Epstein, now 66, used to be a money manager for the rich and not-so-famous. His clients included Les Wexner, the billionaire owner of Victoria’s Secret, but otherwise he has managed to keep their names out of the public eye. He was arrested at his Palm Beach home in 2006 in a police raid prompted by a call from a woman who reported that her 14-year-old stepdaughter had been recruited for $300 to give a rich man named Jeff a massage at his home. The woman added that he had coerced the teenager into having sex.
The investigation led detectives to more and more schoolgirl victims – near 40 in all, aged from 13 to 16 years, each with a similar story of having been lured from troubled existences and broken homes via a network of paid female recruiters to “massage” the same inordinately wealthy paedophile. They would arrive to find him lying naked on a massage table, be ordered to undress and made to submit to molestation, oral sex or intercourse.
He would promise the girls financial help to get into college or modelling school, and offer them bounties for bringing more girls to him. Some flew around the country and overseas on his private jet – nicknamed the Lolita Express. So, according to flight logs, did friends including Trump, Clinton and Prince Andrew, all of whom have categorically denied any wrongdoing in connection with Epstein.
Co-ordinating the operation, according to court documents, was Ghislaine Maxwell – a British socialite, daughter of the late newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, and Epstein’s girlfriend and madam. Neither she nor any of Epstein’s paid recruiters were ever prosecuted – and, in a 2008 deal now under investigation by the Department of Justice, Epstein was charged with only two counts of soliciting an under-age girl for prostitution.
He pleaded guilty in exchange for immunity from further prosecution, and was sentenced to 18 months in jail, of which he served only 13, in a comfortable private wing. Six days a week, he was allowed to leave the jail to work at his office in downtown Palm Beach, shuttled back and forth by his chauffeur and returning to the jail only to sleep at night – despite sheriff’s department regulations that bar work release arrangements for sex offenders.
The deal put a sudden end to an FBI investigation that had been uncovering more evidence of a sex trafficking ring with Epstein at its centre. The arrangement bore the hallmarks of not only exceptional leniency but also of a cover-up. Brokered in secret between prosecutors and Epstein’s high-powered legal team, it was then placed under court seal so that the fine detail would remain in the shadows.
“Glad we could get this worked out, for reasons I won’t put in writing,” Barry Krischer, Palm Beach County State Attorney, wrote in an email to a colleague in September 2007 as the negotiations were reaching their conclusion. Another member of the team wrote: “I would prefer not to highlight for the judge all of the other crimes and all of the other persons that we could charge.”
The women and their lawyers were not just kept in the dark. They were misled, instructed to be patient, unaware that while they sought justice, it was being signed away and the federal investigation on which they had pinned their hopes was being shut down.
In February, 11 years on, US District Judge Kenneth Marra ruled that the failure to notify the women violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Acts. The next steps are undecided, although Brad Edwards and Paul Cassell – lawyers for some of the victims – have applied for the plea deal to be set aside.
That would place Epstein back in legal jeopardy, and his lawyers have been proactive in his defence. Four of them, in a letter to The New York Times last month, claimed that the case all along “lacked the credible and compelling proof that is required by federal criminal statutes”.
“The number of young women involved in the investigation has been vastly exaggerated, there was no ‘international sex-trafficking operation’ and there was never evidence that Mr Epstein ‘hosted sex parties’ at his home,” the letter continued. “Mr Epstein has gone to prison and made enormous monetary settlements relying on his negotiated agreement. He is entitled to finality like every other defendant.”
Yet an investigation by the Miami Herald, whose award-winning re-examination of the case has helped to expose the dynamics behind the deal-making, suggests that far from being exaggerated, the true number of Epstein’s victims was far higher than police thought. The newspaper found at least 80 of them.
Its reporting, and Judge Marra’s ruling, have opened the door to trouble for Alexander Acosta, a former US attorney for the Southern District of Florida who took the lead in the negotiations that led to Epstein’s deal. Acosta now serves as President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Labor. Democratic lawmakers have called for his resignation and he was dumped as a contender for the post of US Attorney General last November in the wake of the Herald’s exposé.
“I really hope his tipping point is coming,” says Kuvin, who represented the 14-year-old whistleblower and two other victims.
“At the time these plans were being negotiated, there was absolutely no information from the US attorney’s office. We’d call and ask what was going on and they’d say: ‘We can’t talk to you.’ We never knew anything until the day he pled guilty and even then, they didn’t turn over the deal documents. We were astounded.
“Acosta was pivotal in all these negotiations behind the scenes,” Kuvin continues. “I don’t know whether it was just the old boys’ club getting together and saying, ‘Oh come on, what Epstein did, it’s not a big deal’, or whether there was some ulterior motive as to promises about a job he would get after the US attorney’s office.”
Following Judge Marra’s ruling, and under pressure from members of Congress to reopen the whole case, the Department of Justice has now launched an investigation into what Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called “this child rapist’s pathetically soft deal”.
“Jeffrey Epstein is a monster and his victims deserve justice,” Sasse said.
Lawmakers have also pressed for hearings on Capitol Hill and introduced a bill that, if passed, would allow the DoJ Office of the Inspector General, which oversees the department, to investigate allegations of misconduct by its attorneys, which it currently cannot do. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman, has said such legislation “would foster greater transparency and accountability in our judicial system to prevent the type of subversion of justice Acosta facilitated”.
Even now, basic facts about the deal Acosta approved are emerging slowly if at all.
Only in recent weeks did Kuvin find out that the first of his clients – whose courage in speaking up to blow the whistle on Epstein’s activities triggered the investigation – was not the girl on whom the deal was based. “I had no clue… I find out nine years later that my client wasn’t the one he pled guilty to – they even kept that secret,” he tells me.
“Apparently Epstein’s defence team took the oldest possible girl they could find among his victims, one month or two short of being 18, and chose her case for him to plead guilty to, so he wouldn’t have to register as a sex offender.”
Though Epstein was required to register in Florida and New York, where he owns homes, he does not in New Mexico and the US Virgin Islands, where he owns two more.
Kuvin’s clients were among those whose cases were settled financially by Epstein out of court. “They were young at the time and thankfully the settlements provided the ability to get some therapy they needed and move on with their lives,” he says.
“I believe that due to Mr Epstein’s wealth, he was able to effectively silence his victims. He did this by negotiating a non-disclosure agreement through several powerful attorneys he hired throughout the US and settling all of the civil suits. The settlements with my clients did not contain confidentiality, but due to the age they were at the time, there is a certain stigma associated with the incident which prevents them from speaking. The age of the victims that Mr Epstein chose creates a situation where the victims, as they get older, usually do not want to bring up this horrible past by talking about it. There are some women that are comfortable enough and strong enough to speak out, but not all have felt so comfortable.”
Epstein was not the only one given federal immunity from prosecution under the deal. So were his alleged co-conspirators – schedulers, recruiters and live-in employees named by prosecutors as including Nada Marcinkova, now 33, and Sarah Kellen, now Sarah Vickers, 38.
“Have you ever been made to perform sexually on Prince Andrew?” Marcinkova was asked in a civil case brought by one of the victims. “Fifth,” she replied, referring to the right to silence granted under the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. In a separate civil case, she again invoked the Fifth when asked: “Would you agree with me that Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein used to share under-aged girls for sexual relations?”
Virginia Giuffre, formerly Virginia Roberts, who delivered bombshell allegations in 2015 that she was handed over to have sex with friends of Epstein including the Duke of York and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, sued Ghislaine Maxwell in 2017 for calling her a liar. Maxwell settled the defamation case out of court. Both men have strenuously denied the claims. Dershowitz was among Epstein’s lawyers at the time of the non-prosecution agreement.
Court records of this defamation case were ordered sealed by US District Court Judge Robert Sweet before its settlement; Giuffre, Dershowitz and media outlets led by the Miami Herald have now applied for them all to be unsealed – Dershowitz because he says they will clear his name and Giuffre “to demonstrate that she was sexually trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell to their powerful friends, both in this country and overseas”, according to a lawsuit filed by Giuffre’s lawyers.
The lawsuit claims Epstein and Maxwell used their wealth to create a legal smokescreen to obscure the scale of a criminal conspiracy. “Ms Giuffre has a more powerful weapon in her arsenal: the truth,” it continues. “Unfortunately, critical documents and transcripts proving the truth of Ms Giuffre’s allegations remain sealed in the vault of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. It is time for the truth to come out.”
The case remains poised for decision by a panel of three federal judges in New York, only one of whom opposes unsealing the papers.
“There may be stuff in there nobody has ever seen before or stuff we always knew,” says Kuvin, who did not represent Giuffre. “Virginia Roberts came out on record saying Prince Andrew had sex with her… I don’t know, but at the end of the day it seems pretty untoward to me that anybody would be involved with Epstein for any reason.”
If the papers are unsealed they may yet clear the names of those tarnished by association with Palm Beach’s most famous paedophile. In the meantime the case has confirmed a reality that gnaws at public confidence in American criminal justice. In principle, everyone is equal under the law. In practice, money buys sweetheart deals behind closed doors while victims try to forget, often in vain.
“I don’t know if the truth will ever come out, because of the wealth and status of those who are keeping the secrets,” Kuvin says. “It’s the underbelly of the sex trade; there’s a lot going on in the sex trade between wealthy people that on the whole we don’t hear and know about – until one of these cases cracks the door and lets us take a peek inside.”
All photographs Getty Images, Rex/Shutterstock