A decade before #MeToo, a multimillionaire sex offender from Florida got the ultimate break.
Palm Beach County Courthouse
June 30, 2008
Jeffrey Edward Epstein appeared at his sentencing dressed comfortably in a blue blazer, blue shirt, jeans and gray sneakers. His attorney, Jack Goldberger, was at his side.
At the end of the 68-minute hearing, the 55-year-old silver-haired financier — accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls — was fingerprinted and handcuffed, just like any other criminal sentenced in Florida.
But inmate No. W35755 would not be treated like other convicted sex offenders in the state of Florida, which has some of the strictest sex offender laws in the nation.
Ten years before the #MeToo movement raised awareness about the kid-glove handling of powerful men accused of sexual abuse, Epstein’s lenient sentence and his extraordinary treatment while in custody are still the source of consternation for the victims he was accused of molesting when they were minors.
Beginning as far back as 2001, Epstein lured a steady stream of underage girls to his Palm Beach mansion to engage in nude massages, masturbation, oral sex and intercourse, court and police records show. The girls — mostly from disadvantaged, troubled families — were recruited from middle and high schools around Palm Beach County. Epstein would pay the girls for massages and offer them further money to bring him new girls every time he was at his home in Palm Beach, according to police reports.
The girls, now in their late 20s and early 30s, allege in a series of federal civil lawsuits filed over the past decade that Epstein sexually abused hundreds of girls, not only in Palm Beach, but at his homes in Manhattan, New Mexico and in the Caribbean.
In 2007, the FBI had prepared a 53-page federal indictment charging Epstein with sex crimes that could have put him in federal prison for life. But then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta signed off on a non-prosecution agreement, which was negotiated, signed and sealed so that no one would know the full scope of Epstein’s crimes. The indictment was shelved, never to be seen again.
Epstein instead pleaded guilty to lesser charges in state court, and was required to register as a sex offender. He was sentenced to 18 months incarceration.
But Epstein — who had a long list of powerful, politically connected friends — didn’t go to state prison like most sex offenders in Florida. Instead, the multimillionaire was assigned to a private wing of the Palm Beach County stockade, where he was able to hire his own security detail. Even then, he didn’t spend much time in a cell. He was allowed to go to his downtown West Palm Beach office for work release, up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, records show.
He was permitted to hire his own private psychologist for his required sex-offender counseling, and after his release from jail, his subsequent year of probation under house arrest was filled with trips on his corporate jet to Manhattan and to his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands — all approved by the courts with no objections from the state.
On the morning of his sentencing in 2008, none of Epstein’s victims were in the courtroom to protest his soft jail term or the unusual provisions of his incarceration and probation — and that was by design.
Emails and letters contained in court filings reveal the cozy, behind-the-scenes dealings between federal prosecutors and Epstein’s indomitable legal team during the run-up to his federal plea deal, as they discussed ways to minimize his criminal charges and avoid informing the girls about the details of the deal until after the case was resolved.
That arrangement benefited Epstein in a number of ways. Unlike other high-profile sex crime cases, federal prosecutors agreed to keep his sentencing quiet, thereby limiting media coverage. His underage victims — identified in FBI documents — weren’t told about the plea deal so they weren’t in court, where they could voice their objections and possibly sway the judge to give Epstein a harsher sentence or reject the agreement altogether.
Most important, Epstein’s crimes would be reduced to felony prostitution charges, giving him the ability to argue that the girls weren’t victims at all — they were prostitutes.
Four accomplices named in Epstein’s non-prosecution agreement — Nadia Marcinkova, Sarah Kellen, Adriana Ross and Lesley Groff — were also given immunity from federal prosecution. Marcinkova was a young girl when Epstein brought her from Yugoslavia to live with him. Several victims told police that she was involved in orgies with Epstein and underage girls. Ross, Groff and Kellen, now known by her married name, Vickers, were schedulers who arranged his underage sex sessions, according to the FBI and police.
Marcinkova and Kellen, through their attorneys, declined to comment for this story. The Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Ross and Groff.
Acosta, who is now President Donald Trump’s secretary of labor, told lawmakers last year at his confirmation hearing that he did not know that Epstein would receive such liberal treatment while incarcerated. But court records show that federal prosecutors under his authority acquiesced to many of Epstein’s demands, including that he not go to federal or state prison.
“I can’t remember how I found out that he had taken a plea,’’ said Courtney Wild, identified by the FBI as one of more than three dozen underage girls — some of them as young as 13 — who had been molested by Epstein at his waterfront estate between 2001 and 2005.
“We were purposefully misled into believing that his sentencing [in state court] had nothing to do with the federal crimes he committed against me or the other girls.’’
Epstein, now 65, was released in 2009 after serving 13 months.
Wild, who was 14 when she met Epstein, is suing the federal government, alleging that prosecutors kept her and other victims in the dark as part of a conspiracy to give Epstein — described in the lawsuit as “a powerful, politically connected multimillionaire” — one of the most lenient deals for a serial child sex offender in history.
Now 31, Wild is Jane Doe No. 1 in “Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 vs. the United States,” which seeks to overturn Epstein’s plea agreement on the grounds that it was executed in violation of the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act. The measure affords crime victims a series of rights, including to confer with prosecutors and to be notified about plea negotiations and sentencing.
That lawsuit — and an unrelated state court case scheduled for trial on Dec. 4 — could expose more about Epstein’s crimes, as well as who else was involved and whether there was any undue influence that tainted the federal case.
Some of Epstein’s victims will finally have an opportunity to testify for the first time as part of the Dec. 4 case in state court in Palm Beach County. It pits Fort Lauderdale attorney Bradley Edwards against Epstein, who had accused Edwards of malfeasance in his representation of several victims.
Jack Scarola, the attorney representing Edwards, said Epstein should be held accountable for his unrelenting attacks against Edwards — as well as others who were involved in his case.
“We are going to demonstrate through this case that no one — no matter how much money they have — can abuse children and then attempt to bully those who come to the defense of children,’’ said Scarola, a former state prosecutor.
FLORIDA AND BEYOND
Few people had as much insight into Epstein’s lifestyle — and its international reach — as Virginia Roberts. By age 16, Roberts had lived a life that was beyondthat of most high school girls.
At 11, she says, she was sexually molested by a family friend. At 12, she was smoking pot and skipping school. At 13, she was in and out of foster homes, and at 14, she was on the street.
In Miami, the runaway became a captive of a 65-year-old sex trafficker, Ron Eppinger. For months, she says, she was sexually abused, kept in an apartment and pimped out to pedophiles. After his indictment in 2000 on trafficking charges, Roberts returned to West Palm Beach and tried to heal.
That summer, when Roberts was 16, she said her father helped her get a job as a locker room attendant at the spa at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, records show. Her father worked at the resort as a maintenance man.
There she said she met Ghislaine Maxwell, an Epstein friend and socialite daughter of the late British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell. She offered Roberts an opportunity to become a massage therapist, working for Epstein.
In a sworn court affidavit and in a recent interview with the Herald, Roberts described how Epstein and Maxwell began grooming her — not just to perform massages, but to sexually pleasure them and others.
“It started with one and it trickled into two and so on,’’ Roberts told the Herald. “And before you know it, I’m being lent out to politicians and academics and royalty.’’
Roberts, too, was ordered to find Epstein girls — the younger, the better — by trolling areas where teenagers congregated, such as shopping malls, to lure girls to whatever residence Epstein was staying in at the time, she told the Herald.
She began to travel with Epstein and Maxwell to Epstein’s other homes, in New York, New Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — and her trips are documented in flight logs that frequently list her name or her initials as a passenger, court records show.
“His appetite was insatiable. He wanted new girls, fresh, young faces every single day — that was just the sickness that he had,’’ Roberts said.
Neither Epstein nor his lead attorney, Goldberger, responded to requests for comment.
Roberts alleges that Epstein had cameras throughout his homes and said he liked her to tell him about the sexual peccadilloes of various important men she had sex with.
“Epstein and Maxwell also got girls for Epstein’s friends and acquaintances. Epstein specifically told me that the reason for him doing this was so that they would ‘owe him,’ they would ‘be in his pocket,’ and he would ‘have something on them,’ ” Roberts said in a court affidavit. “I understood him to mean that when someone was in his pocket, they owed him favors.’’
Roberts elaborated in her interview with the Herald, saying that Epstein had access to girls through a modeling agency that recruited them from overseas.
Epstein, who was close to Les Wexner, the owner of Victoria’s Secret, often talked about his connections to people in the modeling, fashion and acting industries, Roberts told the Herald.
“He [Epstein] would tell the girls, ‘Hey, I will give you a modeling contract if you go have sex with this man [whichever acquaintance Epstein designated],’ ’’ she said.
Roberts’ story about the modeling agency is supported, to a degree, by the sworn statement of a Miami woman named Maritza Vasquez, who was later interviewed in New York by an FBI agent from Miami. Vasquez worked as a bookkeeper for Mc2, owned by Epstein associate Jean-Luc Brunel. He employed scouts in South America, Europe and the former Soviet Union to find him models to bring to the United States, Vasquez said in a 2010 sworn court deposition obtained by the Herald.
Vasquez stated in the deposition that from 2003 to 2006 she handled all the finances and payroll for the agency, including a bank transaction involving Epstein. She said Epstein invested $1 million in Mc2.
The models were often very young — 13, 14 and 15 — and some of them were housed in apartments at 301 E. 66th St. in New York, a building purportedly owned by Epstein, the deposition said.
Epstein didn’t charge the girls rent, Vasquez said, but Brunel charged them $1,000 a month, with four of them at a time sharing one apartment. The girls who were the youngest and most beautiful stayed at the 66th Street apartments, which were more luxurious than the other apartments that were used to house models who were not as young and desirable, she said.
Vasquez once let one of the models, who was 14, stay overnight with her after the girl ran into trouble with police for trying to get into a Manhattan nightclub. Vasquez also testified that she helped a lawyer obtain visas for the foreign models, and assisted with their transportation to and from modeling assignments and parties.
Vasquez said that even though the agency employed 200 to 300 models, the company didn’t make any money and Brunel was always broke. Brunel would later sue Epstein, alleging that the financier’s sex scandal had caused his business to fail, but the suit was eventually dropped.
Vasquez testified it wasn’t unusual for the agency to send girls to an assignment with a wealthy client for $100,000 or more, but the girl wouldn’t be paid the full amount — or anything at all — if she refused to be “molested.’’
Vasquez considered herself a mother figure and often coached the youngest girls to stick to the 9-to-5 modeling assignments because she didn’t think it was appropriate for them to be having sex.
She said she met Epstein only once, but she often helped arrange for girls — many of them underage — to be sent to his homes in New York, Palm Beach and his island in the Caribbean for parties. She heard salacious rumors about Epstein’s parties, but testified she had no firsthand knowledge about whether they involved sex.
Vasquez said that she was questioned by the FBI and she tried to tell agents where to look for evidence.
Vasquez was eventually let go from the agency after she was accused of stealing money — money she claims was given to her by Brunel. Vasquez said she was placed on probation for the theft. She never heard from the FBI about Epstein again.
The Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Brunel through his former attorney.
In a written statement released in 2015, Brunel denied any involvement in trafficking underage models.
“I strongly deny having participated, neither directly nor indirectly, in the actions Mr. Jeffrey Epstein is being accused of,” he said. “I strongly deny having committed any illicit act or any wrongdoing in the course of my work as a scouter or model agencies manager.”
TOO OLD AT 19
In 2003, when Roberts turned 19, it was clear that Epstein had lost interest because she was too old for him, she said. She convinced him to pay for her to get training to become a real professional masseuse so that she could move on.
In an interview, she explained that Epstein arranged for her to take a class in Thailand, but it came with a hitch: She said she was instructed to pick up a Thai girl he had arranged to come to the States.
Roberts, who showed the Herald the written instructions for the rendezvous, never picked up the girl because Roberts met a man on the trip who would become her husband. The couple married and moved to Australia, where they currently live.
In 2007 — at the same time the FBI was investigating Epstein — Roberts, pregnant with her second child, said she unexpectedly received phone calls from Maxwell and Epstein. She said they were worried that she had told police about them. She assured them she had not spoken to anyone, she said.
Shortly afterward, Roberts said, she was contacted by someone who claimed to be with the FBI. But she was afraid to tell that person details, fearing it was really an Epstein associate posing as an FBI agent.
That agent, identified in court papers as Timothy Slater, confirmed that he and the other agent on the case, Nesbitt Kuyrkendall, called Roberts in January or February 2007. In a sworn statement, Slater said he informed Roberts that they suspected she was a victim of Epstein’s.
The agent said Roberts answered basic questions, but became uncomfortable and “asked that I not bother her again.’’
Roberts said the agent didn’t try too hard to convince her to talk, and she was surprised when he hung up after asking her a few graphic questions about her sex life. She said she was suspicious, but would have cooperated had the FBI talked to her in person and explained why they were asking about Epstein.
“I was still scared to death,’’ Roberts said. “Jeffrey used to tell me that he owned the entire Palm Beach Police Department. I just didn’t want my family harmed.’’
She nevertheless was listed by federal prosecutors as one of Epstein’s Palm Beach victims.
As the years went by and Roberts had a daughter, she would be haunted by a fear that Epstein was still taking advantage of young girls. In 2011, she went public in a paid interview with a British tabloid, the Daily Mail, asserting that she had had sex with Prince Andrew, one of Epstein’s friends, several times when she was a teen.
In her 2015 affidavit, she discussed in detail some of her alleged sex encounters with the prince and Epstein’s other friends, including lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Edwards included the affidavit in the court file as part of the Jane Does’ Crime Victims’ Rights Act case, at which time it became public.