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Jeffrey Epstein’s story is utterly horrifying. The number of children involved is tragic; and the magnitude of his sexual operations both maddening and sobering. We thank the author for her precision and detail.
A decade before #MeToo, a multimillionaire sex offender from Florida got the ultimate break.
On a muggy October morning in 2007, Miami’s top federal prosecutor, Alexander Acosta, had a breakfast appointment with a former colleague, Washington, D.C., attorney Jay Lefkowitz.
It was an unusual meeting for the then-38-year-old prosecutor, a rising Republican star who had served in several White House posts before being named U.S. attorney in Miami by President George W. Bush.
Instead of meeting at the prosecutor’s Miami headquarters, the two men — both with professional roots in the prestigious Washington law firm of Kirkland & Ellis — convened at the Marriott in West Palm Beach, about 70 miles away. For Lefkowitz, 44, a U.S. special envoy to North Korea and corporate lawyer, the meeting was critical.
His client, Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, 54, was accused of assembling a large, cult-like network of underage girls — with the help of young female recruiters — to coerce into having sex acts behind the walls of his opulent waterfront mansion as often as three times a day, the Town of Palm Beach police found.
At this home on El Brillo Way in Palm Beach, young girls, recruited by other young girls, would arrive by car or taxi, be greeted in the kitchen by a member of Jeffrey Epstein’s staff and ascend a staircase. They were met by Epstein, clad in a towel.
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Facing a 53-page federal indictment, Epstein could have ended up in federal prison for the rest of his life.
But on the morning of the breakfast meeting, a deal was struck — an extraordinary plea agreement that would conceal the full extent of Epstein’s crimes and the number of people involved.
Not only would Epstein serve just 13 months in the county jail, but the deal — called a non-prosecution agreement — essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe into whether there were more victims and other powerful people who took part in Epstein’s sex crimes, according to a Miami Herald examination of thousands of emails, court documents and FBI records.
The pact required Epstein to plead guilty to two prostitution charges in state court. Epstein and four of his accomplices named in the agreement received immunity from all federal criminal charges. But even more unusual, the deal included wording that granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators’’ who were also involved in Epstein’s crimes. These accomplices or participants were not identified in the agreement, leaving it open to interpretation whether it possibly referred to other influential people who were having sex with underage girls at Epstein’s various homes or on his plane.
As part of the arrangement, Acosta agreed, despite a federal law to the contrary, that the deal would be kept from the victims. As a result, the non-prosecution agreement was sealed until after it was approved by the judge, thereby averting any chance that the girls — or anyone else — might show up in court and try to derail it.
This is the story of how Epstein, bolstered by unlimited funds and represented by a powerhouse legal team, was able to manipulate the criminal justice system, and how his accusers, still traumatized by their pasts, believe they were betrayed by the very prosecutors who pledged to protect them.
“I don’t think anyone has been told the truth about what Jeffrey Epstein did,’’ said one of Epstein’s victims, Michelle Licata, now 30. “He ruined my life and a lot of girls’ lives. People need to know what he did and why he wasn’t prosecuted so it never happens again.”
Now President Trump’s secretary of labor, Acosta, 49, oversees a massive federal agency that provides oversight of the country’s labor laws, including human trafficking. He also has been on a list of possible replacements for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned under pressure earlier this month.
Acosta did not respond to numerous requests for an interview or answer queries through email.
But court records reveal details of the negotiations and the role that Acosta would play in arranging the deal, which scuttled the federal probe into a possible international sex trafficking operation. Among other things, Acosta allowed Epstein’s lawyers unusual freedoms in dictating the terms of the non-prosecution agreement.
“The damage that happened in this case is unconscionable,” said Bradley Edwards, a former state prosecutor who represents some of Epstein’s victims. “How in the world, do you, the U.S. attorney, engage in a negotiation with a criminal defendant, basically allowing that criminal defendant to write up the agreement?”
As a result, neither the victims — nor even the judge — would know how many girls Epstein allegedly sexually abused between 2001 and 2005, when his underage sex activities were first uncovered by police. Police referred the case to the FBI a year later, when they began to suspect that their investigation was being undermined by the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office.
NOT A ‘HE SAID, SHE SAID’
“This was not a ‘he said, she said’ situation. This was 50-something ‘shes’ and one ‘he’ — and the ‘shes’ all basically told the same story,’’ said retired Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter, who supervised the police probe.
More than a decade later, at a time when Olympic gymnasts and Hollywood actresses have become a catalyst for a cultural reckoning about sexual abuse, Epstein’s victims have all but been forgotten.
The women — now in their late 20s and early 30s — are still fighting for an elusive justice that even the passage of time has not made right.
Like other victims of sexual abuse, they believe they’ve been silenced by a criminal justice system that stubbornly fails to hold Epstein and other wealthy and powerful men accountable.
“Jeffrey preyed on girls who were in a bad way, girls who were basically homeless. He went after girls who he thought no one would listen to and he was right,’’ said Courtney Wild, who was 14 when she met Epstein.
Over the past year, the Miami Herald examined a decade’s worth of court documents, lawsuits, witness depositions and newly released FBI documents. Key people involved in the investigation — most of whom have never spoken before — were also interviewed. The Herald also obtained new records, including the full unredacted copy of the Palm Beach police investigation and witness statements that had been kept under seal.
The Herald learned that, as part of the plea deal, Epstein provided what the government called “valuable consideration” for unspecified information he supplied to federal investigators. While the documents obtained by the Herald don’t detail what the information was, Epstein’s sex crime case happened just as the country’s subprime mortgage market collapsed, ushering in the 2008 global financial crisis.
Records show that Epstein was a key federal witness in the criminal prosecution of two prominent executives with Bear Stearns, the global investment brokerage that failed in 2008, who were accused of corporate securities fraud. Epstein was one of the largest investors in the hedge fund managed by the executives, who were later acquitted. It is not known what role, if any, the case played in Epstein’s plea negotiations.
The Herald also identified about 80 women who say they were molested or otherwise sexually abused by Epstein from 2001 to 2006. About 60 of them were located — now scattered around the country and abroad. Eight of them agreed to be interviewed, on or off the record. Four of them were willing to speak on video.
The women are now mothers, wives, nurses, bartenders, Realtors, hairdressers and teachers. One is a Hollywood actress. Several have grappled with trauma, depression and addiction. Some have served time in prison.
A few did not survive. One young woman was found dead last year in a rundown motel in West Palm Beach. She overdosed on heroin and left behind a young son.
As part of Epstein’s agreement, he was required to register as a sex offender, and pay restitution to the three dozen victims identified by the FBI. In many cases, the confidential financial settlements came only after Epstein’s attorneys exposed every dark corner of their lives in a scorched-earth effort to portray the girls as gold diggers.
“You beat yourself up mentally and physically,’’ said Jena-Lisa Jones, 30, who said Epstein molested her when she was 14. “You can’t ever stop your thoughts. A word can trigger something. For me, it is the word ‘pure’ because he called me ‘pure’ in that room and then I remember what he did to me in that room.’’
Now, more than a decade later, two unrelated civil lawsuits — one set for trial on Dec. 4 — could reveal more about Epstein’s crimes. The Dec. 4 case, in Palm Beach County state court, involves Epstein and Edwards, whom Epstein had accused of legal misdeeds in representing several victims. The case is noteworthy because it will mark the first time that Epstein’s victims will have their day in court, and several of them are scheduled to testify.
A second lawsuit, known as the federal Crime Victims’ Rights suit, is still pending in South Florida after a decade of legal jousting. It seeks to invalidate the non-prosecution agreement in hopes of sending Epstein to federal prison. Wild, who has never spoken publicly until now, is Jane Doe No. 1 in “Jane Doe No. 1 and Jane Doe No. 2 vs. the United States of America,” a federal lawsuit that alleges Epstein’s federal non-prosecution agreement was illegal.
Federal prosecutors, including Acosta, not only broke the law, the women contend in court documents, but they conspired with Epstein and his lawyers to circumvent public scrutiny and deceive his victims in violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. The law assigns victims a series of rights, including the right of notice of any court proceedings and the opportunity to appear at sentencing.
“As soon as that deal was signed, they silenced my voice and the voices of all of Jeffrey Epstein’s other victims,’’ said Wild, now 31. “This case is about justice, not just for us, but for other victims who aren’t Olympic stars or Hollywood stars.’’
In court papers, federal prosecutors have argued that they did not violate the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because no federal charges were ever filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, an argument that was later dismissed by the judge.
Despite substantial physical evidence and multiple witnesses backing up the girls’ stories, the secret deal allowed Epstein to enter guilty pleas to two felony prostitution charges. Epstein admitted to committing only one offense against one underage girl, who was labeled a prostitute, even though she was 14, which is well under the age of consent — 18 in Florida.
“She was taken advantage of twice — first by Epstein, and then by the criminal justice system that labeled a 14-year-old girl as a prostitute,’’ said Spencer Kuvin, the lawyer who represented the girl.
“It’s just outrageous how they minimized his crimes and devalued his victims by calling them prostitutes,’’ said Yasmin Vafa, a human rights attorney and executive director of Rights4Girls, which is working to end the sexual exploitation of girls and young women.
“There is no such thing as a child prostitute. Under federal law, it’s called child sex trafficking — whether Epstein pimped them out to others or not. It’s still a commercial sex act — and he could have been jailed for the rest of his life under federal law,” she said.
It would be easy to dismiss the Epstein case as another example of how there are two systems of justice in America, one for the rich and one for the poor. But a thorough analysis of the case tells a far more troubling story.
A close look at the trove of letters and emails contained in court records provides a window into the plea negotiations, revealing an unusual level of collaboration between federal prosecutors and Epstein’s legal team that even government lawyers, in recent court documents, admitted was unorthodox.
Acosta, in 2011, would explain that he was unduly pressured by Epstein’s heavy-hitting lawyers — Lefkowitz, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, Jack Goldberger, Roy Black, former U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, Gerald Lefcourt, and Kenneth Starr, the former Whitewater special prosecutor who investigated Bill Clinton’s sexual liaisons with Monica Lewinsky.
‘AVOID THE PRESS’ PLAN
That included keeping the deal from Epstein’s victims, emails show.
“Thank you for the commitment you made to me during our Oct. 12 meeting,’’ Lefkowitz wrote in a letter to Acosta after their breakfast meeting in West Palm Beach. He added that he was hopeful that Acosta would abide by a promise to keep the deal confidential.
“You … assured me that your office would not … contact any of the identified individuals, potential witnesses or potential civil claimants and the respective counsel in this matter,’’ Lefkowitz wrote.
In email after email, Acosta and the lead federal prosecutor, A. Marie Villafaña, acquiesced to Epstein’s legal team’s demands, which often focused on ways to limit the scandal by shutting out his victims and the media, including suggesting that the charges be filed in Miami, instead of Palm Beach, where Epstein’s victims lived.
“On an ‘avoid the press’ note … I can file the charge in district court in Miami which will hopefully cut the press coverage significantly. Do you want to check that out?’’ Villafaña wrote to Lefkowitz in a September 2007 email.
Federal prosecutors identified 36 underage victims, but none of those victims appeared at his sentencing on June 30, 2008, in state court in Palm Beach County. Most of them heard about it on the news — and even then they didn’t understand what had happened to the federal probe that they’d been assured was ongoing.
Edwards filed an emergency motion in federal court to block the non-prosecution agreement, but by the time the agreement was unsealed — over a year later — Epstein had already served his sentence and been released from jail.
“The conspiracy between the government and Epstein was really ‘let’s figure out a way to make the whole thing go away as quietly as possible,’ ’’ said Edwards, who represents Wild and Jane Doe No. 2, who declined to comment for this story.
“In never consulting with the victims, and keeping it secret, it showed that someone with money can buy his way out of anything.’’
It was far from the last time Epstein would receive VIP handling. Unlike other convicted sex offenders, Epstein didn’t face the kind of rough justice that child sex offenders do in Florida state prisons. Instead of being sent to state prison, Epstein was housed in a private wing of the Palm Beach County jail. And rather than having him sit in a cell most of the day, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office allowed Epstein work release privileges, which enabled him to leave the jail six days a week, for 12 hours a day, to go to a comfortable office that Epstein had set up in West Palm Beach. This was granted despite explicit sheriff’s department rules stating that sex offenders don’t qualify for work release.
The sheriff, Ric Bradshaw, would not answer questions, submitted by the Miami Herald, about Epstein’s work release.
Neither Epstein nor his lead attorney, Jack Goldberger, responded to multiple requests for comment for this story. During depositions taken as part of two dozen lawsuits filed against him by his victims, Epstein has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, in one instance doing so more than 200 times.
In the past, his lawyers have said that the girls lied about their ages, that their stories were exaggerated or untrue and that they were unreliable witnesses prone to drug use.
In 2011, Epstein petitioned to have his sex offender status reduced in New York, where he has a home and is required to register every 90 days. In New York, he is classified as a level 3 offender — the highest safety risk because of his likelihood to re-offend.
A prosecutor under New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance argued on Epstein’s behalf, telling New York Supreme Court Judge Ruth Pickholtz that the Florida case never led to an indictment and that his underage victims failed to cooperate in the case. Pickholtz, however, denied the petition, expressing astonishment that a New York prosecutor would make such a request on behalf of a serial sex offender accused of molesting so many girls.
“I have to tell you, I’m a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this. I have done so many [sex offender registration hearings] much less troubling than this one where the [prosecutor] would never make a downward argument like this,’’ she said.
THE HOUSE ON EL BRILLO
The women who went to Jeffrey Epstein’s mansion as girls tend to divide their lives into two parts: life before Jeffrey and life after Jeffrey.
Before she met Epstein, Courtney Wild was captain of the cheerleading squad, first trumpet in the band and an A-student at Lake Worth Middle School.
After she met Epstein, she was a stripper, a drug addict and an inmate at Gadsden Correctional Institution in Florida’s Panhandle.
Wild still had braces on her teeth when she was introduced to him in 2002 at the age of 14.
She was fair, petite and slender, blonde and blue-eyed. Wild, who later helped recruit other girls, said Epstein preferred girls who were white, appeared prepubescent and those who were easy to manipulate into going further each time.
“By the time I was 16, I had probably brought him 70 to 80 girls who were all 14 and 15 years old. He was involved in my life for years,” said Wild, who was released from prison in October after serving three years on drug charges.
The girls — mostly 13 to 16 — were lured to his pink waterfront mansion by Wild and other girls, who went to malls, house parties and other places where girls congregated, and told recruits that they could earn $200 to $300 to give a man — Epstein — a massage, according to an unredacted copy of the Palm Beach police investigation obtained by the Herald.
The lead Palm Beach police detective on the case, Joseph Recarey, said Epstein’s operation worked like a sexual pyramid scheme.
“The common interview with a girl went like this: ‘I was brought there by so and so. I didn’t feel comfortable with what happened, but I got paid well, so I was told if I didn’t feel comfortable, I could bring someone else and still get paid,’ ’’ Recarey said.
During the massage sessions, Recarey said Epstein would molest the girls, paying them premiums for engaging in oral sex and intercourse, and offering them a further bounty to find him more girls.
Recarey, in his first interview about the case, said the evidence the department collected to support the girls’ stories was overwhelming, including phone call records, copies of written phone messages from the girls found in Epstein’s trash and Epstein’s flight logs, which showed his private plane in Palm Beach on the days the girls were scheduled to give him massages.
Epstein could be a generous benefactor, Recarey said, buying his favored girls gifts. He might rent a car for a young girl to make it more convenient for her to stop by and cater to him. Once, he sent a bucket of roses to the local high school after one of his girls starred in a stage production. The floral-delivery instructions and a report card for one of the girls were discovered in a search of his mansion and trash. Police also obtained receipts for the rental cars and gifts, Recarey said.
Epstein counseled the girls about their schooling, and told them he would help them get into college, modeling school, fashion design or acting. At least two of Epstein’s victims told police that they were in love with him, according to the police report.
The police report shows how uncannily consistent the girls’ stories were — right down to their detailed descriptions of Epstein’s genitalia.
“We had victims who didn’t know each other, never met each other and they all basically independently told the same story,’’ said Reiter, the retired Palm Beach police chief.
Reiter, also speaking for the first time, said detectives were astonished by the sheer volume of young girls coming and going from his house, the frequency — sometimes several in the same day — and the young ages of the girls.
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