Jeffrey Epstein could have gone to prison for life.
The money manager was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls at his Palm Beach mansion between 2001 and 2006. But as Julie K. Brown reports at the Miami Herald, he ultimately got just 13 months in a county jail, thanks to a deal signed by Alexander Acosta, then the US Attorney for Miami and now President Trump’s secretary of labor. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that Acosta’s team broke the law by concealing the agreement from more than 30 girls who said Epstein abused them, Brown reports.
Epstein has said that any encounters he had with his accusers were consensual, and that he believed they were 18 at the time.
The story of how Epstein got such a light sentence — and who was involved — is a master class in the power dynamics that have been exposed by the #MeToo movement but have yet to truly change.
When authorities began investigating Epstein, he assembled a team of private investigators to dig up dirt on the girls who accused him and the police and prosecutors working the case. Then he and his team of powerful lawyers — including Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr — were able to convince prosecutors to go easy on him despite disturbing allegations by a growing number of women and girls. (According to Axios, Dershowitz is still advising Epstein, saying, “He has called me a couple of times about legal issues, because I’m still technically his lawyer.”)
Epstein was proud of his “collection” of famous friends, which included Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and there’s long been speculation that some of these friends may have participated in his abuses. But because he has been able to avoid harsh punishment and minimize publicity around the details of his case, he’s also been able to keep details about anyone else who may have been involved out of the public eye.
The fact that Epstein is free today is a reminder that the American justice system has long been all too willing to ignore the words of girls and women, especially when they accuse a wealthy and influential man. It’s a reminder that those with enough money and connections, from Epstein to Harvey Weinstein, can often manipulate the legal system to serve their own ends. And it shows how one powerful person can protect not just himself but anyone who might be connected to him, all while exploiting those who are powerless.
Epstein has long been known for his wealth and his predilection for young girls. Everything else is something of a mystery.
Jeffrey Epstein, who is now 65 years old, was one of the most powerful money managers in the world up until his 2007 indictment for sex crimes. After working at the investment bank Bear Stearns in the early 1980s, he founded his own firm, J. Epstein and Co., in 1982, advertising his services for those with assets worth more than $1 billion — and was soon managing billions of dollars in client assets. By 1992, he owned the largest private residence in Manhattan. For tax purposes, he has run his business from the island of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands since at least 1996, and near that island, he owns the island of Little St. James.
That island is also home to Epstein’s foundation, the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation — best known for donating $30 million to Harvard University for the establishment of a mathematical biology and evolutionary dynamics program. In a 2003 Harvard Crimson article on Epstein and his gift to the university, he is described by Harvard luminaries — including Alan Dershowitz, who would later help represent him when Epstein was accused of sex crimes in 2007 — as “brilliant” and “one of the most pleasant philanthropists.”
In a 2002 New York magazine profile, Epstein was described by even those closest to him as “mysterious,” with many of the sources of his immense wealth remaining largely unknown and with one acquaintance even comparing him to the Wizard of Oz, implying that there might be less behind the curtain than appearances would otherwise dictate:
Epstein is said to run $15 billion for wealthy clients, yet aside from Limited founder Leslie Wexner, his client list is a closely held secret. A former Dalton math teacher, he maintains a peripatetic salon of brilliant scientists yet possesses no bachelor’s degree. For more than ten years, he’s been linked to Manhattan-London society figure Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the mysteriously deceased media titan Robert Maxwell, yet he lives the life of a bachelor, logging 600 hours a year in his various planes as he scours the world for investment opportunities. He owns what is said to be Manhattan’s largest private house yet runs his business from a 100-acre private island in St. Thomas. ... Says another prominent Wall Streeter: “He is this mysterious, Gatsbyesque figure. He likes people to think that he is very rich, and he cultivates this air of aloofness. The whole thing is weird.”
Michael Stroll, who sued Epstein over a failed business deal in the 2000s, told New York magazine in 2007, “Everybody who’s his friend thinks he’s so darn brilliant because he’s so darn wealthy. I never saw any brilliance, I never saw him work. Anybody I know that is that wealthy works 26 hours a day. This guy plays 26 hours a day.”
Epstein was also an accumulator of famous friends — and his connections would later prove extremely important as he attempted to defend himself against allegations of sexual abuse. He gained some measure of fame in the early 2000s for flying President Bill Clinton, actor Kevin Spacey, and comedian Chris Tucker to Africa to tour AIDS prevention and treatment project sites. Clinton would go on to fly multiple times on Epstein’s private plane in 2002 and 2003, according to flight logs obtained by Gawker in 2015. Gawker also obtained and published Epstein’s address book, which included politicians, actors, and celebrities.
In 2002, Epstein described his famous friends as a “collection” of sorts, saying, “I invest in people — be it politics or science. It’s what I do.” He was at one point spending $20 million per year to subsidize a group of scientists and their research on topics ranging from Tibetan monks to altruistic behavior. He was also good friends with Donald Trump, who described Epstein to New York magazine in 2002 as someone who “enjoys his social life.”
Epstein’s connections are crucial to understanding his story. They may have helped him get a lighter sentence in 2008, but they’re important for another reason too. His friendships with famous people have led to speculation that they, too — most notably Clinton and Trump — might have participated in his abuse of girls. But because Epstein was able to keep all the details of his prosecution quiet, it’s impossible for the public to know exactly who else was involved in his crimes. By protecting himself, Epstein may have been able to protect his famous friends as well.
A police investigation found that Epstein had sexually abused dozens of girls. He got a shockingly light sentence.
Much of Epstein’s “social life” involved very young women. “I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years,” Trump said at the time. “Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
In the 2007 New York magazine article, Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff described flying on Epstein’s private plane in the 1990s, saying Epstein “was followed onto the plane by — how shall I say this? — by three teenage girls not his daughters” who were “18, 19, 20, who knows” and “model-like.”
“He has never been secretive about the girls,” Wolff said. “At one point, when his troubles began, he was talking to me and said, ‘What can I say, I like young girls.’ I said, ‘Maybe you should say, ‘I like young women.’ ”
Finally, in 2005, a woman reported to Florida police that a wealthy man had molested her stepdaughter, according to the Daily Beast. The tip led Palm Beach detectives to investigate, and they identified multiple girls who said Epstein had abused them. The case was eventually referred to the FBI, and in 2008, after years of investigation and legal wrangling, Epstein pleaded guilty to charges of solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution in a deal with federal prosecutors.
According to court and police records reviewed by the Miami Herald’s Julie Brown, Epstein routinely had underage girls brought to his Palm Beach mansion, where he paid them to give him massages. During the massages, he often subjected the girls to sexual abuse — asking them to touch him while he masturbated, touching them himself, and sometimes having intercourse with them, Brown reports. Then, according to the Herald, he would offer them money to find him more girls — which some of them did, finding recruits at malls and house parties.
According to Joseph Recarey, the lead Palm Beach detective on the case, Epstein was essentially operating a “sexual pyramid scheme.” Brown identified about 80 women who say they were molested or otherwise sexually abused by Epstein, and some accounts suggest the total number may be much higher.
“He told me he wanted them as young as I could find them,’’ Courtney Wild, who says she recruited 70 or 80 girls for Epstein, told Brown. “He wanted as many girls as I could get him. It was never enough.’’
In response to lawsuits by some of the girls, Epstein has said that they consented to “the acts alleged” and that he believed they were 18, the Daily Beast reports.
In many cases, the effects on the girls were devastating.
“You can’t ever stop your thoughts,” Jen-Lisa Jones, who says Epstein molested her when she was 14, told Brown. “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.’’
”The women who went to Jeffrey Epstein’s mansion as girls tend to divide their lives into two parts,” Brown writes: “life before Jeffrey and life after Jeffrey.”
Wild was a 14-year-old middle school student and cheerleading captain when she met Epstein, Brown writes. She later became addicted to drugs and served three years in prison on drug charges.
One woman who said Epstein molested her was found dead of a heroin overdose last year, leaving behind a young son.
The FBI had prepared a 53-page sex crimes indictment for Epstein in 2007 that could have sent him to prison for life, according to the Herald. Instead, he cut a deal with Alexander Acosta, then the US attorney in Miami, which allowed him to serve just 13 months — not in federal or state prison, but in a private wing of a Palm Beach county jail.
He was granted work release to go to a “comfortable office” for 12 hours a day, six days a week, despite the fact that the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Department prohibited work release for sex offenders.
Epstein’s deal, called a “non-prosecution agreement,” granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators,” meaning that if any of Epstein’s powerful friends were involved in his crimes, they would face no consequences. And Acosta agreed that the deal would be kept secret from the victims, preventing them from showing up in court to try to challenge it.
A lawsuit set for trial in Florida state court in December 2018 was expected to bring more details of Epstein’s crimes to light. Some of Epstein’s victims were slated to testify for the first time. But on December 4, Epstein reached a last-minute settlement in that suit just before jury selection was to begin, according to the Associated Press.
However, a ruling on February 21 by federal Judge Kenneth A. Marra gave those who reported abuse by Epstein some hope. Marra ruled that prosecutors under Acosta violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by hiding the non-prosecution agreement from more than 30 girls who said Epstein abused them, as Brown reports at the Herald. The judge did not overturn Epstein’s plea deal; instead, he gave prosecutors 15 days to work with the victims — now in their 20s and 30s — and their attorneys to arrive at a settlement. It’s not clear whether that settlement could include further prosecution for Epstein.
“This is a huge victory,” Brad Edwards, an attorney who represents Courtney Wild, told the Herald, “but to make his victims suffer for 11 years, this should not have happened.”
Epstein’s case is an example of how wealthy and powerful men can get away with sexual abuse
For a time, Epstein was markedly forthcoming about some of the allegations against him. In one communication with Palm Beach police in 2005, his attorney said, “Mr. Epstein is very passionate about massages. … The massages are therapeutic and spiritually sound for him; that is why he has had many massages.” He even donated $100,000 to Ballet Florida purely so that dancers could also have massages.
Despite the severity of the crimes he was accused of, Epstein avoided major consequences thanks to his wealth and connections.
He was able to hire a team, including private investigators, Dershowitz, and Starr, famous for his investigation of Bill Clinton. His investigators and lawyers worked to discredit or intimidate the women and girls who came forward, and the authorities working on the case, according to the Herald.
After the case was referred to the FBI, Epstein’s team mounted a “year-long assault” on federal prosecutors, investigating them and their families looking for “personal peccadilloes” that might disqualify them from the case, according to a 2011 public statement by Acosta.
None of this would have been possible without Epstein’s substantial fortune. But his relationships with other powerful people may also have played a key role. Epstein’s plea agreement refers to unspecified information he supplied to federal investigators, according to Brown. It’s not clear what that information was, but Brown notes that Epstein was a key federal witness in the prosecution of two executives with Bear Stearns, the investment brokerage that failed as part of the 2008 financial crisis. Epstein had at one time been an investor in a hedge fund managed by those executives. So it’s possible that his knowledge about other wealthy men helped keep him out of prison. (The executives were eventually acquitted.)
Ultimately, Brown reports, Acosta caved under the pressure. He and his team not only allowed Epstein to avoid a long prison sentence but also worked with Epstein’s lawyers to make sure the case was kept as quiet as possible.
All told, Brown’s extensive reporting paints a picture that’s all too common: a rich and well-connected man manipulating the legal system to protect himself. The account recalls the case of producer Harvey Weinstein, who, according to the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, hired an army of private investigators, including ex-Mossad agents, to track actresses and journalists in an effort to suppress sexual harassment and assault allegations against him.
Epstein’s deal with prosecutors did more than just protect him. By granting immunity to potential co-conspirators, it let any friends or associates of Epstein who might also have participated in his abuse avoid consequences as well.
Over the years, speculation has swirled about which of Epstein’s famous friends, if any, might have committed sex crimes on his properties. During the 2016 presidential race, then-Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus hinted that Bill Clinton might have been involved: “When you hang out with a guy who has a reputation like Jeffrey Epstein, multiple times, on private jets, on weekends, on trips, on places at least where it’s been reported not very good things happen, it would be good to know what our former president was doing,” he told Bloomberg.
Also during the 2016 race, a woman going by the name Katie Johnson sued Trump, saying he had raped her at one of Epstein’s parties when she was 13, the Daily Beast reports. She later dropped the suit.
It’s hard for the public to know how to evaluate these claims when so little about Epstein’s crimes has ever come to light, thanks to pressure from his lawyers and acquiescence from prosecutors. Epstein’s money and influence have protected not just Epstein but anyone who might be connected to him, a disturbing example of power perpetuating itself.
The girls and women who reported abuse by Epstein, meanwhile, were markedly powerless. Most of them “came from disadvantaged families, single-parent homes or foster care,” Brown reports. “Many of the girls were one step away from homelessness.”
Their youth and poverty may have made it easier for Epstein and his alleged recruiters to lure them in with promises of cash, easier for investigators to intimidate them, and easier for prosecutors to discount or disbelieve them when the time came.
Epstein’s case is also one of all too many instances in which victims of sexual misconduct are ignored or brushed aside when they come from marginalized groups. Women who have come forward to say that singer R. Kelly abused them have faced a similar kind of erasure. As Vox’s Constance Grady notes, Kelly has been “accused of creating an abusive ‘sex cult’ of very young women, whom he allegedly isolates, brainwashes, and abuses physically and emotionally.”
Girls and young women are routinely seen as unreliable narrators of their own experiences, including abuse, and it typically takes the testimony of many women for a powerful man to face any consequences. For example, young female athletes had been reporting abuse by Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison earlier this year for abusing more than 100 young athletes, since 1997. For more than a decade, officials at Michigan State University, where he worked, did nothing.
It took a groundbreaking investigation by the Indianapolis Star, the brave testimony of dozens of survivors, and, perhaps, the growing strength of the #MeToo movement, to finally bring Nassar to justice.
Meanwhile, for the women who say Epstein abused them, that justice remains elusive.
Epstein spends most of his time on his private island in the Virgin Islands, Brown writes. He is registered as a sex offender there and in New York, but not in New Mexico, where he also has a home.
Acosta, who helped Epstein serve his time in an office rather than a prison cell — and measure it in months, not years — oversees Trump’s Labor Department, which is responsible for, among other things, preventing human trafficking. There is no evidence that any of the powerful men accused of abusing girls along with Epstein have ever been prosecuted.
But Judge Marra’s ruling in the case has intensified calls for a Department of Justice investigation and scrutiny of Acosta’s role.
“The Department of Justice should use this opportunity to reopen its non-prosecution agreement so that Epstein and anyone else who abused these children are held accountable,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) said in the wake of the ruling, according to the Herald.
Michelle Licata, who said she was molested by Epstein at age 14, told the Herald that the ruling was “a step for justice.” But she said, “They should see if they can prosecute him for something. I mean, really prosecute him — instead of giving him 13 months where he was allowed to come and go as he pleased.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the island Epstein owns. The island’s name is Little St. James.