The life and death of sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, explained

In this photograph from 2004, convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein speaks with then-Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who would later serve on Epstein’s defense team.
Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images
If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Jeffrey Epstein was found dead on August 10, 2019, in a Manhattan jail where he was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. New York City’s medical examiner has ruled his death a suicide.

The money manager was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls, bringing them to his home for massages during which he masturbated or had intercourse with them. He was indicted in 2007, but as Julie K. Brown reported at the Miami Herald, he ultimately got just 13 months in a county jail, because of a deal signed by US attorney Alexander Acosta, who would later become secretary of labor under President Trump.

In July, however, Epstein was arrested in New Jersey and charged with sex trafficking, in connection with allegations that he recruited young girls for abuse at his homes in New York and Palm Beach. If convicted, he could have faced 45 years in prison.

Epstein said that any encounters he had with his accusers were consensual, and that he believed they were 18 at the time. He pleaded not guilty to the trafficking charges.

But disturbing allegations have continued to come out since Epstein’s death. In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday, for example, the attorney general of the Virgin Islands said that the money manager had run a sex trafficking operation from his private islands, bringing in girls as young as 11 to be abused. And recipients of donations by Epstein are facing scrutiny — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, received $850,000 from Epstein, including gifts made after his jail sentence, a January report revealed.

Epstein’s story is a master class in the power dynamics that have been exposed by the Me Too 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.

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 was able to minimize publicity around the details of his case for so long, he was also able to keep details about anyone else who may have been involved out of the public eye.

The fact that Epstein avoided serious punishment for years 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. Now that Epstein is dead, the women who say he harmed them will not get to face him in court. But the investigation into his crimes is ongoing, and a number of women are pursuing civil claims against his estate. As the results of those legal actions become public, the web of power and influence that protected Epstein and those close to him from scrutiny is finally beginning to unravel.

Epstein was known for his wealth and his predilection for young girls. Everything else was something of a mystery.

Jeffrey Epstein, who died at 66 years old, was known as an influential financier until his 2007 indictment for sex crimes — though there was a good deal of mystery about how, exactly, he made his money.

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 ran his business from the island of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands since at least 1996, and near that island, he owned the island of Little St. James.

That island was also home to Epstein’s foundation, the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation — best known for donating $6.5 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 suggest:

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.”

The money manager’s friends and acquaintances were apparently willing to continue socializing with him despite his tendency to have eccentric or even downright disturbing ideas. Several people say that he wanted to “use his New Mexico ranch as a base where women would be inseminated with his sperm and would give birth to his babies,” James B. Stewart, Matthew Goldstein, and Jessica Silver-Greenberg of the New York Times reported in July. The idea was not a secret, they write; one scientist recalls Epstein discussing it during a dinner at his townhouse in 2001, while another Times source remembers hearing about it from Epstein and at least one other person.

The fact that Epstein was able to retain his famous “collection” of friends despite talking openly about using himself as the center of a eugenics experiment may be a testament to his influence, to his associates’ ability to look the other way, or both.

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 in 2002. “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.

”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 in 2017, 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.

New charges seemed like a new chance for prosecutors to hold Epstein accountable

In July 2019, though, Epstein was arrested at a New Jersey airport upon his return from a trip to France. He was charged with sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy in federal court in New York. If convicted, he could have faced up to 45 years in prison, along with the forfeiture of his Manhattan townhouse, according to the New York Times.

Prosecutors weren’t worried about double jeopardy in this case, a source told the Washington Post, probably because the New York case includes new victims or new alleged crimes. Significantly, the indictment alleged that between 2002 and 2005, Epstein recruited girls as young as 14 not just to his Palm Beach residence, but also to his Manhattan house, where he sexually abused them.

The indictment also states that Epstein knew some of the girls were underage, because they “expressly told him their age.” And the document states that Epstein “worked and conspired with others, including employees and associates who facilitated his conduct by, among other things, contacting victims and scheduling their sexual encounters with Epstein.”

In addition to Epstein, the New York case seemed like it could potentially lead to charges against some of those “associates.”

“We hope that prosecutors will not stop with Mr. Epstein because there were many other people who participated with him and made the sex trafficking possible,” David Boies, a lawyer for some of Epstein’s accusers, told the Daily Beast.

It also appeared possible that Epstein could give up information on crimes by some of his powerful friends in exchange for a lighter sentence, though former New York prosecutor Mimi Rocah wrote in the Daily Beast that he “shouldn’t expect the ridiculous sweetheart deal he got the first time around.”

“There are probably quite a few important people, powerful people, who are sweating it out right now,” the Miami Herald’s Brown said in a July MSNBC appearance. “We’ll have to wait and see whether Epstein is going to name names.”

Meanwhile, in July, after repeated calls for his resignation, Acosta announced he was stepping down from his Labor Department post.

The new charges also led to a new public allegation. In July, 32-year-old Jennifer Araoz said in an interview with NBC’s Today that a young woman approached her outside her New York City high school in 2001, engaged her in conversation, and ended up introducing her to Epstein at his New York townhouse. At first, she said, they just talked, with her telling him about her father’s death from AIDS a few years before. But over the next year, Araoz said, Epstein manipulated her into giving him massages that ended with him masturbating. Then, in 2002, she said, “he raped me, forcefully raped me.”

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 speculated 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. (Clinton, however, has not been accused of any specific Epstein-related wrongdoing.)

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, due 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.

Investigation into Epstein continues after his death

Despite Epstein’s death, investigation and legal action in his case have continued, leading to further revelations about his influence, as well as his ability to avoid consequences for the allegations against him.

For example, according to lawsuits filed after his death, Epstein coerced two women to have sex with him while he was on work release, Ali Watkins reports at the New York Times. He had previously recruited them in New York, and had them flown to Florida to have sex with him during his jail sentence, the suits allege.

Another lawsuit, filed by Denise N. George, the attorney general of the Virgin Islands, alleges that Epstein brought girls as young as 11 or 12 to his private island for sexual abuse, using a database to track their movements, the Times reports. In one case, a 15-year-old girl tried to swim off the island and escape after being forced to perform sex acts, the suit alleges, but she was captured and Epstein confiscated her passport.

Meanwhile, the new charges against Epstein, as well as his death, have led to increased attention to the way he used donations to academics and institutions as a way to launder his public image after his 2007 indictment. MIT, in particular, has been the focus of scrutiny, with the director of the university’s Media Lab, Joichi Ito, resigning in September after a report showed that he received donations from Epstein and worked to conceal their source. In January, an investigation by the university found that Epstein had made 10 donations between 2002 and 2017, and that top administrators had been aware of the gifts, the New York Times reported. (Epstein had been a registered sex offender since 2008.)

Though unique in many ways, Epstein’s case is also common in others: 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 has been elusive.

It seemed that might be about to change after Epstein’s July arrest. “Oh my God,” Michelle Licata, one of Epstein’s accusers, told the Miami Herald upon hearing about the new indictment. “Finally, finally, finally! Justice!”

But Epstein’s death ends his prosecution for the indictment filed in July. However, New York authorities are continuing to investigate Epstein’s case, and a number of women are filing suit against his estate.

“On behalf of the victims I represent, we would have preferred [Jeffrey Epstein] lived to face justice,” attorney Lisa Bloom said shortly after his death. But, she continued: “Our civil cases can still proceed against his estate. Victims deserve to be made whole for the lifelong damage he caused. We’re just getting started.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the island Epstein owns. The island’s name is Little St. James.

Update: Though Epstein had previously said he donated $30 million to Harvard University, a Harvard source familiar with the donation told Vox the money manager only gave $6.5 million.

Listen to Today, Explained

Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide is unexpectedly shining a light on the conditions in America’s jails.

Subscribe to Today, Explained wherever you get your podcasts, including: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and ART19.

Back to top ↑