Jeffrey Epstein’s death leaves open questions about Ghislaine Maxwell
WASHINGTON — The apparent suicide of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein brought a devastating blow to several women: It meant they will never be able to see a public trial of the man they said sexually abused and exploited them when they were minors.
It has also left loose ends about who prosecutors can — or will — go after now that the alleged mastermind, in a case that has raised serious questions about the prosecution of the wealthy, is dead. An attorney for some of Epstein’s accusers says the obvious target for prosecution is his ex-girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, a British socialite described in a civil case as a co-conspirator accused of recruiting girls to perform sex acts on Epstein.
“There is substantial evidence linking Ms. Maxwell to the recruiting, scheduling and the abuse of Jeffrey Epstein’s underage victims,” Jack Scarola, a Florida attorney representing five of Epstein’s accusers, said.
Maxwell has not been charged with a crime and she has previously denied wrongdoing. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, which charged Epstein with sex trafficking and conspiracy in July, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Legal experts say prosecutors will face an uphill battle if they try to charge Maxwell or other alleged aiders and abettors, especially because the principal defendant is gone.
“You can expect that the government is going to aggressively pursue evidence of their guilt. One of the big differences is, though, there is no big fish for those people to flip against,” said Renato Mariotti, a former Illinois federal prosecutor who worked on child exploitation cases. “The challenge that the government is going to have is they’re going to have to prove that she knew when she was recruiting women that they were underage, that she knew they’ll perform sex acts.”
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“Her defense attorney is going to argue that if she had any idea that these women were going to be abused, that she would’ve never recruited them,” Mariotti added.
With Epstein dead, alleged co-conspirators, if they’re charged, could claim that prosecutors are simply looking for a scapegoat, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“He was the center of it, and the peripheral players, if [prosecutors] have particularly strong cases against them, one would’ve expected some of them would’ve been charged already,” Levenson said.
Maxwell was named a defendant in a defamation lawsuit filed by one of Epstein’s accusers, Virginia Giuffre, who said Epstein sexually abused her from 1999 to 2002 at his mansions in Manhattan, New York, and West Palm Beach, Florida. Giuffre said Maxwell recruited her when she was a minor. Attorneys who represented Maxwell in the lawsuit did not respond to a request for comment.
Giuffre and another accuser alleged that the exploitation did not stop with Epstein, who rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, including Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. The accusers said their long list of abusers included “numerous prominent American politicians, powerful business executives, foreign presidents, a well-known Prime Minister, and other world leaders,” as well as Alan Dershowitz, a longtime Harvard Law School professor who had worked on Epstein’s legal defense, and Maxwell, according to court records. Trump and Clinton were not accused.
Maxwell and Dershowitz have denied the allegations. Maxwell issued several public statements painting Giuffre as a liar. In 2015, Giuffre sued Maxwell for defamation, and the case was settled privately two years later.
Maria Farmer, another accuser, said in an affidavit that Epstein and Maxwell sexually assaulted her in the summer of 1996 at billionaire Leslie Wexner’s Ohio mansion, where she was working on an art project. Farmer, who said she also worked for Epstein manning the front door of his New York mansion, alleged seeing “school-age girls” coming to the home. She said Maxwell told her the girls were interviewing for modeling positions.
Many of the court records in the defamation case against Maxwell remained under seal, until last week, after a federal appeals court judge ruled to make a trove of filings public. Among the nearly 2,000 pages of documents released is a deposition in which Giuffre said Maxwell approached her after noticing she was reading a book on massage therapy, the Associated Press reported. At that time, Giuffre’s father was working as a maintenance manager at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, Florida, and Giuffre, then 16, got a summer job as a locker room attendant at the club’s spa.
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Giuffre said in the deposition that Maxwell offered to train her in massage therapy. The years of abuse began after Maxwell took Giuffre to Epstein’s mansion near Mar-a-Lago, where Maxwell told the teen to perform oral sex on Epstein, according to the deposition cited by the Associated Press.
Maxwell is the daughter of Robert Maxwell, a publishing tycoon and former member of the British Parliament who died in 1991 after falling overboard his luxury yacht, Lady Ghislaine, named after the youngest of his nine children.
At some point, Maxwell moved to New York and began dating Epstein. In 2000, they were photographed next to Trump and his then-girlfriend, Melania Knauss, at a social event in Mar-a-Lago.
Epstein was found dead in his federal prison cell on Saturday morning, the day after the court records in the defamation case were made public. The Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York said the death was an “apparent suicide.”
Epstein’s death has cast a jarring spotlight on the nation’s largest prison system plagued by potentially dangerous staffing shortages, violence and widespread sexual harassment of female officers. Three weeks ago, Epstein was found injured and unconscious in his cell, though it wasn’t clear if he tried to kill himself or if he was assaulted.
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Hours after Epstein’s death, Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, made clear that the investigation — including on the conspiracy charge against Epstein — is still ongoing.
Attorney General William Barr, who has ordered an investigation of Epstein’s death, vowed to also investigate the accusations against co-conspirators.
“Let me assure you that this case will continue on against anyone who was complicit with Epstein. Any co-conspirators should not rest easy. The victims deserve justice, and we will ensure they get it,” Barr said during a speech Monday before a Fraternal Order of Police meeting in New Orleans.
The Epstein saga recently found itself in the public spotlight after the Miami Herald’s reporting exposed how a former U.S. attorney in Florida — who later became Trump’s Labor secretary — reached a non-prosecution agreement in 2008, sparing Epstein a lengthy prison sentence. Giuffre and others have since sued, alleging that federal prosecutors in Florida violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by not informing or consulting with them about the plea deal with Epstein.
Scarola, the Florida attorney who represents Epstein’s accusers, said “it is reasonable to anticipate” follow-up indictments against Maxwell.
Whatever decision prosecutors make likely won’t happen immediately.
“This thing will go on and there will be new development. Right now, everything’s in turmoil,” Levenson said. “I don’t think prosecutors are going to make decisions overnight. The last thing they want to do is to bring charges and lose them. That doesn’t help anyone. The ball’s in their court.”
Contributing: Kevin McCoy and Kevin Johnson