NEW YORK — For two decades, Jeffrey Epstein built a sex trafficking enterprise that reached across state borders and spanned the globe. Using an almost bottomless quarry of wealth and connections, he not only employed recruiters around the world, but enlisted the help of an array of seemingly legitimate people — from hairdressers to psychiatrists to immigration lawyers and dentists.
Even doctors who prescribed his victims birth control and screened them for sexually transmitted diseases.
While many of his survivors were underage, there were countless others who were 18 to 23, a group of women who have been reluctant to come forward because, despite the ordeal they went through, they are ashamed and believe that the public doesn't look at them as victims at all.
But a closer look at Epstein's sex trafficking operation sheds new light on how the multimillionaire and his accomplices perfected a process to sexually exploit and abuse young women that was so organized — and so apparently acceptable to many of those around Epstein — that his victims, even those above the age of consent, came to believe that it was almost normal.
"Not one person helped us," said Sarah Ransome, a native of South Africa who successfully sued Epstein and his then-partner, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, in 2017 for trafficking her when she was 22. "Everyone around us had to know, because we looked so broken. But no one did anything."
There are few people who understand Epstein's intricate web of accomplices and enablers more than Bradley Edwards, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney who brought a lawsuit against the Justice Department after federal prosecutors in South Florida, led by then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, gave Epstein an unusually lenient plea deal in 2008.
To understand how women above the age of consent could get trapped in Epstein's network requires understanding what Edwards calls "Epstein's Process" — the psychology behind a sex predator mastermind who honed in on the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of his targets.
"He would find out they have no home, no car, that they need a place to live, and he would provide a place to live," Edwards said. "He can get you to the best doctors. Sometimes he would do that and sometimes he wouldn't do that, but the promise was real because as soon as you walk into his house and see there are legitimate cooks, chefs and assistants, everybody catering to him — it gives this air of legitimacy. I mean, everybody in this whole entire mansion can't possibly be running an illegal sex trafficking operation, right?"
Virginia Giuffre, who was recruited by Epstein when she was 16 and stayed with him until she was 19, said that Epstein promised "to fix" anything that was wrong in their lives, offering to pay for their education and help them with their careers — and he demonstrated that he had the power to accomplish that.
Then there were the enablers.
"There were doctors and psychiatrists and gynecologist visits. There were dentists who whitened our teeth. There was a doctor who gave me Xanax. What doctor in their right mind, who is supposed to protect their patients, gives girls and young women Xanax?" Giuffre said.
Ransome said at one point when she was on the verge of a breakdown Epstein sent her to a psychiatrist to whom she confided about the abuse. He did nothing except put her on Lithium.
"I find it so funny with all these people, after Jeffrey was arrested, saying 'We didn't know — we didn't see anything.' " Ransome said.
"Jeffrey was always surrounded by girls, always. And these weren't normal girls. You could see it in our faces. ... We were damaged, we were medicated. How can you sit in front of a group of girls with Jeffrey and say 'We just didn't know it?' You had to know."
Epstein, 66, was found hanged Aug. 10 at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Manhattan, where he was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges brought in July by Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. It was more than a decade after the federal investigation in Florida ended in frustration. His death was ruled a suicide.
Berman began investigating Epstein after the publication of a series of stories in the Miami Herald, "Perversion of Justice," that was published in November. Shortly after the series was posted, Epstein began transferring large sums of money to at least two people suspected of being involved in his operation in an apparent attempt to prevent them from cooperating with authorities.
With Epstein now dead, federal authorities in New York are targeting Epstein's alleged madam, Maxwell, and other possible co-conspirators — as well as looking at others in his orbit, including lawyers and doctors who may have helped him, sources have told the Herald.
Besides Maxwell, the other possible accomplices named in court documents are Sarah Kellen, Nadia Marcinkova, Lesley Groff, Adriana Ross and Jean-Luc Brunel, owner of Mc2 modeling agency, based in Miami. All of them, in court papers, have either denied being involved or have invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Despite numerous calls and emails, the Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Maxwell's lawyer, Jay Pagliuca.
Michael Bachner, Groff's lawyer, said that his client kept Epstein's appointment book but never engaged in any misconduct.
"Lesley is shocked and deeply distraught by the accusations and revelations concerning her former employer," Bachner said.
Kellen, 40, who worked for Epstein for nearly a decade, says that she, too, was a victim of Epstein, recruited by him and Maxwell when she was 22 as an assistant, according to her spokeswoman, Tracy Schmaler.
Born into the Jehovah's Witness community and married and divorced when she was 17, Kellen, like Epstein's other victims, was "extremely vulnerable, struggling financially and emotionally," Schmaler said in a statement Friday.
"Very soon after Sarah was brought into Epstein's world, he began to sexually abuse her, and this abuse went on for years."
Kellen, who is now married to NASCAR driver Brian Vickers, still struggles from the trauma, Schmaler added.
Edwards said it would be almost impossible for those around Epstein not know that he was abusing and exploiting underage girls and young women.
"To hang out with him with any degree of regularity, you had to generally know what was going on. You had to know these are people that are in his life only for sexual purposes, and you have to wonder how voluntary it really was and how he was pulling it off," Edwards said.
"If you were with him on one weekend and you are with him the next weekend, and it's a whole different crew of females — some of which you clearly couldn't tell were under 18 or over 18 — it's just impossible to have been completely in the dark about what was actually happening. I think people turned a blind eye because they were getting his money or they really knew what was happening."
Over the past 10 years, Edwards has interviewed close to 100 of Epstein's victims, estimating that about 30 to 40 of them were over the age 18.
"You can take the story we learned of Epstein back to 1993 or '94, and even then he had more of a type, where if he had his preference, he would want, for sexual purposes, the age range of 14, 15, 16. That's just what he preferred," Edwards said. "But also, to be seen in public, that wasn't acceptable, even as brazen as he was. So throughout the last 25 years, he's also always had women that exceed that age range, up to, say, 23."
What made Epstein's process a crime was that he used fraud and coercion, two of the key elements of the crime of sex trafficking, to lure his victims into commercial sex acts. Edwards said neither Epstein nor his recruiters was ever direct about the fact that he wanted sex. In fact, Epstein preferred to manipulate them into believing he was going to be their savior.
"He never wanted someone who was a prostitute or an escort, because it wasn't just the sex. It was also that he made somebody engage in acts that they never would have engaged in — it was an innocent person, it was a vulnerable person," Edwards said. "It was that he could get somebody to do something that they didn't want to do. He just liked that part of the process."
Edwards has spoken to dozens of women who thought they were going to Epstein's house to apply for a job, as a masseuse or a personal assistant, only to be confronted in the interview by Epstein wearing a robe or a towel.
One woman, Edwards said, had been brought there under the pretext that she was applying for a job as his personal assistant. An aspiring model who worked for a New York agency, she was approached by a friend with whom she worked. The woman told her about a wealthy man with connections to the modeling industry who wanted to hire a personal assistant.
The woman went to his mansion, with her resume in hand, and was shown in by his staff. She was taken up an elevator, thinking she would be led to an office, but instead was ushered into a dark room with a massage table. Epstein walked in in a bathrobe.
"She thinks in her mind right then 'I have to listen to every single thing he says or else my mom is never going to see me again.'" Edwards said. "Now, with what we know about Jeffrey Epstein, that would not be consistent with his character, but she doesn't know that. When he was done, she was given an envelope and she said, 'I didn't even know what the envelope was, but I ran down the hall, somebody was waiting for me there at the elevator, I went downstairs, I hit the door, outside running.' " The envelope contained money.
Edwards said the woman never told anyone about it for 20 years.
"Her feeling was 'I'm not a minor, how did I let this happen to me? I was just trying to save my life and what am I going to do — go to the police? They are not going to believe me that this guy is really doing these things over here,' " he said.
That is similar to what happened to Marijke Chartouni, who says she was 20 in the fall of 2000 when a friend of hers, who claimed Epstein was helping her get into art school, introduced her to the money manager who had a vast mansion on the Upper East Side. When she arrived with her friend, they were taken up the elevator to a room, where she said they were greeted by Epstein and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who tried to engage them in conversation, she said.
"Jeffrey comes in with an older gentleman. They are all smiles, talking like two old college buddies. One was Dershowitz. I didn't know who he was at the time," she said.
"We were just chatting. I was standing there next to my friend, Rena, and so it seemed so normative to everyone, and now, looking back, talking to two 20-somethings, like it was normal. It was shocking. I stood next to Dershowitz and I was chatting with him. I remember Jeffrey was bragging about (Dershowitz's) intellect and saying how brilliant he was. I remember them talking about mathematics and other stuff to make themselves have power over you," Chartouni said.
Dershowitz was shown out of the room and Chartouni said she and her friend were led into another room, a red room, that was very dark. The recruiter slowly took off her clothes, and Epstein did the same.
"I think I just kind of froze, I was just so confused, 'what was going on?' I don't know where I am and there are staff members there, they are asking very unusual questions. (Rena) initiated the assault. I just disassociated. I remember thinking: 'I've never done this before, what's going on, I just ... don't know."
Dershowitz, asked if he remembered such an encounter, said: "I never saw anyone who looked 20 in Epstein's presence."
An assistant called her a few days later and told her Epstein wanted to see her again. She declined and never returned.
"I just pretended it didn't happen. And I haven't talked about it since."
Years later, Dershowitz would help Epstein beat underage sex charges in Florida. The Harvard lawyer has maintained that he was not aware that Epstein was sexually exploiting or trafficking women and girls.
On Tuesday, Dershowitz is scheduled to be in federal court in New York, where he is being sued by Giuffre, who claims that Epstein ordered her to have sex with Dershowitz when she was a minor. Ransome, in court papers, has also said she was forced by Epstein and Maxwell to have sex with the famed litigator and author. Dershowitz has adamantly denied the women's allegations.
Dershowitz, 80, has said that their stories have been fabricated by their lawyer, David Boies, as a means to siphon money from some of the other prominent and powerful men accused of being involved or complicit in Epstein's sex trafficking operation. The purported strategy: Tell them they would get the same treatment as Dershowitz was receiving if they didn't pay.
Tuesday's hearing is on a motion brought by Dershowitz to remove Boies and his firm from representing Giuffre, who is suing Dershowitz, alleging defamation.
In the past, Dershowitz has attacked both women's credibility, in particular pointing to falsehoods in some of Ransome's past statements. He says he has proof that both are lying but has never presented it publicly.
Boies concedes that Ransome made some false statements in 2016 to a New York tabloid reporter in an attempt to get the reporter interested in investigating the Epstein case. At the time, Ransome was not represented by Boies, she said.
When the Herald asked Dershowitz for further comment for this story, he responded with a lengthy written statement attacking Ransome. He demanded that all of it or none of it be published, and had a noted libel lawyer, Howard M. Cooper, send a letter to the Herald's attorney.
Sex trafficking, by law, does not necessarily involve transporting someone over state lines for sex, nor does it solely apply to men and women who are of a certain age. Legal experts point out that a victim who is from a troubled background doesn't automatically become less susceptible or vulnerable to sex predators the day he or she turns 18 or 20.
"Sex trafficking is using fraud or coercion to get somebody to have sex in exchange for something of value. Under the law, it can be something subtle. It doesn't have to require transportation or the use of violence," said Shelby Quast, America's director for Equality Now, a human rights organization that promotes and protects the rights of women and girls.
"Predators are very good at what they do, and I would say Jeffrey Epstein was a master predator."
Epstein was also a master at testing boundaries, Edwards said. Often, he might not even touch a girl or a woman the first or second time he met her. Instead, he would masturbate in front of them or use sex toys, making them feel uncomfortable and pushing them only as far as he felt he could go.
He would talk to them in a fatherly way as he was pushing them, in order to get them to believe that he wanted to help them and had the ability to give them an education or career. Sometimes, he would offer to pay for expensive doctors for a girl or woman, or a member of her family who had a serious medical condition.
Epstein's "air of legitimacy" extended well beyond the cooks and maids who worked in his various homes in New York, Palm Beach, New Mexico, Paris and on his island off the coast of St. Thomas. To his victims, it was also all the well-educated, wealthy and renowned scientists, philanthropists, arts patrons and politicians, including a former president, Epstein surrounded himself with that gave him both credibility and, to them, power so fearsome that he could use it to ruin their lives — and in some cases, did.
Ransome was convinced that Epstein was such good friends with former President Bill Clinton and current President Donald Trump that she believed it when Epstein and Maxwell threatened to harm her if she didn't comply with their demands to have sex.
She admits she never met either Clinton or Trump, and both men have denied that they knew about Epstein's trafficking. But real or not, Ransome said it was "common knowledge" that Epstein was friends with them.
"It was almost like a bragging thing among the girls that Jeffrey was friends with Bill Clinton and Trump and all these other important people," Ransome said. "We were star-struck by some of the people who visited."
Ransome's story begins in 2000, when she arrived in New York from London, hoping to start a new life in the city's fast-paced fashion world. The striking 5-foot-9 redhead had no plans to model, but an ambition to study design at the city's prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology.
At a club, she was befriended by a young woman about her same age, Natalya Maleshev. Maleshev, who was from Russia, claimed she knew a wealthy philanthropist who had generously helped her with her schooling. She suggested that Ransome meet Jeffrey Epstein, claiming that he would help Ransome get into fashion.
Initially, there seemed to be no catch. Both Epstein and Maxwell promised to help Ransome with her applications into fashion school, she said. But days after meeting them, Ransome was invited to fly to Epstein's island on his private jet, and it quickly became clear that Epstein and Maxwell had another agenda.
On the plane, Epstein openly began having sex with another woman in full view of the other passengers, who seemed oblivious to what was happening, Ransome said.
"That's when it kind of dawned on me — what have I gotten myself into? I was on a plane going to this island and what is going on? I was petrified. I never had done anything like that and found it very inappropriate," she said.
Upon arriving at the island, she said Maxwell appeared to take charge of all the women. Her main focus was to teach them how take care of Epstein.
"Ghislaine Maxwell was Jeffrey's right-hand woman. She would teach us how to sexually please Jeffrey. If we stepped out of line, she would be really, really cruel to you," Ransome said.
Almost immediately, they took Ransome's passport and phone, and began a rotating sex schedule with her and two other women on the island at the time, she said.
"It was literally every day. It would be me and then it would be her and then her and the whole thing would just happen again the next day and the next day and the next. It was relentless," she said.
Ransome claims that over the next few months she became increasingly depressed and anxious. Epstein and Maxwell would put food in front of her, then snatch it away as she was about to eat, as everyone laughed at her.
Ransome's relationship with Epstein and Maxwell grew more strained, as she began having health problems as a result of the strict diet they placed her on.
"He was obsessed with me losing weight to the point that he pretty much said 'I'll destroy you, you will not be in the fashion industry.' They humiliated me, they body-shamed me and I got to the point that I had had enough."
One day, she took a quad bike out on the island, heading toward the water, with plans to swim for her freedom, if necessary. Epstein sent out a search crew and they grabbed her before she could make an escape, she said.
Ransome eventually persuaded Epstein and Maxwell to send her back to South Africa, where she was instructed to recruit other girls and women for them. She said she exchanged emails with Groff and Kellen, who both wanted her to enlist more victims.
At the same time, while she was still in South Africa, Epstein and Maxwell began helping her with her applications to fashion school, as if to further string her along, coaxing her to recruit other victims. She briefly returned to the United States, where she lived in an apartment in a building on East 66th Street where Epstein kept underage models and women, Ransome said.
Ransome said even the apartment building was structured so that the girls and young women would be controlled and unable to form friendships.
"They had quite clever of an infrastructure, this sex trafficking ring, because they never kept the same girls. When they saw girls were becoming friendly, they would separate you, and change your itineraries. They created a kind of competition between girls. As soon as you got close to a girl, you never saw her again," Ransome said.
She tried to remain friends with her recruiter, Malachev, but at one point, Ransome said she never saw her again. The Herald was also unable to find Malachev, and no lawyer is listed on any of the court documents that mention her.
Edwards has since filed several new civil lawsuits against Epstein's estate, some of them by women who were in their 20s. One of the cases involves a dancer, identified as Priscilla Doe, who was lured to Epstein's New York mansion to give him a massage. She was 20 and says she was a virgin at the time.
The lawsuit alleges the woman was coerced, first by Epstein and then by Maxwell and others, into sex acts. They promised they would help her family, who was poor, and her younger sister, who suffered from a serious health condition. She came to depend on the money, the lawsuit says, because she was using it to help her mother pay rent. He assured her if she had sex with him that he would help further her dance career. As time when on, and she because more suspicious of Epstein's motives, his behavior became more aggressive and threatening, and one time he put his hands tightly around her neck, the lawsuit says.
"During that time, Jeffrey Epstein controlled nearly every aspect of plaintiff's life, from the clothing and jewelry she was permitted to wear to the career path she was permitted to follow, to the food she was allowed to consume," the lawsuit said.
In the end, she feared that if she tried to leave, he would kill her.
Ransome said that too was part of Epstein's process.
“What they do, they are very clever. They hook you in. And when you’re in, you can’t get out. That’s it. You are in deep.”