NEW YORK — The much-anticipated trial of accused sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell began Monday as federal prosecutors in New York laid out their case against the British socialite charged with recruiting girls and young women and trafficking them to have sex with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Epstein and Maxwell were “partners in crime,” prosecutors said, targeting vulnerable minors whom they lured with promises of helping them realize their education or career goals through scholarships, financial assistance and connections in the fashion and entertainment worlds.
However, Maxwell defense attorney Bobbi Sternheim insisted that the British socialite is being used as a “stand-in” for Epstein, who died in 2019, leaving prosecutors without a culprit to blame for the elaborate sex trafficking scheme he operated for nearly two decades in Palm Beach, New York, New Mexico and on his private island in U.S. Virgin Islands.
While prosecutors portrayed Maxwell as Epstein’s right-hand lieutenant, Sternheim suggested that she, too, fell into Epstein’s web. She described Epstein as a charming “21st-century James Bond” who had “many positive traits” and gave portions of his fortune generously to worthy causes.
“This case is about three things: memory, manipulation and money,” Sternheim told the jury. “These are memories from over a quarter of a century ago, and these are women who were manipulated by their desire for a jackpot of money.”
Lisa Bloom, who attended the trial on behalf of eight clients who were victims of Epstein, scoffed at the idea that any of the women would go through the chaos of a high-profile trial just for the money. Many of Epstein’s accusers have received payments from a victims’ compensation fund that distributed assets from Epstein’s estate.
“The clear response is they already got their money, and you know what? They are entitled to it,” said Bloom, who does not represent any of the accusers in the case against Maxwell.
“A 21st-century James Bond?” she added. “Are you kidding me? James Bond was a good guy. Epstein was a bad guy.”
The trial got off to a bumpy start when several potential jurors couldn’t be found. One of them “forgot” about the trial, and two others said they couldn’t serve because of various other issues. In one instance, a potential juror said her husband had just surprised her with a trip during the holidays that would interfere with her serving for the trial, which is expected to last three to six weeks.
But shortly before 1 p.m., a panel of 12 jurors with six alternates was sworn in to hear the case against Maxwell, 59, Epstein’s longtime associate charged with six counts related to recruiting and transporting girls for Epstein to abuse. In some cases, she participated in the sexual abuse, according to prosecutors.
“The defendant was Epstein’s closest associate and second in command. She was involved in every detail of Epstein’s life,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz.
“During the 10 years that the defendant and Epstein committed these crimes together, the defendant was the lady of the house.”
Pomerantz said Maxwell demanded that employees of Epstein never speak about the girls and young women.
“Employees were to see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. There was a culture of silence,” she said. “That was by design, the defendant’s design, because behind closed doors, the defendant and Epstein were committing heinous crimes.”
The alleged victims, some of whom are using pseudonyms to protect their identities, say they were sexually abused between 1994 and 2004.
Accuser No. 1, “Jane,” is a successful actress and singer who has appeared in soap operas and on Broadway and TV. She says she met Epstein and Maxwell when she was 14 at a music camp in Ohio. According to the charges, she was groomed by them as a child, then sexually abused by Epstein for nearly a decade.
A second, Annie Farmer, has publicly said she was flown to New Mexico and abused by Maxwell and Epstein when she was 16.
A third, Carolyn, told prosecutors she was recruited in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2002 when she was 14. She successfully sued Epstein and an alleged co-conspirator who worked for him in Palm Beach, Sarah Kellen, who was never charged. Prosecutors say Carolyn was trafficked by Epstein and Maxwell for many years.
The fourth, Kate, is a former actress and model from Britain who moved to the United States. She was 17, which is above the age of consent in the United Kingdom, when she first became acquainted with Epstein and Maxwell. She claims they groomed her in much the same way they groomed some of their younger, underage alleged victims.
Maxwell, dressed in a cream-colored turtleneck and dark slacks, appeared engaged in the proceedings as she whispered to her team of attorneys and, at one point, waved to her sister, Isabel, who was seated in the front row.
At least four other courtrooms were set aside for the crowd overflow, and all of them were full. The media, the public and the victims waited for hours in the cold dawn to get seats. It took more than an hour to get through security, in part because of COVID protocols.
“I can’t believe this day has come,” said Sarah Ransome, a South African woman who successfully sued Maxwell and Epstein in 2017 for trafficking her when she was 22. “I’m here to support the victims.”
Ransome, who is not testifying in the case, said she had a restless night and has been anxious about the trial ever since Maxwell was first arrested in July 2020 at a 156-acre estate in New Hampshire, where Maxwell had been living under the radar.
“Everyone’s been scratching their heads this last year,” Ransome said. “I’ve been very nervous.”
Epstein was arrested in July 2019 on federal sex trafficking charges but died in his cell a month after his arrest. Authorities ruled his death a suicide by hanging.
Maxwell’s lawyers maintain that she is being tried in his place, and that the evidence against her is thin. There are no eyewitnesses and no documentation to support the allegations, Sternheim told jurors.
“You are not here to judge whether Epstein committed crimes; you are here to determine whether the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ghislaine Maxwell committed the crimes charged,’’ she said.
Epstein had negotiated a strikingly favorable deal with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida more than a decade earlier, an arrangement that had been the subject of the Miami Herald’s 2018 “Perversion of Justice” series. The renewed attention to Epstein’s deal, which allowed him to plead guilty to two prostitution charges and serve his sentence in a county jail, led federal prosecutors to reexamine his case and bring new charges against the financier. Alexander Acosta, the federal prosecutor who had signed off on Epstein’s plea, resigned from his position as U.S. labor secretary in January 2019 in response to the backlash.
Maxwell has been held in federal custody since her July 2020 arrest, deemed a flight risk and denied release on bail four separate times. Her lawyers have argued about her conditions in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, which include constant monitoring and what they have described as inedible food and undrinkable water. At one point, one of her attorneys compared her conditions to that of the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter as portrayed in the film “The Silence of the Lambs.”
In the weeks leading up to trial, Maxwell’s legal team and federal prosecutors have fought to limit define the boundaries of what could be discussed before the jury. Maxwell’s team won partial victories in limiting the testimony of two of the four accusers but lost their bid to block prosecutors from referring to the accusers as “victims.”