The town of Palm Beach in Florida, the crime writer Carl Hiaasen has observed, “is one of the few places left in America where you can still drive around in a Rolls-Royce convertible and not get laughed at.” It’s an unironic island, filled with the super-rich and famous, plastic surgeons and, of course, the former US president, Donald Trump, who holds court at his ostentatious Mar-a-Lago resort.
A satellite of Miami, the island prides itself on its many flamboyant charity balls, but no amount of good-cause fundraising can remove the whiff of corruption that hangs heavy in the subtropical air. If money talks in most places, in Palm Beach it speaks with a confident authority that’s seldom questioned. Never has that understanding been more egregiously demonstrated than in the case of the inscrutable financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
In 2008 Epstein was sent to prison, having pleaded guilty to the charge of procuring for prostitution a girl below the age of 18. It was the culmination of a three-year investigation, involving first state and then federal authorities. The local police had uncovered evidence that Epstein had sexually coerced and abused scores of young women and girls, some as young as 13 or 14. There were also a number of testaments to rape.
But all throughout the prosecution seemed reluctant to take Epstein to court and the police were always one step behind their target. For a start, Epstein appeared to be tipped off that he was going to be arrested. When the police arrived at his Palm Beach mansion, six computer hard drives had been removed, along with video recordings from his internal closed circuit system. The police were never able to gain access to this potential evidence.
Florida is notorious for its harsh prison system and lengthy sentencing. Someone accused of Epstein’s alleged crimes might have been looking at 20 years in a gang-dominated penitentiary. Instead he received an 18-month sentence, of which he served less than 13 months in a private wing of the county jail. He was granted immunity for himself and four assistants for any related charges, was awarded daily work release, in which he was driven to his office by his own driver, and at night he was allowed to sleep with his jail door open. He also had access to another room where a television had been installed for him.
How did he get off so lightly? And how was he able to return to his gilded world of billionaire friends and celebrity playmates without any real stigma attached to his name? These were the questions that Julie Brown, an overworked and underpaid investigative journalist at the Miami Herald, kept asking herself towards the end of 2016.
“I wanted to do a story on sex trafficking,” she recalls on a Zoom call from New York, “but every time I googled Florida and sex trafficking, a story about Jeffrey Epstein came up.”
As she delved deeper, she realised just how far the authorities had bent over backwards to accommodate Epstein and his battery of well-paid lawyers. Although they seemingly had enough evidence to support his prosecution for much more serious crimes, they offered him a “sweetheart deal” on a relatively minor charge. Brown’s intrepid work led to a three-part Herald series in 2018 on Epstein that would encourage federal authorities to reopen the investigation and to arrest the financier.
As the world knows, in August 2019 Epstein would die in the grim Metropolitan Correctional Center prison in New York – whether from his own hand or another’s remains the subject of much speculation – and eventually his former girlfriend and social aide, Ghislaine Maxwell, would be tracked down to her New Hampshire hideout and charged with related crimes.
The whole unsavoury story is told by Brown in gripping detail in her just published book, Perversion of Justice. Yet every aspect of the previous paragraph would have seemed like pure fantasy when Brown began her research. Initially, there was little interest among her editors for what was an old story, and she was under pressure to concentrate on her reporting beat – Florida’s notorious prison system.
The crime was downplayed from the beginning, and I’m sure Trump’s people felt it was a long time ago and no big deal
Then a short while later the newly elected Donald Trump appointed Alexander Acosta as labor secretary in his administration, a position whose responsibilities included combating sex trafficking. Acosta had been the US attorney for the southern district of Florida, in which role he had approved Epstein’s highly favourable plea bargain, going so far as to visit Epstein’s principal lawyer in a secret hotel meeting some 70 miles from his office.
“I thought, all this is now going to come out,” says Brown, an ebullient, plain-speaking woman in her late 50s. “But he barely got questioned about it, so I thought: I wonder what the women [now] think about this who were the girls [back then] who were betrayed?”
She’s in no doubt that Trump’s people, and almost certainly Trump himself, knew of Acosta’s controversial role in Epstein’s surprisingly lenient sentencing.
“Absolutely,” she says, “but it fits the pattern of the entire arc of the story. The crime was downplayed from the beginning, and I’m sure that Trump’s people felt this was a long time ago and it was no big deal. They never understood the seriousness and scope of his crimes.”
* * *
Plenty of journalists had taken bites at the Epstein story and not got very far. The former chief of police of Palm Beach, Michael Reiter, and the lead detective on the case, Joe Recarey, had grown weary of press requests because they were so used to giving interviews that were never used. As Reiter quipped to Brown, journalists “start working on the Epstein story only to end up being transferred to the paper’s real estate department”.
Two solid career cops, Reiter and Recarey felt profoundly let down by prosecuting lawyers. Their disappointment was as nothing compared with that of the many victims of Epstein they had interviewed, often persuading them, against the girls’ anxious doubts, that their abuser would be appropriately punished. In the event the girls were frequently subject to intense and intrusive questioning by Epstein’s army of lawyers, who went over their sexual history with forensic menace, as they attempted to portray the victims as experienced prostitutes seeking a payday. Epstein himself scarcely faced any questioning.
So it was to these forgotten women that Brown turned. That, however, was not a straightforward manoeuvre. Nearly all of them were protected by a shield of anonymity – referred to in the police files as Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, etc. It was going to take a lot of dogged journalistic work to uncover their identities, trace their locations, and then get them to talk.
Brown endured a series of setbacks that would have discouraged anyone who was less than totally committed to seeing the story through. Originally from Philadelphia, she was a veteran reporter who had spent the latter part of her career in a crumbling industry, wherein the internet had wiped out the old business model and along with it the salaries of journalists. A single mother with two kids to put through college, she was permanently in debt and struggling week-by-week to keep her head above the gathering waters of financial overstretch.
Ghislaine Maxwell was really the mastermind of Epstein's whole pyramid system
One of three children, Brown is from a single-parent family herself, as a result of which she felt ostracised and bullied by her peers when she was growing up. Her mother had two jobs and was seldom around, leaving her daughter, a bright student, to write prize-winning stories. She went on to edit her high school newspaper, but lost the position after having problems at home. Her early difficulties have left her with a natural sympathy for the underdog.
“I moved out of home when I was 16,” she says. “I’ve always had determination and it’s certainly carried me through an awful lot of hard times in this business when I had to waitress at the weekends.”
She kept applying for jobs at more illustrious newspapers such as the Washington Post, only to miss out at the final stage. She was partly looking to leave out of the fear that, at any moment, she might be laid off. But then things began to turn for her. The revelations about the film producer Harvey Weinstein – someone Epstein knew – in October 2017 and the resulting growth of the #MeToo movement shifted cultural perceptions and helped engage the full backing of the Herald’s high-ups for the story Brown was pursuing.
Even then it was a slog that required her to read vast reams of legal files in which key information was buried, while driving around the country trying to persuade Epstein’s accusers to speak on the record. In the end she tracked down more than 60 women who said that they were victims of abuse. Many of the girls were from troubled backgrounds, who’d experienced homelessness or domestic violence prior to meeting to Epstein, and then spiralled downwards afterwards.
A not untypical case was Courtney Wild, a straight-A student with a troubled family history, who says she was sexually abused countless times by Epstein and others in his entourage beginning at the age of 14.
“I can’t remember the exact time he raped me, or what went through my head, other than none of it made sense,” she tells Brown. “I remember leaving his house, and I had so much shame, guilt and dirty feeling. I guess in my mind, because I had the money, I tried to cover up my feelings in order to survive.”
She began recruiting other girls, for as much as $400 a referral. One particular psychological problem recounted by many victims was that Epstein fostered a kind of sexual Ponzi scheme, in which the girls were paid to bring in other girls to feed his remorseless appetite for new “masseuses”. Thus, added to the guilt associated with their own deeds was the guilt of having roped in others.
By the time Wild was 17, Epstein had lost interest in her. Like many of the girls who’d been through his Palm Beach home, she drifted into drugs and ended up in prison. As she tells Brown:
“Jeffrey Epstein preyed on girls who were homeless and were addicted to drugs. He didn’t victimise girls who were Olympic stars and Hollywood actresses. He victimised people he thought nobody would ever listen to, and he was right.”
According to various testimonies, the teenage girls were often recruited by Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the late discredited newspaper publisher Robert Maxwell.
“She was really the mastermind of this whole pyramid system he had working,” says Brown. “She would go to spas and hand out cards saying that she had a very wealthy benefactor who’s going to help you with your schooling, make you a model, all these promises.”
All the girls had to do, they were told, was massage this generous benefactor. An ability to massage or training was not required.
* * *
There were several false starts before Brown got her first breakthrough in getting these women to speak. One such disappointment was when one of Epstein’s prime recruiters told her she would talk. A meeting was arranged, but the young woman never showed up and, after making a series of delaying excuses, disappeared from view.
Many of the girls expressed fears about what Epstein might do to them, claiming that either he or Maxwell had warned them to stay quiet. How does Brown view the threat level from the people, such as private investigators and bodyguards, that Epstein employed to protect him?
They just thought I was some little reporter from the Miami Herald who’s writing about the same old thing
“I think they were extremely dangerous. I mean we don’t know, really, the lengths that he went to to intimidate people who tried to expose what he was doing. But we know that there were plenty of people who were afraid and who felt that he was capable of doing really bad things.”
One of those, according to Brown’s book, was the former editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, who Brown says pulled one investigation from that magazine after he found a cat’s head on his front door step.
“Yeah,” she says, “there were a lot of reasons to be concerned.”
Carter has said that there was never any evidence to link the threat to Epstein and he flatly denied that it had any effect on his editorial decision-making.
However, Brown says she never felt under threat herself.
“I let his lawyers know what I was doing. I sent certified letters to everybody. I knocked on Epstein’s door. Nobody responded to me except [Epstein’s lawyer, Alan] Dershowitz. I think it was because they underestimated what I was doing. They just thought I was some little reporter from the Miami Herald who’s writing about the same old thing.”
Unlike most other journalists, she wasn’t focusing on the Bill Clinton connection (the two men spent a month travelling around Africa together on a charity trip) or the Trump connection (the pair went back many years, with Trump publicly paying tribute in 2002 to Epstein’s sense of fun). “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life,” Trump told New York Magazine.
Brown knew all these celebrity stories, but it was experience of the neglected people, the girls who were ferried in and out of his mansion, back and forth to his private island, and sometimes around the world in his private jet, that she was most interested in.
The book is dedicated to all of Epstein’s “survivors”, especially Michelle Licata, Courtney Wild, Virginia Giuffre and Jena-Lisa Jones. Of all those names the best known in this country is Giuffre, who has claimed that she had sex with Prince Andrew, having been instructed to do so by his friend Maxwell. There is a now infamous photograph featuring the Duke of York with his arm around Giuffre’s waist that seems to have been taken in Maxwell’s London house. The Queen’s middle son has used friends to cast doubt on the photograph, and has said that he has no memory of meeting Giuffre. What does Brown think of Giuffre’s claims?
“Well, I believe her,” she says. “For one thing, the MO she describes is backed up by other victims.”
She accepts that some of the dates that Giuffre has stated do not tally with the record – for example, she said that she met Maxwell a year before she did – but Brown argues that these are minor mistakes of the kind that people are often likely to make when recalling past events. “It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” she says.
One of Giuffre’s toughest critics and someone who has also attacked Brown – going so far as to write a letter to the Pulitzer prize committee requesting that they not consider her for the prize – is Epstein’s lawyer, the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Giuffre has said that Dershowitz was one of the men she was instructed to have sex with by Epstein – a claim the lawyer vehemently denies.
“He’s a pitbull,” says Brown.
She says that she tried to be sympathetic to him, because it was obviously unpleasant being accused of sexual abuse. But she says that he was so aggressive in his attacks that she gave up. Dershowitz was part of an extensive legal team, including Kenneth Starr, the former moralising independent counsel who hounded Bill Clinton about his sexual proclivities, that was ruthless in gaining advantage for Epstein. One trick Epstein pulled was to hire lawyers whose personal or professional links to members of the prosecutorial team were so close that the fact forced the prosecuting lawyer to withdraw.
While this was a flagrant, if legal, means of undermining the prosecution, Brown is more concerned at what the prosecution was doing to undermine themselves.
“One of the prosecutors in the US attorney’s office in Palm Beach wasn’t technically assigned to the Epstein case but he knew enough about it. He literally left the US attorney’s office one day and opened up his own law practice in the Jeffrey Epstein’s lawyers’ suite, and started representing Epstein’s employees.”
As far as Brown knows, none of these seeming anomalies has been properly investigated. In her book you’re left with a strong impression that the prosecutors were far more concerned with finding an outcome that was satisfactory to Epstein than in gaining justice for his victims. The prosecution did not inform the victims of the details of the plea bargain they reached with Epstein’s lawyers, which a federal judge has said was contrary to legal obligation, although Acosta denies this.
* * *
On 18 November 2018 the Miami Herald published Brown’s excoriating investigation, and eight months later Epstein was arrested by the FBI-NYPD Crimes Against Children Task Force. Six days after that Acosta resigned as labor secretary. And on 10 August 2019 Epstein was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell, although he was supposed to be under suicide watch.
Brown is far from convinced that Epstein took his own life. She points to a secret plea deal – a suspicious characteristic of this whole drama – that was agreed between the authorities and the negligent guards and the fact that the medical examiner hasn’t released any of the documents relating to Epstein’s death.
“This was a man who didn’t even tie his own shoelaces,” she says. “He had butlers doing everything for him. The idea that he would have been able to do something like this by himself – breaking three bones in his body – is just unfathomable to me. The closest I could come to saying it was suicide is that it was an assisted suicide. In other words he paid someone else to do it.”
There’s still people who think that what he did was not that bad
There’s an uncanny echo here of the mystery that continues to surround Robert Maxwell’s death in 1991, after his body was recovered from sea in the Canary Islands, where he had been travelling on Lady Ghislaine, the yacht he named after his youngest daughter. His family refused to believe it was suicide. It’s been said that his death led Ghislaine into a relationship with Epstein, who apparently knew Maxwell Sr. Epstein was another bountiful rich man who could support and direct her – “a Svengali-like character like her father,” says Brown.
But Epstein’s death left Maxwell without a powerful protector, and having withdrawn from society, she was arrested last July, and has since been held without bail in New York’s Metropolitan Detention Center’s special housing unit. Maxwell denies any criminal wrongdoing.
“She has claimed that she is the victim of a witch-hunt to prosecute her because they couldn’t prosecute Epstein,” says Brown. “I believe they still would have indicted her whether Epstein was alive or not.”
But perhaps what concerns Brown as much as anything is the ease with which Epstein was received back into wealthy society after he had been to prison and was registered as a sex offender.
“That’s the whole theme of my book,” she says. “These people live in a different world. I don’t really understand that thinking. Somebody called me who was at a cocktail party in Hollywood, California. There were some people from Epstein’s inner circle who were there and they were defending him. There’s still a lot of people out there who think the girls knew what they were getting into and they came back for the money. There’s still people who think that what he did was not that bad.”
And what of Brown herself? Did the big career move to a more prestigious and better-funded newspaper materialise? Well there’s a planned HBO series on the story, but she says that she hasn’t been offered a high-profile job elsewhere. She doesn’t know if she’ll continue working at the Miami Herald, but at least she no longer worries about losing her job. The one thing she’s certain about is that Florida is a state that is full of inequality and injustice, and that’s what grips her attention.
“If I continue to work in newspaper journalism,” she says, “those are the kinds of stories I still want to write.”
• Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story is published by HarperCollins (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply