NEW YORK, NY—They were young girls who dreamed of becoming professional musicians, or models, or actresses—but they often came from poor families and their parents needed money. They were the perfect targets for a pair of high-society “predators” who dazzled them with fabulous wealth and promised them the world—and who then allegedly groomed, molested, and raped them.
Such was the story presented by federal prosecutors on the first day of Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial in connection to multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-trafficking ring.
The 59-year-old British heiress is accused of procuring underage girls for Epstein to molest in what prosecutors called a “pyramid scheme of abuse.” Four victims will testify that Maxwell participated in Epstein’s sex ring—including one who says the couple involved her in “group sexualized massages” when she was only 14 years old. Maxwell has denied the charges.
The jury will hear from Epstein’s pilots, household staff, members of law enforcement, and a former employee of the multimillionaire. Evidence in the trial will include “a schoolgirl outfit,” flight logs, and FedEx records showing Epstein’s gifts to a girl who was only 15 years old.
Maxwell’s lawyers hit back, claiming she was being scapegoated for Epstein’s crimes. “Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple, women are blamed for the bad behavior of men,” said defense lawyer Bobbi Sternheim on Monday. “The charges against Ghislaine Maxwell are for things Jeffrey Epstein did... But she is not Jeffrey Epstein. She is not like Jeffrey Epstein, [she is] not like any other powerful men—moguls, media giants—who abuse women.”
In the '90s, Maxwell was known as Epstein’s socialite girlfriend, who connected the up-and-comer to rich and powerful pals—including Prince Andrew, who has been accused of participating in the sordid sex ring. (The royal claims he’s innocent.) Later, victims say, Maxwell allegedly served as the financier’s "madam," recruiting schoolgirls to give him erotic massages and grooming them for abuse.
Prosecutors called Maxwell Epstein’s “best friend and right hand” in court on Monday. “She preyed on vulnerable young girls, manipulated them, and served them up to be abused... That is what this trial is all about,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz. She claimed Maxwell was drawn to Epstein’s life of luxury, which included sumptuous private homes in New Mexico, New York, and Paris, a private island, private planes, and astounding wealth.
The enigmatic Epstein reportedly reminded many people of Maxwell’s own troubled and charismatic father, Robert Maxwell, a newspaper magnate whose life swirled with rumors of connections to foreign spy agencies, who swindled his employees out of their pensions, and who died in a mysterious accident off his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. Robert Maxwell left his family in massive debt—but Epstein helped Ghislaine regain and “maintain the lifestyle to which she was accustomed,” prosecutors say.
Ghislaine Maxwell arrived in court on Monday looking put-together and demure, sporting a cream-colored sweater and simple black slacks. She waved happily at her sister Isabel, who was on hand for the proceedings, and took copious notes. The socialite’s demeanor stood in stark contrast to earlier appearances in court, when she looked gaunt and disheveled and when her team accused jail guards of mistreating her. She wore a face mask that often slipped below her nose, as the prosecutors delivered opening remarks from inside a plexiglass box, in a nod to COVID-19 safety protocols.
But the accusations that prosecutors laid out against Maxwell were anything but staid. Maxwell would allegedly take teen girls on shopping trips, win their trust, and even escort them into the room where Epstein would molest them. She ordered Epstein’s employees to “hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing” in a “culture of silence.”
One victim will testify that Maxwell and Epstein approached her when she was 14 and at a summer camp for talented kids. It was the beginning of a “nightmare” in which they allegedly abused her for four years.
Epstein abused underage girls like her “every single day,” prosecutors say. He would start with sexualized massages, then proceed to penetration and oral rape. Sometimes, they say, Maxwell was in the room when the abuse took place. Sometimes, they say, she touched the girls herself.
Epstein and Maxwell “committed [their] crimes together,” the prosecution claimed.
She was allegedly always on the lookout for new victims; one girl was 17 when she was “spotted in a parking lot” by Maxwell, who recruited her “out of the blue,” prosecutors say. Girls also were encouraged to recruit other underage teens in exchange for cash.
Maxwell’s lawyers plan to push back on these allegations by questioning the victims’ memories and motives. “This case is about memory, manipulation, and money,” defense lawyer Sternheim said, adding that the accusers’ memories have faded over time and were “corrupted" by things over the years including victims’ lawyers seeking a “big jackpot of money” and by media reports.
She said attorneys saw Epstein and Maxwell as “easy targets for lawsuits” and noted that the accuser who says she was groomed at age 14 didn’t want to participate in the criminal case against Epstein, changing her mind later and asking for money from a victims’ fund set up by his estate. “She received $5 million. Examine critically what she is going to say on the stand,” Sternheim said.
Maxwell’s lawyer also argued that sex acts Epstein engaged in occurred when some alleged victims were of the age of consent. Sternheim said that when one girl allegedly got a massage at Epstein’s New Mexico ranch, she was of age in the state—and that she still received $1.5 million from the victims’ fund. The defense has also claimed that another alleged victim in Britain was of the age of consent there; the judge in the case has agreed to limit the woman’s testimony as a result.
Sternheim called into question the motives of that woman and another alleged victim, dubbed “Kate” and “Caroline” in court. She claimed “Kate” was a jet-setting British actress who dated an Oxford classmate of Maxwell’s who was twice her age, and she communicated with Epstein for a decade after the alleged abuse, including sending him photos of herself while he was in jail. Sternheim said Kate got $3.25 million from the victims’ fund.
“Caroline,” she said, filed two lawsuits against Epstein and one of his assistants, Sarah Kellen, which never named Maxwell as a defendant. Sternheim said the evidence will show Caroline groomed and trafficked girls for Epstein. After he died, her lawyer contacted the government and she finally implicated Maxwell. Caroline received $3.5 million from the fund. The victims “have been impacted by lawyers, by media, by things they have heard, and by money—big bucks,” Sternheim said. “Until now, even though they got money from a fund, their words have been unchallenged.”
Epstein’s predations first came to light a decade ago, when scores of teen girls told Florida police that he routinely molested them at his Palm Beach hideaway in exchange for cash. The powerful money-man, who counted Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Woody Allen, and Harvey Weinstein among his pals—and who often partied with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago—was given a sweetheart deal at the time: He pleaded guilty to one count of soliciting underage prostitution and served a light sentence in a county jail with a lenient work-release program. His lawyers also arranged a controversial non-prosecution agreement for Epstein’s fellow unnamed “co-conspirators.”
But Epstein was again arrested in July 2019 by New York authorities, and charged with exploiting dozens of underage girls in a sexual pyramid scheme. At the time of his arrest, authorities found a safe filled with precious gems, piles of cash, and a fake passport at his Upper East Side palace, along with a trove of sexual photos of girls. He killed himself a month later while awaiting trial.
A year later, Maxwell was nabbed by the FBI at a secluded mansion in New Hampshire where she was hiding out with her much-younger secret husband, tech CEO Scott Borgerson. She remains the only accomplice of Epstein to face charges in connection with his trafficking ring, though French authorities have also arrested Epstein’s close friend and modeling scout Jean-Luc Brunel, who stands accused of raping underage girls and trafficking them to Epstein.
—with additional reporting by Katie Baker