Miguel Hernandez, who operated an exotic escort service out of South Florida hotels, and Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire Palm Beach financier, don’t seem to have much in common.
With one notable exception — they both got hit with prostitution charges involving minor girls.
The way the United States justice system has handled the two cases, however, is starkly different.
Hernandez, a native of Puerto Rico who most recently lived in Miami Beach, idles in a federal detention center as he awaits trial in May on charges of operating an illegal escort service with prostitutes imported from Spain and other countries — including three minors, one of them 17 years old. His lawyer says federal prosecutors want to send his client to prison for eight to 10 years.
With Epstein, on the other hand, the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami made a confidential deal not not to charge the billionaire with operating what was described by authorities as an international sex ring that recruited nearly three dozen underage girls for his and others’ gratification. Instead, the case was handed to state prosecutors, who obtained a guilty plea on lesser charges that put Epstein in jail for 13 months but also allowed him to visit his office six days a week.
Now, Hernandez’s defense attorney Joel DeFabio is seeking to have an 18-count racketeering indictment dismissed based on a constitutional claim that prosecutors are treating his client unequally — citing the secret agreement they made with Epstein’s legal team in 2008.
It is now up to U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke to decide whether Hernandez — in light of the billionaire’s immunity deal with the feds — is being selectively prosecuted.
“The point of my motion is to demand equal enforcement of the law for everyone — or at least a sense of equality,” DeFabio told the Miami Herald. “Our government cannot give a ‘get out of jail card’ to a white billionaire with political connections who preyed upon over 30 minors and then seek a significant prison sentence for others who have allegedly committed similar acts.”
Federal prosecutors, in a court filing, said that while Hernandez and Epstein have different backgrounds, their criminal cases aren’t similar.
“Unfortunately, his allegations regarding Jeffrey Epstein fail to demonstrate that he and the defendant were in any way ‘similarly situated,’ ’’ wrote prosecutor Olivia Choe in a court filing. “Here, the defendant has made many assertions about Jeffrey Epstein ... but nowhere has he asserted, let alone demonstrated, that Epstein engaged in the same crimes with which he is charged.”
Epstein — a 63-year-old Wall Street investor who has traveled in the circles of former President Bill Clinton, real estate mogul Donald Trump and Prince Andrew, the Duke of York — hired an all-star legal team to keep him out of federal prison. Among his defense lawyers: Roy Black, Kenneth Starr and Alan Dershowitz
They obtained an extraordinarily rare deal from the U.S. attorney's office in 2007 that spared Epstein federal prosecution for allegedly having sex with at least 34 minor girls at his mansions in Palm Beach, Manhattan and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The girls — most of whom eventually sued Epstein and obtained financial settlements — ranged in age from 14 to 17. They were recruited by the money manager’s personal staff for him and certain associates, according to the FBI and court records.
Epstein’s immunity deal applied not only to him but even to his co-conspirators — at least four women who recruited the numerous high school girls for paid sex, according to his non-prosecution agreement.
Miami federal prosecutors, while keeping Epstein’s victims in the dark about his secret deal, deferred his case to the Palm Beach County state attorney. That office cut a lenient deal in 2008 allowing Epstein to plead guilty to soliciting minors for prostitution, for which he was sentenced to 18 months. But Epstein was jailed for only 13 months and allowed to visit his office six days a week during his incarceration. He also was registered as a state sex offender.
In her court filing, Choe, the federal prosecutor, avoided mentioning details about Epstein’s offenses but delved deeply into those of Hernandez.
She said Hernandez had fled Spain after being sentenced to six years in 2009 for an immigration fraud conviction in that country. The following year, Hernandez began operating an escort service out of an Extended Stay Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, raking in more than $220,000 from the prostitution business, called “International Playmates,” over the next five years.
Hernandez, who carried a firearm on the job, advertised on a popular escort website, Backpage.com. His prostitutes were mostly from Spain and other foreign countries.
“While most of the women who worked for Hernandez were adults, during the investigation, law enforcement identified at least three females who were minors when Hernandez recruited and employed them,” Choe wrote, urging Judge Cooke to deny the defendant’s dismissal motion.
Hernandez’s brother, Eduardo, who later joined his business, was also charged in the prostitution case but did not raise a similar dismissal argument of “unfair” treatment. The 47-year-old brother plans to change his plea to guilty at a hearing set for early May, according to court records.
DeFabio’s “selective prosecution” argument on behalf of Hernandez is not the first time he has raised this issue in federal court, while citing Epstein’s lenient treatment in contrast. In 2010, he defended a Fort Lauderdale native of Haitian descent charged with recruiting two underage girls for an Internet-based prostitution ring in Broward County.
DeFabio highlighted that Johnny Saintil was a poor black man and Epstein a rich white investor. He argued that Epstein’s offenses were far worse, yet he wasn’t charged by the U.S. attorney’s office like his client.
“Epstein was both a pimp and a ‘john’ (an individual who pays the prostitutes for sex),” DeFabio wrote in court papers. “He recruited and paid individuals to go out into the public and find minor girls to have sex with him for money.”
But after his motion to dismiss an indictment against Saintil was rejected by U.S. District Judge William Zloch, the defendant pleaded guilty to conspiring with two other men to traffic minors and adults by force. Saintil, then 28, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Epstein’s controversial non-prosecution agreement is nearly a decade old, but it still reverberates through the federal court in South Florida.
Fort Lauderdale attorney Bradley Edwards and colleague Paul Cassell sued the U.S. government in 2008, seeking to force South Florida federal prosecutors to break the agreement not to charge Epstein and others with running an alleged sex ring. They filed their case on behalf of a series of alleged Jane Doe victims under the Crime Victims' Rights Act to force the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute Epstein for sex trafficking of children by fraud, among other offenses.
So far, Edwards and Cassell have kept their case alive, arguing that federal prosecutors made a fatal legal mistake when they cut the secret September 2007 non-prosecution agreement with Epstein and his high-powered lawyers without first notifying the billionaire’s victims — as required by U.S. law. Theirs is a case of first impression.
“The undisputed facts show that for nine months, the government and Epstein conspired to conceal the [non-prosecution agreement] from the victims to prevent them from voicing any objection,” Edwards and Cassell wrote in recent court papers.
Their objective, they argued, was “to avoid the firestorm of controversy that would have arisen if it had become known that the government was immunizing a politically connected billionaire and all of his co-conspirators from prosecution of hundreds of federal sex crimes against minor girls.”