Much has been written about Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy businessman who sexually abused and trafficked underage girls for years.
Yet so little had been heard from the victims, dozens of adolescents, some still wearing braces, who were cut out of the lenient deal that sent the town of Palm Beach sex offender to jail for only 13 months.
That is the power of Perversion of Justice, an investigation by Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown that for the first time gives a voice and a face to some of the victims of the Epstein case. A decade after a secret plea agreement orchestrated by then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, the victims — now women in their late 20s and early 30s — are still seeking an elusive justice.
“They were betrayed by the people who were supposed to protect them,” Brown said.
Brown first became interested in the topic of sex trafficking after completing a series on abuses at a Florida women’s prison. In her early research,The Jeffrey Epstein case came up repeatedly.
Then Acosta, who was serving as dean of the law school at Florida International University, was nominated to serve as secretary of labor by President Donald Trump. At the time of Acosta’s nomination, the Miami Herald wrote about his key role in helping to craft the secret plea deal with Epstein in 2007. When the senators vetting his nomination seemed disinclined to ask him tough questions about his most controversial case, we became more intrigued.
Brown dug as deeply as possible into the behind-the-scenes machinations that characterized the Jeffrey Epstein prosecution. She spent a year sifting through tens of thousands of pages of documents.
What was new to report?
She convinced important players to speak on the record, some for the first time, including the lead detective and the former Palm Beach police chief. She got access to previously unreleased records, which yielded fresh revelations. And she was able to identify 80 possible victims, labeled Jane Does in lawsuits to protect their identifies as minors.
She reached out to 60 of the women and eight agreed to talk about the case. Brown and visual journalist Emily Michot earned the trust of four victims, who spoke on the record and on camera, three of them for the first time.
Our story is really the victims’ stories.
The reporting was all the more difficult due to the considerable efforts to keep details of the case secret. Those efforts are underscored not just by sealed court documents in various civil cases, but by emails between the prosecution and the defense, which talked about an “avoid-the-press” strategy and a deliberate campaign to keep the victims in the dark so they wouldn’t get in the way of the deal.
“This was carefully crafted to be a sarcophagus of secrecy,” said investigations editor Casey Frank. “Our reporting involved coaxing people to talk even though their words had been ignored before to the point where they didn’t think it would do any good to speak up now.”
Even today, we continue to fight that secrecy.
During the reporting, the Miami Herald went to federal court in New York to access sealed documents in a civil case filed by one of the victims, Virginia Roberts. She alleged that Epstein and an associate operated an international sex trafficking operation. The case was settled in 2017 and the documents sealed. In August, a judge denied the motion. We are appealing.
“What else is in those sealed documents?” Frank asked.
The series has already had considerable impact. Washington lawmakers from both sides of the aisle — from Debbie Wasserman Schultz to Marco Rubio — have raised questions about Acosta’s fitness for the office he currently occupies. And it has apparently eliminated him from any consideration for attorney general.
“This was not about politics,” Brown said. “Sexual abuse doesn’t have a political party affiliation.”