From the penthouse to the jailhouse: Jeffrey Epstein pleads not guilty to sex trafficking

Jeffrey Edward Epstein appeared in a packed New York federal courtroom Monday in a blue prison jumpsuit and orange sneakers, his white hair disheveled, his face weary and unshaven.

The 66-year-old multimillionaire — who once rubbed elbows with former presidents, royalty and Nobel-Prize-winning scientists — was worlds away from the luxurious protection of his island enclave in the Caribbean, his vast mansion on the Upper East Side, his ranch in New Mexico or his penthouse in Paris.

Epstein, charged Monday in a federal sex trafficking indictment, is in a cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan, a fortress that housed — and still houses — some of the most notorious criminal masterminds in U.S. history, including the Mexican drug lord El Chapo, Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff and one of the terrorists who engineered the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

His appearance marked the first time that two of Epstein’s alleged victims — who were 14 at the time they were sexually abused — were able to face him in a courtroom after a decades-long quest for justice.

Courtney Wild and Michelle Licata, seated in the rear of the courtroom with their attorneys, were stoic as federal magistrate Henry Pitman read Epstein’s indictment and asked him how he intended to plead to the charges.

“Not guilty, your honor,’’ Epstein replied.

Eleven years after receiving federal immunity as part of a strikingly lenient plea agreement, Epstein stands charged with one count of sex trafficking and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. If convicted, he could face up to 45 years in prison.

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Members of the media are lined up in the rain outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan where Jeffrey Epstein was being arraigned on Monday, July 8, 2019. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

The indictment involves three unidentified underage victims, one in New York and two in Florida — but prosecutors said the case could potentially involve dozens and perhaps hundreds of other women whom investigators suspect Epstein abused as teenagers in both Florida and New York from 2002 to 2006.

At a news conference, Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, issued a public appeal to other victims, asking them to call a special hotline (1-800-CALLFBI) set up as part of what authorities called the office’s “Number one case.’’

“While the charged conduct is from a number of years ago, the victims — then children and now young women — are no less entitled to their day in court. My office is proud to stand up for these victims by bringing this indictment,’’ Berman said, adding that Epstein’s conduct “shocked the conscience’’ of America.

Berman’s statement was widely seen as a harsh rebuke to Florida prosecutors who cut an extraordinary non-prosecution agreement with Epstein in 2008. As part of the deal, federal prosecutors — led by then Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta — disposed of the case without his victims’ knowledge, depriving them of the ability to appear in court and possibly derail the agreement.


Local Reporting Makes a Difference

In her year-long investigation of Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tracked down more than 60 women who said they were victims of abuse and revealed the full story behind the sweetheart deal cut by Epstein’s powerhouse legal team.

Since the Herald published ‘Perversion of Justice’ in November 2018, a federal judge ruled the non-prosecution agreement brokered by then South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta was illegal, Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges in New York state, Acosta resigned as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell.

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Acosta’s handling of the case, detailed in “Perversion of Justice,” a Miami Herald investigation that was published last November, has come under harsh criticism.

The fact that the charges were brought by the Southern District’s public corruption unit raised the spectre that the investigation could veer into whether state and federal prosecutors who helped negotiate the deal committed any wrongdoing, beyond failing to notify the victims that they had secretly given Epstein a plea bargain.

“In order for the public corruption unit to be involved in this, there is more here than just a millionaire sex predator. I anticipate other superseding indictments,’’ said James A. Gagliano, a retired supervisory special agent with the FBI.

“For the public corruption unit to be involved, it would have to be looking at someone in a position of public trust, that is what the public corruption unit seeks to do.’’

In court Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Rossmiller said that Epstein should be held without bail until trial, citing his enormous wealth, his ability to travel by on his own private jet, the seriousness of his crimes, the length of sentence he could face and a history of alleged tampering with witnesses.

“He is a man of nearly infinite means,’’ Rossmiller said.

Former South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, shown here, now President Donald Trump’s secretary of labor, never told underage sex abuse victims of the plea deal he helped engineer for Jeffrey Epstein. A federal judge found that to be a violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. Getty Images

The prosecutor also disputed Epstein’s lawyers’ contention that their client was leading a “law-abiding life of success, generosity and creativity,’’ by pointing out that a search warrant executed at Epstein’s New York mansion on Saturday uncovered a trove of lewd photographs that appear to be of underage girls. They also seized from a locked safe discs labeled “young misc. nudes,’’ Rossmiller added.

“This is not an individual who has left his past behind,’’ he said.

However Epstein’s lead attorney, Reid Weingarten, used the 2006-2008 state and federal investigation to boost his argument that there was insufficient evidence against Epstein to charge him with sex trafficking a decade ago — and that the current indictment is just as weak.

“There was a significant portion of the law enforcement community who thought he was guilty of a misdemeanor,’’ Weingarten said.

The 2008 plea deal represented “a global solution’’ that precludes New York prosecutors from revisiting the case, he said.

“To us, this indictment is a do-over, it’s old stuff, it’s ancient stuff,’’ Weingarten said.

Weingarten asked for a continuance of the bail hearing so that the defense team, which includes noted criminal attorney Martin Weinberg, could put together “a bail package’’ that would involve travel restrictions and other guarantees that Epstein wouldn’t flee.

Weingarten emphasized that if Epstein had wanted to run, he could have done so by now since there is another case pending involving his plea deal that was brought by victims in South Florida. In that case, filed 10 years ago by two of Epstein’s victims, a federal judge in February ruled that the so-called global agreement was illegal because it was executed in violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

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Ghislaine Maxwell was sued for slander after calling Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of Jeffrey Epstein’s accusers, a liar. Maxwell, a close associate of Epstein, sought to have documents from the court case remain sealed.

Monday’s New York indictment mirrors the case that Palm Beach police put together against Epstein in 2006 and 2007. According to the police, Epstein employed recruiters to lure middle school and high school girls as young as 13 to his Palm Beach mansion to give him massages that turned into sex acts. The girls were paid $200-$300 and could earn additional money if they recruited other girls, which they did, from malls and teenage parties around West Palm Beach.

Then-Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer wanted to charge Epstein only with a misdemeanor, but Palm Beach police referred the case to the FBI, believing that Epstein’s crimes were more serious.

Although federal prosecutors had gathered enough evidence to fill a 53-page federal indictment on sex trafficking charges, Acosta elected to sign off on a non-prosecution agreement that gave Epstein and his co-conspirators (some of whom have never been identified) immunity from federal charges.

Epstein’s arrest on Saturday came eight months after the Miami Herald published a re-examination of the 2008 deal, revealing that Acosta, now President Donald Trump’s secretary of labor, met secretly with one of Epstein’s lawyers, Jay Lefkowitz, in October of 2007, at a West Palm Beach Marriott, 70 miles from Acosta’s Miami office.

As part of the deal at that time, Epstein pleaded guilty to minor state prostitution charges involving a 17-year-old girl. He served 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail but was allowed to leave the facility nearly every day to spend 10 or more hours in his office in downtown West Palm Beach.

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This widely published photo of Virginia Roberts Giuffre with Prince Andrew bolstered her claim that she was loaned out for sexual purposes to famous men by Jeffrey Epstein. Copy Photo Courtesy of Virginia Roberts

Acosta, Lefkowitz and Epstein lawyer Kenneth Starr — the independent counsel who pursued President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair — were all alums of the same prominent Washington law firm, Kirkland & Ellis.

Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, also worked for the Kirkland firm. CNN reported Monday that he recused himself from the Epstein case because of those ties.

The story behind the Miami Herald’s investigation

The Jeffrey Epstein case also has gained notoriety in part because of Epstein’s wide circle of rich and influential friends, including Donald Trump, former President Clinton and Prince Andrew.

The Miami Herald’s coverage of Epstein has brought a rising chorus of calls for Acosta to resign or be fired from the president’s Cabinet.

Three days before Epstein’s arrest, a federal appeals court in New York ordered the unsealing of up to 2,000 pages of documents that are expected to show evidence relating to whether Epstein and his partner, Ghislaine Maxwell, were recruiting underage girls and young women as part of an international sex trafficking operation. Maxwell, 57, has never been charged.

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