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‘Poor, smart and desperate to be rich’: How Epstein went from teaching to Wall Street

Before Jeffrey Epstein managed money for the world’s rich and powerful, he was educating their teenage children.

Epstein, the accused sex trafficker awaiting a bail ruling in a Manhattan jail, taught math and physics at the Dalton School, a private K-12 institution whose students are the sons and daughters of New York City’s elite. It was there on the aristocratic Upper East Side in the mid-1970s that a charming, bright young man with a head for numbers catapulted from his Coney Island roots to a double life of astounding wealth and disturbing depravity.

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Jeffrey Epstein looked like this in the 1976 Dalton yearbook. He briefly taught at the Manhattan school. The Dalton School

By the time he was 45, Epstein was living 18 blocks from Dalton in a nine-story mansion now worth $77 million, one of several posh homes where investigators say he molested dozens upon dozens of young girls, who were recruited to give him massages and coerced into sex acts. He followed a similar pattern at his waterfront estate in Palm Beach, where he pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting prostitution — despite facing far more serious crimes against underage girls — and received a remarkably lenient sentence, courtesy of U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta who would later become President Donald Trump’s labor secretary.

Epstein launched his financier career during a parent-teacher conference at Dalton in 1976 when he dazzled a student’s father with his intelligence. Epstein confided that he wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. He envisioned himself on Wall Street.

“This parent was so wowed by the conversation he told my father, ‘You’ve got to hire this guy,’ ” recalled Lynne Koeppel, daughter of the late Alan “Ace” Greenberg, an executive at Bear Stearns investment bank. “Give Jeff credit. He was brilliant.”

Greenberg was also impressed by Epstein, then 23, a two-time college dropout and son of a parks department employee. Greenberg, son of an Oklahoma City women’s clothing store owner, rose from Bear Stearns clerk to CEO and had an affinity for employees he called “PSDs” — poor, smart and desperate to be rich.

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The children of some of New York’s elite passed through the doors of Dalton School, a private college preparatory school on New York City’s Upper East Side. Notable alumni include Anderson Cooper, Claire Danes and Sean Lennon. Jeffrey Epstein briefly taught there. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

“That was Jeff,” Koeppel said. “He was very smart and he knew how to woo people, how to schmooze. He’s personable and makes good company.”

Did Epstein purposely position himself at Dalton to get a foot on the ladder to jet-setting, celebrity-mingling, power-brokering high society?

“If that was his plan, it worked,” she said.

Epstein, now 66, started his job at the Dalton School at age 21 without a college degree and taught high school students only a few years younger than he was.

He was informal, friendly and liked to joke around, former students said. He was popular with female pupils, despite his puzzling personality.

“Epstein was considered a little creepy by the girls,” alumna Karin Williams said. “I won’t say that the girls didn’t like him. But they thought he was odd.”

Despite his short stint, Epstein left an impression.

“He’s the only man who I’ve ever met who had a full-length fur coat,” said Williams, who remembered the coat as Epstein’s flamboyant 1970s fashion statement at a school with a conservative dress code.

Student-teacher relationships were not unheard of at Dalton, former students said. It was a permissive time in the United States, and 40 years before #MeToo. However, no one who spoke to the Herald recalled Epstein engaging in a relationship or initiating unwanted physical contact with them.

“In retrospect, you could see how maybe he was looking for young nymphs,” said alumna Heidi Knecht-Seegers. “But I didn’t have a class with him and I was one of the few who didn’t drink or smoke or go to parties.”

Epstein — a math whiz as a kid — rose quickly at Bear Stearns, making partner by 1980 as reported in a 2002 New York Magazine profile. But while Epstein impressed traders and hedge fund managers, many of his students were less taken.

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Jeffrey Epstein in the Dalton School 1976 yearbook The Dalton School

“To me he didn’t belong there,” said Maya Travaglia, who had Epstein for 10th grade math. “It just felt very unformed. He didn’t command the class.”

Joshua Persky, who graduated in 1977, had Epstein for physics.

“I thought he was okay,” Persky said. “Once in a while, he could not complete a complex homework problem, which I didn’t mind either.”

Peter Thomas Roth, who later founded an eponymous skin care company, described Epstein as an “amazing” physics teacher of his favorite class on Facebook. Epstein also tutored Roth in statistics to prepare him for the Wharton School at Penn.

Still, some kids complained to school administrators, Persky said.

“I think it was unusual that a school focused on quality education would hire a person with no experience and no college degrees, especially when the Dalton teachers we knew were excellent,” said E. Belvin Williams, former Dalton trustee and associate dean of Columbia University’s Business School. “My hunch is he had contacts with parents or board members.”

By comparison, Travaglia noted, her geometry teacher was Yves Volel, an activist and Haitian presidential candidate who was assassinated in the late ’80s. Volel’s style was much more rigorous.

Ultimately, Epstein’s haphazard, uninspired teaching led to his dismissal after the 1975-76 school year, according to Peter Branch who was the head of the high school.

“It was determined that he had not adequately grown as a new teacher to the standard of the school,” Branch said.

The Dalton School is one of a group of New York private schools known for demanding academics. And like its peers, Dalton is expensive. Tuition in the mid-’70s was about $3,200 for upper school students. Today it’s over $50,000.

There’s a focus on the arts at Dalton. Notable alumni include Anderson Cooper, Claire Danes, Sean Lennon — the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono — and a long list of actors, artists and musicians. Curriculum follows “the Dalton Plan,” which encourages each student to make his or her own educational choices.

The school offered a rich assortment of classes — 10 languages, including Russian; printmaking; jewelry-making; sculpture and drawing classes with nude models.

Persky performed modern dance with Jennifer Grey — “Baby” from “Dirty Dancing” — and Shauna Redford, daughter of Robert Redford.

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The Dalton School, a private college preparatory school on New York City’s Upper East Side. The middle and high school building at 108 E. 89th St., one of its three buildings, is undergoing a major reconstruction. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Epstein arrived during a transition period for the Dalton School. The previous headmaster, Donald Barr, father of current Attorney General William Barr, quarreled with the board of trustees and resigned. Barr was a disciplinarian who clashed with the progressive parents. Two alums described him as a “bully.”

“Donald Barr was a very authoritarian headmaster,” Karin Williams said.

Following Barr’s departure, T-shirts and sneakers were incorporated into the dress code. Blue jeans and “long male hair” were still prohibited, according to The Daltonian, the school’s newspaper. Travaglia remembers administrators measuring the length of girls’ skirts during the Barr years.

Barr left a semester before Epstein arrived and it’s unclear whether Barr had a hand in hiring him. Branch, who was interim headmaster, did not remember who hired him.

Apart from Epstein, Dalton has weathered a few of its own scandals in recent years. In 2013, a school email to boosters and donors included a confidential list of children who had been rejected. Gardner Dunnan, the headmaster who succeeded Barr, has been sued, accused of sexually assaulting a female student that he let stay in his apartment in 1986. The case has been transferred to the Southern District of New York, where Epstein is being prosecuted for alleged sex trafficking.

Epstein built a career making connections with the well connected. He got his start at Dalton and never moved far away. At Dalton, he was surrounded by the young girls he became fixated on as an alleged sexual predator, and schools became his preferred hunting ground.

His most recent accuser, Jennifer Araoz, said she was approached by one of Epstein’s recruiters when she was a 14-year-old freshman outside The Talent Unlimited High School on East 68th Street, a handful of blocks from his mansion. She was brought to him by a woman in her 20s who told her he was a caring man who could help her become an actress. He showed Araoz around his opulent townhouse with its super-sized decor of statues, taxidermy, leopard-print furniture and a Steinway grand piano, while white-gloved servants offered her wine and cheese, according to her court filings and an NBC interview. She was paid $300 for her visits until the day a massage in a special room with angels painted on the sky-blue ceiling turned into rape, Araoz said.

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Her story mirrors those of other victims, who said he preyed on young teens who often had artistic aspirations He sought out insecure, vulnerable girls; prosecutors speculate there could be hundreds. Even Epstein’s friends remarked -- in flattering tones -- on how Epstein loved women and was frequently in the company of young women in New York, Palm Beach, at his Zorro Ranch in New Mexico or his private island in the Caribbean. His jet was nicknamed the “Lolita Express.”

At the Interlochen School for the Arts in Michigan, Epstein targeted 13-year-old Nadia Bjorlin, according to her mother, who told the Daily Mail that Epstein offered to be Nadia’s “godfather” and foster her singing career. Bjorlin’s mother, wary of Epstein and his aggressive assistant Ghislaine Maxwell, rejected his perverse proposal; Nadia went on to become a soap opera star.

Araoz and Bjorlin had both lost their fathers shortly before Epstein approached them.

Epstein, a talented pianist who attended Interlochen summer camp as a kid, donated $17,000 and a new cabin adjacent to the girls’ dorms to the school in the woods.

Epstein created a self portrait, framing himself as a wealthy party host, philanthropist and intellectual, donating money of uncertain origins from his foundations to arts organizations, scientists, Harvard University, the Santa Fe Institute think tank and cancer research funds.

He gave $180,000 to Ballet Florida in West Palm Beach, some of that earmarked for therapeutic massages.

The all-girls Hewitt School, located four blocks from his Manhattan mansion, received $15,000.

Epstein donated $75,000 to Dalton, springboard to the role he wanted to play.

The last time she saw her old teacher, a Dalton alumna recalled, Epstein was crossing Park Avenue at 71st Street with Woody Allen and his young wife, Soon-Yi Previn.

Miami Herald investigative reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.

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Linda Robertson has written about a variety of compelling subjects during an award-winning career. As a sports columnist she covered 13 Olympics, Final Fours, World Cups, Wimbledon, Heat and Hurricanes championships, Super Bowls, Soul Bowls and Orange Bowls, Cuban defectors, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lance Armstrong, Tonya Harding. She golfed with Donald Trump, fished with Jimmy Johnson, learned a magic trick from Muhammad Ali and partnered with Venus Williams to defeat Serena. She now chronicles our love-hate relationship with Miami, where she grew up.
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