Amid tears of outrage and words of courage, more than two dozen women appeared in a New York federal courtroom Tuesday at a historic hearing that could serve as a catalyst for change in the way the U.S. criminal justice system treats victims of sexual assault.
The women, many speaking for the first time, talked about how, as teenagers or women barely out of their teens, they were preyed upon, recruited and sexually abused by sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who used his political, social and financial connections to lure them into a trap that would alter and, in some cases, ruin their lives.
Now grown women, some with their own children, the survivors spoke about years of self-loathing, suicidal thoughts, shame and anger — and how they still suffer trauma and depression. Now, two weeks after Epstein was found dead in his jail cell, where he was awaiting trial on newly filed sex charges, they feel angry that they’ve again been denied justice.
“Jeffrey Epstein robbed myself and all the other victims of our day in court to confront him one by one, and for that he is a coward,’’ said Courtney Wild, who was recruited by Epstein in Palm Beach when she was 14 years old.
Others, like Chauntae Davies, spoke about a bond she shares with other victims and a hope that they will find closure some day.
“Every woman sitting in this room today, and all of the women who have not yet come forward and whose lives have been affected by Jeffrey Epstein’s sick abuse of young girls, we have all suffered,’’ said Davies, who was taken to Epstein’s private island, Little St. James, when she was young, and, she said, raped by him.
At the time, she suffered from a debilitating neurological disorder and was desperate to get treatment. Like other victims, she said Epstein promised to help her but then leveraged his power as a weapon to silence her and keep her prisoner.
There was also a young violinist from a small Texas town who was recruited at a mall; an aspiring model from another country promised a Victoria’s Secret contract by Epstein; a 14-year-old drama student who was sexually molested at his ranch in New Mexico; a young artist who believed he would help promote her art among his wealthy friends and instead attacked her and “stole her dreams.’’
“He thought he was untouchable,’’ said Teala Davies, Chauntae’s sister, who was also a victim. “In the end, I’m standing here, more powerful than he will ever be.’’
The hearing was held to formally dispose of a criminal indictment against Epstein, who was found hanged in his cell on Aug. 10 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where he was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. Epstein’s lawyers are disputing the medical examiner’s conclusion that Epstein killed himself, telling U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman that there is evidence to suggest that he may have been a victim of an assault, further fueling conspiracy theories that have taken life on social media.
Berman didn’t address Epstein’s death, instead focusing the proceeding on his victims, many of whom traveled from across the country and as far away as Australia to speak in court, an opportunity they were deprived of when Epstein received a secret non-prosecution agreement a decade ago. That deal allowed Epstein to plead guilty in 2008 to minor prostitution charges, even though federal prosecutors in South Florida had enough evidence to fill a 53-page federal indictment on sex trafficking charges and other crimes.
The 2008 indictment, however, was inexplicably shelved amid negotiations between Epstein’s high-profile lawyers and then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta. The deal, which was signed and sealed in a manner that ensured his victims wouldn’t know about it, violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a federal judge ruled in February.
“The victims have been included in the proceeding today, both because of their relevant experiences and because they should always be involved before, rather than after the fact,’’ Berman noted, going on to cite case law that requires victims be afforded dignity and respect.
Many of the survivors praised Judge Berman as well as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, who brought new sex trafficking charges against Epstein in July. Geoffrey Berman, who is not related to the judge, has vowed to continue the probe despite Epstein’s death, pointing out that Epstein had others helping him, including Ghislaine Maxwell, his former partner, who has denied involvement in any crimes.
Some of the women who testified did so using their real names, while others used Jane Doe pseudonyms. Some chose to provide written statements. Although the formats differed, the stories were eerily similar.
The women described how Epstein used female recruiters in New York, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands to find girls at malls, spas and parties to induce them to visit Epstein’s various homes, using the ruse that they would be hired to give him massages in exchange for $200 to $300. The massages, however, turned into sex acts and, in several cases, rapes, the survivors said.
One woman said she was 14 when she was sexually molested by Epstein at his rural home in New Mexico, which he called Zorro Ranch. The woman, identified as Jane Doe No. 9, said he made her believe that he would help her through his ties to celebrities and politicians.
“I remember feeling so small and he was so powerful,’’ she said, describing in detail the sexual encounter, which happened in an area of his home that was lined with photographs of famous people.
Afterward, she said she went out on an ATV with another young girl and they crashed. Jane Doe No. 9 recalled that she worried Epstein would be angry about the accident.
“Don’t worry. No one gets in trouble for anything here,’’ she recalls the other girl telling her.
The young violinist said her mother died of cancer when she was 11 and her father was in such despair that he couldn’t tend to her. One day, she was at a shopping mall and a woman approached her and asked her about her violin case, which she was carrying.
The woman said she knew a very rich man who could help her and send her to school.
“We talked about the violin, my family, and why I had clothes that looked like hand-me-downs,’’ she said. After she met Epstein he gradually coerced her into having sex. She said she reported it to a Texas Rape Crisis Center, and grew increasingly depressed until one day she got a gun and drove to an isolated area, where she intended to kill herself. It was only the memory of her mother that stopped her, she said.
Virginia Roberts Giuffre said Tuesday’s hearing was a reckoning that she hopes will lead to others being charged.
“The reckoning must not end. It must continue. He did not act alone and we, the victims, know that. We trust the government is listening and that the others will be brought to justice,’’ she said.
Epstein, 66, had ties to many influential people, including former President Bill Clinton and President Donald Trump. Giuffre has alleged in court that Epstein directed her to have sex with many powerful people, including one of his lawyers, Alan Dershowitz; Prince Andrew; former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell; hedge fund manager Glenn Dubin; hotel magnate Tom Pritzker; and the late MIT scientist Marvin Minsky.
All of the men — except Minsky, who is dead — have denied they had sex with Giuffre.
The case’s high-profile connections have led some people to suspect foul play in Epstein’s death. One of his lawyers, Reid Weingarten, told the judge Tuesday that he had information indicating some of the cameras in the area of Epstein’s jail cell were inoperable or corrupted in the hours prior to his death.
“It’s an understatement to say that the elephant in the room is what happened to our client,’’ Weingarten said. “There were some very serious improprieties in the jail.’’
The Epstein case was first investigated by Palm Beach police in 2005. It wound through the criminal justice system, ending with the FBI and the U.S. attorney in Miami. The Miami Herald, in a three-part series published this past November, reconstructed the case by analyzing the dozens of civil suits filed over the past decade. The Herald also identified more than 80 women who alleged they were abused by Epstein, interviewing about a dozen of them for the series. Four of them spoke on the record and on video.
As a result of the series, and subsequent stories that further examined the case, Acosta — appointed U.S. secretary of labor by President Trump in 2017 — was forced to resign. Epstein, who had returned to his jet-setting life after a short jail term, was arrested on new federal charges in July.
Two federal investigations into the case are continuing, as well as a criminal probe in Florida, where Epstein abused many of the girls from 1997 to 2006.
In February, a federal judge found that prosecutors deliberately hid the plea deal from Epstein’s victims, sealing the agreement so that no one, including the victims and the public, would learn about it until months after the case was closed.
The non-prosecution agreement called for Epstein to serve just over a year in the Palm Beach County jail. During his incarceration, he was allowed to leave his jail nearly daily, spending up to 12 hours a day in a luxurious office he set up in West Palm Beach.
One woman recently came forward to allege that Epstein had a sexual encounter with her and another woman in his office during the time he was provided “security” by plainclothes members of the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office. Epstein was allowed to hire the deputies, paying them to escort him to and from jail. Questions have been raised about how a convicted sex offender of young girls was allowed work release, some of that time spent behind closed doors unsupervised, records show.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered an investigation into whether laws were broken by sheriff’s deputies and others in the jail who gave him special treatment..
”I’m still a victim because I am fearful for my daughters and everyone’s daughters,’’ one victim said Tuesday. “I’m fearful for their future in this world where there are predators in power, a world where people can avoid justice if their pockets run deep enough.’’