Among his many possessions, Jeffrey Epstein owned a secluded 72-acre island in the Caribbean called Little St. James, a sumptuous tropical hideaway most anyone would envy. For him, it wasn’t enough.
Epstein set his sights on the body of land across the channel, Great St. James Cay, deciding that it should be his as well. The only problem was, its owner was determined not to deal with Epstein, a registered sex offender who had narrowly wriggled out of a federal trafficking case in 2008.
The multimillionaire financial advisor was undeterred. According to records examined by the Miami Herald and McClatchy, and interviews, Epstein set up an opaque limited liability company, or LLC, making it appear in the negotiations that the true owner was one Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, a wealthy Dubai businessman with connections to the royal family. A $22.5 million deal was worked out.
Only after the deal was consummated and work permits were pulled did it emerge that Epstein might be the actual owner. It wasn’t until his July arrest, however, that he officially declared in an affidavit that he owned the second island.
Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem — Sultan is his name, not his title — confirmed through an aide that Epstein had asked to use his name in an unspecified business bid but was told no.
It appears Epstein used it anyway.
Seemingly legal on its face, the transaction, through a shell company that provided anonymity, is an example of the way Epstein conducted business — with the same stealth and rule-bending guile that allowed him to rise from New York City schoolteacher to Bear Stearns partner to independent financial adviser to the super-wealthy.
Determining the source of and accounting for Epstein’s vast wealth remains a mysterious paint-by-numbers exercise. It is taking on added importance, however, as victims of his sex abuse step forward and file lawsuits against his estate in the wake of his August suicide while awaiting trial on charges he sexually abused underage girls.
A picture is slowly emerging — of his businesses and his associates. Recent reporting shows that Epstein was at the forefront of structured finance, the packaging of mortgages and bonds into complex financial instruments that nearly brought down the global financial system more than a decade ago.
Bin Sulayem’s Epstein connection is different from others in that his name may have been used by the financier without his permission. Bin Sulayem is brought up in heated emails in November 2015 between parties, arguing over whether a signed non-disclosure agreement was needed from the Persian Gulf businessman.
“This is the first I have heard that an NDA is required from Sultan Sulayem directly. I do not see the relevance as he is not directly engaged in the transaction as far as any confidential information you are providing,” Christoper Kroblin, a lawyer with Epstein’s outside legal counsel, Kellerhals Ferguson Kroblin PLLC, wrote in a Nov. 9, 2015, email. “He may be the ultimate purchaser but if [Epstein attorney] Erika [Kellerhals] is not providing him with any confidential details, I don’t see the point.”
Non-disclosure agreements are common in real estate, especially pricey real estate that wealthy buyers want to keep off the public radar. The email was in response to one sent about an hour earlier from the seller’s representative, who wanted to see proof that Bin Sulayem, the supposed true owner, could pay upfront as planned, not just a deposit.
The seller of the Great St. James property was Christian Kjaer, one of Denmark’s richest men. Members of his wealthy family had owned the property for almost four decades. He did not want to sell it to Epstein because of the 2008 Palm Beach County conviction for solicitation and sordid accounts of sexual abuse related by his underage victims.
“He was not popular on the island,” Susan Astani-Kjaer, the seller’s wife, told the Danish publication B.T. two days after Epstein’s reported Aug. 10 suicide in a New York jail cell.
Locals in St. Thomas begged the couple not to sell the island because of the reports of Epstein’s deviant behavior, she said.
The fact that Epstein was the apparent buyer emerged only when his name appeared in local land-use permits as the sole member of the company that bought it.
Two outside attorneys for Epstein involved in the transaction — Kroblin and Kellerhals — did not return calls and emails requesting comment. Nor did Epstein’s longtime personal attorney, Darren Indyke. Kevin D’Amour, an attorney for the Kjaers in the Virgin Islands, declined to comment, and April Newland, the seller’s broker, did not return calls for comment. Maria Hodge, attorney for the Kjaers, did not answer detailed messages seeking comment, nor did Carrie De Leon of West Indies Title, LLC, the title agent on the deal.
The corporate vehicle for the 2016 purchase was an anonymous Virgin Islands corporation, Great St. Jim, LLC. In communications between lawyers, Bin Sulayem is repeatedly referenced as what in legal parlance is called the ultimate beneficial owner. The parties signed the contract on Jan. 8, 2016.
At least Erika Kellerhals signed it for Great St. Jim, LLC. The contract paperwork included Bin Sulayem’s name but the space above it — where the signature would normally be — is left unsigned. When the sale closed on Jan. 28, 2016, there was no apparent reference to Bin Sulayem anywhere in the subsequent documentation.
Bin Sulayem is a business mogul from Dubai with longstanding connections to the ruling Maktoum family. He has indirect connections to the Virgin Islands. He got his start developing and running Dubai’s port and tax-free zone in the mid-1980s, later expanding into government-tied real estate and port ventures. He is the CEO and chairman of the global ports operator DP World, and was a board member of the Investment Corporation of Dubai, the sovereign wealth fund of Dubai.
He has business ties to an Epstein friend and co-investor named Andrew Farkas, a prominent New York developer. Farkas, who is friends with President Donald Trump, is an investor in buildings and an online real estate funding firm owned by Kushner Companies, belonging to the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Farkas and his girlfriend brought Bin Sulayem to Trump’s inaugural ball in 2017, the New York Post reported at the time.
Bin Sulayem was with Farkas during the March 2007 opening of Yacht Haven Grande, the Virgin Islands’ prestigious marina, located alongside the cruise ship terminal. A photo from that opening shows a smiling Farkas and Bin Sulayem together, surrounded by Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross and a boyish Donald Trump Jr.
Yacht Haven is owned by Ion Global Yachting, which operates six luxury marinas in the Caribbean and four others in Latin America. It was founded by Farkas and its parent company is Farkas’ Island Capital Group.
Island Capital partnered with Istithmar World, an investment fund of the royal family of Dubai, just two years earlier. Together they purchased 230 Park Avenue — more commonly known as The Helmsley Building, the New York landmark named after its eccentric one-time owner, the late Leona Helmsley.
A spokesman for Ion Global said Bin Sulayem does not own a stake in the Virgin Islands marina and that neither Bin Sulayem nor any associated company provided financing for it.
However, what wasn’t widely known until a story in July from Bloomberg, and local reporting in the Virgin Islands, was that Epstein and Farkas together owned American Yacht Harbor, a different Virgin Islands marina, located on the east side of St. Thomas.
Farkas purchased it in January 2007, and documents obtained by Bloomberg from an unrelated lawsuit showed that later that same year Epstein took a 50 percent stake. That was around the time that the FBI had drafted a 53-page indictment naming Epstein. That indictment was shelved in favor of an arrangement that Epstein would plead to minor solicitation charges in state court. The secretive deal, highlighted last November in a Miami Herald investigative series, Perversion of Justice, allowed Epstein to serve just 13 months in a Palm Beach County jail.
Farkas declined to discuss if he had other business dealings with Epstein, how long they’d done business together or what becomes of Epstein’s 50 percent stake.
The Great St. James island purchased by Epstein in 2016 via Great St. Jim, LLC, had its own tortured legal history.
Its owners thought they’d sold it in 2004 to Jason Taylor, the Hall of Fame defensive lineman with the Miami Dolphins. Taylor’s attempted purchase, made with real estate magnate Robert Addie and Taylor’s friend, Miami condo mega-developer Jorge Pérez, fell through. That was followed by a decade of lawsuits and countersuits. Resolution was elusive until December 2013. Taylor recovered much but not all of his down payment.
Taylor had hoped to develop the island into luxury properties. Seth Levit, executive director of the Jason Taylor Foundation, did not respond to requests for comment.
Epstein’s apparent use of a straw name in the purchase of Great St. James was but one example of how the financier sought to bend the world to his rules.
Epstein’s company Southern Trust operated out of office space at American Yacht Harbor. In November 2012, after Epstein had served his short stay in the Palm Beach County jail and registered in the Virgin Islands as a sex offender, he successfully argued before the island’s Economic Development Commission for a big tax break for Southern Trust Company Inc.
In order to get the tax break, Southern Trust needed to show that half of its workforce were citizens of the Virgin Islands. Months later it won a five-year reprieve from this rule and had 90 percent of its tax liability forgiven for 10 years, beginning in February 2013. Southern Trust, argued Epstein, was going to create a giant state-of-the-art data mining operation to help drug companies reduce the need for clinical trials for cutting-edge medicines.
“My real business has always been money,” Epstein told the commissioners, recounting in his pitch that “I was poor,” growing up, and adding “when I first started on Wall Street I was a schoolteacher.”
This new venture, Epstein promised, was different than what made him a multimillionaire.
“This is not financial advice. This is the mathematics and the product of financial algorithms for sale,” he told the commissioners on Nov. 15, 2012, who then gave the green light for the tax break to proceed.
It’s unclear what work was done in the succeeding five years toward the data-mining project. Southern Trust officials declined to comment, and the CEO of the Economic Development Commission, Kamal I. Latham, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In interviews over the years, Epstein has suggested he was helping manage the Saudi royal family’s wealth but there is no firm evidence that he acted privately in a similar capacity for others in the region.
His primary publicly acknowledged client was Leslie Wexner, the Ohio-based owner of retail giants Victoria’s Secret and L Brands (The Limited). Wexner recently said in an email to employees, obtained by the Columbus Dispatch, that he “regretted that my path ever crossed his.”
Wexner, now 82, said he severed ties with Epstein more than a decade ago and that Epstein misappropriated more than $46 million from him.
In a July 2019 article in The Virgin Islands Daily News, an IT contractor recalled Epstein shelling out huge sums to have fiber optics cable rapidly installed on his private island in 2005.
That businessman, Steve Scully, recalled that “the guy no matter what, he wanted to reach at any given time was Les Wexner. Les Wexner was button No. 1 on his speed dial. It wasn’t Les Wexner’s office, it was Les Wexner’s private number.”
Several liens remain on the Recorder of Deeds website in the Virgin Islands, with professionals complaining that Epstein had stiffed them. Reached by phone about the nearly $40,000 owed to him for pool construction on the Little St. James property, Rex Wolterman referred to Epstein as “that bastard.”
The story was similar for the more recently acquired property. John P. Woods was hired to design cottages, storage sheds and a swimming pool for Great St. James.
“I didn’t leave on the best of terms with them,” he said, saying Epstein constantly changed the design and didn’t want to pay for the extra work Woods had performed. “He was well known for that.”
Soon after the purchase of Great St. James in 2016, Epstein began clearing the cay without permits, and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources received complaints. In April 2016 an inspector arrived, saw what was going on and issued a cease-and-desist order. Great St. Jim, LLC was hit with an initial $280,000 fine, but subsequent legal wrangling knocked it down to $70,000.
At the time of Epstein’s reported suicide on Aug. 10, several permits he was seeking for work on Great St. James were still pending. One of them involved a temporary barge landing so construction work could be done. Jeffrey Bateman’s survey company applied for the permit and he dealt directly with Epstein.
It’s unclear what will happen with the permit, he said.
“He just had a lot of money,” Bateman said matter-of-factly by phone from St. Croix. “People with a lot of money can buy islands.”
Ben Wieder of the McClatchy D.C. Bureau contributed to this report.