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The latest arrest of Jeffrey Epstein on charges of sex trafficking minors has again focused world attention on the multimillionaire’s relationships with the rich and powerful. By Richard Cooke.

Jeffrey Epstein and his famous friends

Number 9, East 71st Street is one of the most singular buildings in New York. A former school, it is often described as the largest private residence in Manhattan and, in 2008, it was the fourth-highest-taxed single-family home in the city. The pavement outside is electrically heated to thaw snow, and it sits across the street from the former home of actor Bill Cosby. However, the mansion’s last publicly deeded price, in 2011, was only $10, and its interiors are something of an anomaly, too.

Over the years, visitors have detailed its unique contents – a stuffed black poodle atop an ebony grand piano, a hallway decorated with dozens of prosthetic eyeballs, and, on the second floor, a photorealistic mural depicting the man of the house, the 66-year-old former financier Jeffrey Epstein, surrounded by barbed wire and other prison paraphernalia. He commissioned this piece to commemorate his 2008 plea deal for paedophilic sex crimes. “That’s me,” he told R. Couri Hay, a public relations specialist who then spoke to reporters. “I had this painted because there is always the possibility that could be me again.”

That possibility is now a reality. Last Saturday, after getting off a private flight from Paris, Epstein was arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking minors, crimes that prosecutors allege took place between 2002 and 2005. Shortly afterwards, the heavy wooden doors of No. 9 were pried open with a crowbar. Inside, federal and city authorities say the home matched descriptions given by witnesses, especially an area with a massage table and sex toys. “Even the room where abuses occurred is set up the way it was,” said Assistant United States Attorney Alex Rossmiller. Investigators amassed a vast trove of evidence from the property, including documents, contemporaneous notes and “an extraordinary volume of photographs of nude and partially nude young women or girls”. Some of these were secreted in a safe. According to the detention memo, also inside the safe were “compact discs with hand-written labels including the following: ‘Young [Name] + [Name]’, ‘Misc nudes 1’, and ‘Girl pics nude’ ”.

The names that might appear on these discs are at the centre of a scandal subsuming society in the US. Epstein, who has allegedly been running a network of under-age abuse for many years, involving potentially hundreds of victims, has been painted as the “Ultimate Symbol of Plutocratic Rot” by The New York Times. According to columnist Michelle Goldberg, his arrest reveals a “deep corruption among mostly male elites across parties, and the way the very rich can often purchase impunity for even the most loathsome of crimes”.

Epstein once told New York magazine his talent was to “invest in people – be it politics or science”, and while his fortune was of uncertain size and provenance, his contacts list was blue chip. Christine Pelosi, the daughter of house speaker Nancy Pelosi, tweeted the “Epstein case is horrific and the young women deserve justice. It is quite likely that some of our faves are implicated but we must follow the facts and let the chips fall where they may – whether on Republicans or Democrats.”

Already, former president Bill Clinton has issued a statement on their relationship, saying they were no longer in contact, and that he had flown on Epstein’s private plane only four times. Flight logs show he was on board 26 times between 2001 and 2003, and that for at least five of these trips he had no Secret Service detail. Other passengers on the so-called “Lolita Express” include the scientist Steven Pinker, the former Treasury secretary and Harvard president Larry Summers and the actor Kevin Spacey. The high-profile lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who has previously been accused of abusing an Epstein victim himself, and was part of Epstein’s legal team, said on New York radio that “from my point of view, the important thing is that it doesn’t mention me”. He was not the only prominent person to be so relieved.

In 2015, the gossip site Gawker obtained a copy of Epstein’s address book, which had turned up in court proceedings after one of his former house managers, Alfredo Rodriguez, tried to sell it. Rodriguez had circled the names of possible material witnesses to Epstein’s abuses. Among them were singer Courtney Love, the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, Dershowitz and Donald Trump. A 2002 Trump quote about Epstein has been widely reproduced. Calling Epstein a “terrific guy”, Trump said, “he’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” The president has since said he “wasn’t a fan” of the financier.

However, there is one accusation against Epstein that implicates Trump. In 2016, an anonymous woman filed a suit, first under the name “Katie Johnson” then “Jane Doe”, alleging that Trump had raped her at an Epstein-hosted orgy in 1994, when she was 13 years old. The plaintiff dropped her case prior to the 2016 presidential election – her attorney cited death threats – and reporters investigating it have expressed scepticism. Jon Swaine, writing in The Guardian, found that the suit was co-ordinated by a former Jerry Springer Show executive who had previously accused Courtney Love of murdering her husband Kurt Cobain. A lawyer for Epstein’s victims in civil suits, Brad Edwards, said Trump was the only Epstein-linked personage who offered help when subpoenaed.

The two most direct ties between Trump and Epstein relate to their time in Palm Beach, Florida, where Epstein has another large estate. Epstein was a regular guest at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort – a 2011 court filing suggests he was banned for making a sexual advance towards a masseuse – and at the same time he became acquainted with a young Mar-a-Lago employee named Virginia Roberts. Roberts, who now goes by her married name Virginia Giuffre, was 15 years old and working as a towel girl at Mar-a-Lago when she says she was recruited into “sexual slavery” by Epstein’s associates. She named Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of the deceased British media magnate Robert Maxwell, and claimed Maxwell and Epstein induced her to have intercourse with Alan Dershowitz and Prince Andrew. A photo of a teenage Roberts with Prince Andrew was reproduced in British tabloids, leading to a Buckingham Palace denial, but ongoing contact between the Duke of York and Epstein forced Andrew’s withdrawal as a British trade envoy in 2011.

Giuffre now lives in the suburbs of Cairns with her husband, Robert, but her pursuit of Epstein and others in civil cases has led to the release of important new evidence. (Giuffre could not be contacted, and her US-based uncle Jet Roberts, a professional square dance caller, told The Saturday Paper he had seen the news but had not had contact with his niece since she was a child.) A defamation action Giuffre launched against Ghislaine Maxwell appears to be a precursor to prosecution. Judges ordered more than 2000 pages of documents sealed and subsequent court actions to have it unsealed, in particular those championed by the Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, helped warm a cold case.

Brown’s indefatigable reporting resulted in a multi-part series titled “Perversion of justice”, which focused on irregularities in Epstein’s 2008 plea deal. The plea deal was highly unusual: the case did not go to trial, and Epstein was convicted on prostitution charges instead of trafficking counts, while the details were kept secret from his victims. He garnered just a 13-month sentence, which allowed him day release, including continued access to his plane and office, and while incarcerated he had a private guard staff he paid for himself. The plea was brokered by Alexander Acosta, then US attorney in Miami. He has since been appointed US secretary of labor by the Trump administration. The plea deal has been ruled illegal and there have been bipartisan calls for Acosta to resign.

The workings of this two-tiered treatment has led to a wider unease about neo-feudal aspects of the US justice system. In jurisdictions where the theft of single cigarettes sometimes results in jail time, judges, prosecutors, editors and politicians have co-ordinated to keep the wealthy, powerful and connected free from accountability.

Only days before the Epstein indictment, the president faced another corroborated sexual assault allegation, from the writer and columnist E. Jean Carroll, who claimed Trump had raped her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s. She is at least the 22nd woman to accuse Trump of such an attack, but her revelations mainly resulted in a meta-commentary about why they had not received front-page attention. In The Atlantic, the author Moira Donegan felt it was, in its own way, the worst of the allegations, because it proved “we have stopped pretending, collectively, that we expect those on whom we bestow tremendous power to behave with commensurate responsibility”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "The stench connection". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.