|The acting US attorney for the southern district of New York, Audrey Strauss, announces charges against Ghislaine Maxwell on Thursday. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images|
When the British socialite and media heiress Ghislaine Maxwell arrived in New York City in 1991, she was eager to make new friends, and she succeeded in making some of the best kind, such as John F Kennedy Jr, the son of the late president.
But the man who became Maxwell’s “best friend”, by his own description, was not the best kind. The exact circumstances of Maxwell’s meeting with the financier Jeffrey Epstein are largely unknown. But she and Epstein, a convicted sex offender, freshly charged with sexually abusing underage girls, and who hanged himself in a New York jail last year while awaiting trial, began a romantic relationship that morphed over the years into something terribly different.
In court documents, Maxwell has been called Epstein’s “lady of the house” and his “business partner”. Former employees and friends have said she was his fixer, his manager and his social lifeline. Multiple Epstein victims have alleged she recruited women and girls for him to abuse.
New York prosecutors gave another description of Maxwell as they unveiled perjury charges against her on Thursday. “She set the trap,” federal prosecutor Audrey Strauss said of Maxwell’s alleged attempts to recruit girls for Epstein. “She pretended to be a woman they could trust” and “in some cases, Maxwell participated in abuse herself”, Strauss said.
One Epstein accuser, Maria Farmer, recalled separately that Maxwell would leave Epstein’s New York mansion saying, “I’ve got to go get girls for Jeffrey.”
Maxwell has denied the accusations.
Maxwell’s arrest by FBI agents on Thursday in a small New Hampshire town began to answer the question of when she would face the charges that Epstein’s accusers have leveled at her.
But the arrest also sent new tremors through an old network of friends whose members have been scrambling to distance themselves from Epstein since he pleaded guilty in 2008 to Florida state charges of soliciting prostitution, and especially since he was rearrested in New Jersey in 2019.
The network includes not only Prince Andrew, an old Maxwell friend who has denied allegations that Epstein and Maxwell supplied him with underage girls. It also includes former passengers onboard Epstein’s private plane, dubbed the “Lolita Express” for allegations that Epstein used the plane to abuse underage girls as they flew off to parties and exotic locations.
Former president Bill Clinton last year admitted taking four trips aboard the plane in 2002 and 2003, saying he was embarked on official Clinton Foundation business and denying wrongdoing. A book published earlier this year linked Bill Clinton and Maxwell romantically. Maxwell attended the president’s daughter Chelsea Clinton’s 2010 wedding.
Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer who represented Donald Trump at the president’s impeachment trial last January, and previously represented Epstein, also rode the plane and received at least one massage at Epstein’s home. He denied wrongdoing.
The web of friends woven by Epstein with Maxwell’s help included Lawrence Summer, the former Harvard president; Les Wexner, the CEO of L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret; and Trump himself, who appears with Melania Trump (then Knauss), Epstein and Maxwell in a cozy photo from a 2000 party at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy,” Trump said for a 2002 magazine profile of Epstein. “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.” Video footage from 1992 captures Trump hosting Epstein at a Mar-a-Lago party. In the footage, the pair ogle and comment on women dancing.
After Epstein’s arrest, Trump changed his description of his relationship with Epstein, saying he “knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him” and adding: “I had a falling out with him. I haven’t spoken to him in 15 years. I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you.”
Authorities in New York on Thursday narrated how Maxwell “assisted Mr Epstein’s abuse of minor girls. Between 1994 and 1997, prosecutors said, Maxwell played “a critical role” in helping Epstein to “befriend and groom minors for abuse”.
The couple would pick out girls, asking them about their lives and “pretending to take an interest in them”, taking them to the movies and shopping trips. But it turned into sexual abuse, the prosecutor said.
Dan Kaiser, a lawyer representing Jennifer Araoz, one of the women who says she was raped by Epstein, and who is suing his estate, told the Guardian last year that “she [Maxwell] was integral in maintaining the sex trafficking ring.”
“She provided important administrative services in terms of the hiring of recruiters, and management of those employees, the making of appointments and dates for interactions between Mr Epstein and the underage girls that were providing sexual services to him,” Kaiser said. “She also maintained the ring by intimidating girls, by ensuring their silence.”
According to a description Farmer gave to the New York Times, Maxwell referred to the girls she was looking for as “nubiles”. “They had a driver, and he would be driving along, and Ghislaine would say, ‘Get that girl,’” Farmer told the Times. “And they’d stop, and she’d run out and get the girl and talk to her.”
“They were like partners in business,” a former house manager for Epstein, Janusz Banasiak, said in court records elsewhere.
Maxwell, 58, the youngest daughter of the media tycoon Robert Maxwell, grew up in immense luxury, but after the revelation upon her father’s death that he had embezzled millions from employee pensions and run up large debts, she was left in New York to subsist on a trust of $100,000 a year.
While Epstein said she was never a paid employee, at his side, her ultra-luxe lifestyle returned. In addition to the private plane, Epstein owned multiple mansions and a private Caribbean island. In 2000, an Epstein lawyer signed papers for the purchase of a 7,000 sq ft, $4.95m Upper East Side townhouse in Maxwell’s name.
Even after Epstein’s 2008 arrest, Maxwell kept up a social life. She was photographed with Elon Musk at a 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party and elsewhere has been pictured with a New York society who’s who: Arianna Huffington, Martha Stewart, Lloyd C Blankfein, Michael Bloomberg, Tamara Mellon. Prince Andrew hosted her at Buckingham palace last summer.
She continued to fiercely deny new allegations against her.
“My whole life revolved around just pleasing these men and keeping Ghislaine and Jeffrey happy,” another alleged victim, Virginia Giuffre, said in unsealed depositions. “Their whole entire lives revolved around sex.”
In a separate deposition Maxwell said that “Virginia is an absolute liar and everything she has said is a lie. Therefore, based on those lies I cannot speculate on what anybody else did or didn’t do … everything she said is false.” The suit was settled out of court.
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