The Duke and Duchess of York's closest advisers sought help from an online troll in an attempt to discredit the Duke's sex accuser, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
The aides hoped that Molly Skye Brown – who attacked Virginia Roberts on Twitter for months – possessed information that might prove the infamous photograph of Andrew with his arm around Ms Roberts, then 17, was manipulated.
Ms Roberts, one of the victims of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, claims she was forced to have sex with the Duke, now 60, on three occasions, allegations he vehemently denies along with any other wrongdoing.
In a bizarre conversation, one of the Duke's team is alleged to have discussed with Ms Brown the possibility of setting up a fake Twitter account to ensnare a woman they suspected of doctoring the photo.
Ms Roberts maintains the picture was taken on the night she claims she had sex with Andrew in 2001.
For months Ms Brown, 42, a former teen beauty queen from Florida, has subjected Ms Roberts to vile abuse on Twitter.
Yet Sarah Ferguson's trusted lieutenant Antonia Marshall – having seen a tweet from Ms Brown stating that the photo was a fake – sent her an email on December 14 asking for a chat and thanking her for her 'online support'.
When they spoke, Ms Brown claims Ms Marshall suggested a meeting with the Duchess as an apparent sweetener and said she could pass on a greeting to the Queen 'as we are all one big family and see each other all the time'.
At one stage, Mark Gallagher, the Duke's PR expert and crisis management specialist, was also drafted in to help woo Ms Brown.
Ms Brown says she provided what she claims was 'some evidence the photo was doctored' but declined to help further. She then passed the email and text exchanges to the FBI.
In response to the outcry over Ms Roberts's claims, the Queen's second son was forced to give up Royal duties and step down from his charitable patronages. With the US authorities still hopeful of interviewing him about the Epstein scandal, his team of advisers is working behind the scenes to try to restore his reputation.
What made Ms Brown turn against Ms Roberts, who is married and called Virginia Giuffre, is unclear.
Ms Brown claims Ghislaine Maxwell tried to recruit her as a masseuse when she was 14 and exercising at a children's gym in Palm Beach, Florida, close to Epstein's mansion.
Ms Maxwell, 58, is on remand in the US after being charged with the sex trafficking of underage girls and the enticement of minors. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Ms Brown's story emerged last October. Since then she has campaigned to bring paedophiles to justice but claims Ms Roberts was an 'enabler' for the sex abuser.
Ms Roberts has publicly denied Ms Brown's allegations and said she 'blocked her [on Twitter] because of her widespread lies'.
The extraordinary overtures to Ms Brown from the Duke's team began with an email from Ms Marshall saying; 'Hi Molly, I work for the Duchess of York and I wondered if you had time at some point for a quick chat re your tweet about the photo of the Duke being edited/doctored. Thank you so much for your online support!'
The pair exchanged WhatsApp messages and emails before having a lengthy conversation, in which Ms Brown relayed her claims about the photo.
Her doubts do not have the support of experts. Hany Farid, professor of digital forensics and image analysis at University of California, Berkeley, has said: 'I don't see any obvious signs of manipulation.'
Even Ms Brown, who maintains the image was 'Photoshopped', believes the advisers' attempts to court her were 'desperate'.
Indeed, the conversation reportedly took an even more desperate turn, with Ms Marshall discussing the possibility of setting up a 'spy' Twitter account to extract information from Epstein's victims.
Ms Brown said: 'Then she [Marshall] said "How are you getting all this information?". And I said "Oh, I made a spy account." She thought that was brilliant and said 'Do you think we should get a spy account?'
It is understood Ms Marshall does not have the same 'recollection' of the conversation with Ms Brown.
Afterwards, Ms Marshall sent a message saying: 'One of the York family advisers called Mark Gallagher would love to speak to you.'
Within hours, he had messaged her on WhatsApp. Ms Brown asked the Prince's aide to brief her on 'what exactly we will be focusing on for our chat,' adding: 'As you know this is much bigger and darker than just a photo scandal. Agreed?'
Mr Gallagher replied: 'Entirely agreed, Molly. I'd like to talk to you in the round about the important distinction you have drawn between survivors and – in effect – enablers. That gets to the heart of this.'
The Mail on Sunday yesterday put a series of questions to the Duke's representatives about their conduct in approaching Ms Brown but they declined to comment.
A source close to the Prince said: 'The exchange with Molly Skye Brown was not out of the ordinary. It would be very easy to over interpret the subsequent conversations.
'The plain fact of the matter is none of this went further than an initial discussion.'
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