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Everyone Heard About Jeffrey Epstein's Enablers. Few Listened To His Victims

A member of the protest group Hot Mess holds up a sign of Jeffrey Epstein in front of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City in July 2019. Epstein died by asphyxiation in his cell a month later.
Stephanie Keith
Getty Images
A member of the protest group Hot Mess holds up a sign of Jeffrey Epstein in front of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City in July 2019. Epstein died by asphyxiation in his cell a month later.

When wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein was arrested in 2006 following an investigation into his sexual activities with teenage girls, the case ended in a lenient plea bargain in which Epstein served 13 months in a county jail.

Eleven years later, Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown decided to revisit the case, which she calls "a horrendous miscarriage of justice."

"I wanted to do an investigative story on sex trafficking in general. And every time I Googled 'sex trafficking in Florida,' quite frankly, another Jeffrey Epstein story came up," Brown says. "But none of the stories that I read seemed to answer exactly how he got away with what he got away with."

Brown pored over records of the original police investigation and talked to detectives who had developed evidence against Epstein. She also identified 80 survivors, many of whom allege repeated abuse as adolescents in Epstein's Palm Beach, Fla., mansion.

"That's the one thing that I found that was missing in the [original] story, that none of the women's voices were in any of the stories that I read," Brown says. "There is nothing that was more powerful than the words of the women talking about this themselves. And I still kind of get choked up when I think about how brave they were to [speak out]."

Brown's 2018 series for the Herald generated national attention and led to the resignation of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who had approved the earlier plea bargain as a U.S. attorney. It also spurred an investigation that put Epstein behind bars on new federal charges. A month after that arrest, Epstein died by asphyxiation in his cell. Though New York City's chief medical examiner declared it a suicide, Epstein's death continues to inspire conspiracy theories.

Brown revisits the case and her two-year investigation into Epstein in the new book Perversion of Justice.

He didn't do this alone. He had a whole ecosystem that he created that allowed this to happen.

"In this book, I lay out more about the scope and the breadth of the story so that readers can see the patterns in the whole picture of how Epstein's web of enablers helped him," she says. "He didn't do this alone. He had a whole ecosystem that he created that allowed this to happen."

Interview Highlights

/ HarperCollins

On how Epstein specifically wanted young girls

He had enough money to get the finest prostitutes that he wanted, but he didn't want that. He wanted scared, young girls. That was all part of his fantasy. So it just grew from that. And unfortunately, there were probably hundreds of girls that were victimized by him. ...

It was two to three times a day. It was like a revolving door. And the more girls that he had, the more girls he wanted to recruit, because he also wanted new girls all the time. He wanted fresh, young girls all the time. So was it just enough for him to have like three that he took advantage of all the time; he wanted a continuing parade of young girls.

On how many of the girls depended on Epstein because they had difficult family circumstances

He essentially groomed them to believe that he was going to pull them out of the misery of their lives. Many of them had very difficult [lives]. Some of them were in foster homes. Their parents were on drugs. There were all kinds of circumstances that they came from. But the thread was that they really didn't have a strong family life at home. And he knew that. He studied them. He asked them questions about their life. So he found out exactly what their Achilles' heel or their vulnerabilities were. And he would say to them, "You want to study this? You want to be a model? I'm going to help you be a model." And then they look on the walls of his home, and he has pictures with Bill Clinton and all kinds of famous, powerful people. And they really believe that he was going to help them. ... They came to depend on him. They didn't have family life at home, a strong anchor in their own lives — and he became an anchor for them.

On how Epstein and his team weren't worried about Brown's reporting at first

I reached out to his lawyers fairly early on. I didn't give them a whole lot of details initially about what I was doing other than I was reviewing the case. And I heard nothing. And then as I got closer to publishing the piece, I told them that I had interviews with some of the victims, and I outlined some of what the series was going to say. I sent certified letters to almost everybody in the story that I wrote about, all the lawyers and all his enablers, so to speak.

And I didn't hear anything at all from Epstein. [I] knocked on his door. I was told he wasn't home — we knew he was home. But I think that he underestimated what I was doing. There had been other stories written that didn't put him in prison, so to speak. You know, it didn't get any attention. And I think he just figured it's just another story, and it's not going to do anything.

On Epstein's legal team's argument that the victims weren't really victims

Julie K. Brown won a George Polk Award for her reporting on the Jeffrey Epstein case<em>.</em>
/ HarperCollins
Julie K. Brown won a George Polk Award for her reporting on the Jeffrey Epstein case.

[They argued] that this was consensual, that they were prostitutes. And at the time that this case happened, quite frankly, there was still law on the books in Florida [that said that] child prostitution was illegal — not on the part of the pimps, but [for] the girls that were involved or the boys that were involved. ... Part of the thing that the prosecutors used to excuse the fact that they weren't going after the case was they would tell the girls, "You do understand that what you did was illegal." And in a way, [the prosecutors] sabotaged their own case because they made the victims feel like they could get in trouble. ...

[Victims] said that ... they were very scared because at the same time this was happening, where the FBI was making them feel like they perhaps had broken the law, you have Epstein and his investigators and his lawyers on the other side digging into their lives and following their parents. ... It isn't the kind of thing that would make a victim want to cooperate with authorities. And that all played into to what exactly what Epstein wanted.

On Epstein's death in August 2019 being ruled a suicide, though it remains mysterious and the subject of conspiracy theories

There are just too many odd things surrounding his death. And part of the problem, I think, is that authorities haven't been transparent about what they know and what they don't know. We haven't seen the autopsy. We do know from his brother, who has himself said that he didn't believe that Jeffrey committed suicide, that there were strange aspects to how he was found. It was odd that, for example, he was on a suicide watch when this happened. They put him back in his cell, and there's no video footage there. You have [not] one guard that allegedly was asleep at the wheel, but you have two, which is highly unusual. I've covered prison deaths for a very long time, and you hear of guards falling asleep and things happening, but you rarely hear about two guards falling asleep at the same time or being distracted at the same time. ...

We don't even really know the scope of [Epstein's] connections. ... We know that he pretty much had a lot of information that could implicate people — not only possibly on sex trafficking aspects, but, you know, he essentially was a money manager who helped some of our richest people in the world hide their money. So he also knew how people got their money and where they had it hiding. And there was certainly a lot of people that had a motive to kill him. I tend to think that it's possible he might have just had somebody help him. It might have been an assisted suicide, for example. So I think the bottom line is this is still not really determined. I think it needs to be investigated more thoroughly.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.