“I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender’ … It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”
That was the billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, in 2011, speaking—bragging, really—to the New York Post, about the deal that his lawyers had struck a few years earlier on his behalf. In 2007, the FBI had prepared a 53-page indictment of Epstein, a document alleging that the financier, from his mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, had been conducting a kind of sexual pyramid scheme (as one detective termed it) in which he molested and abused young women and girls—some as young as 14—and paid them to recruit others. The allegations involved at least 40 underage girls; they were severe enough that they could have sent Epstein to prison for life.
Instead, in 2008, Epstein’s legal team worked out a baffling deal with Alexander Acosta, who was then serving as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and now serves as the Trump administration’s secretary of labor. Epstein, in the end, pleaded guilty to the solicitation of prostitution and the procurement of minors for prostitution. He received an 18-month sentence, of which he served 13 months (he was held in a private wing of a county jail; a “work release” arrangement allowed him to leave that facility six days a week, for up to 16 hours each day). Epstein, as part of the deal, also agreed to register as a sex offender for life.
In 2011, he joked about it.
Epstein, however, now has distinctly less reason to make light of the crimes he has admitted to: On Saturday, returning to the New York City area from an extended vacation in France, he was arrested on charges of sex trafficking of minors. And yesterday a new indictment against him—this one brought by the Southern District of New York—was unsealed. In a press conference, the SDNY attorney Geoffrey Berman made clear that the impunity Epstein has enjoyed—the kind that, enabled by extreme wealth, makes deals and then makes jokes—may have finally found its limits. “This conduct, as alleged, went on for years and involved dozens of young girls, some as young as 14,” Berman said. He added, “The alleged behavior shocks the conscience.”
Epstein, during a brief court appearance yesterday, pleaded not guilty. And while Berman was correct that the behavior documented in the indictment “shocks the conscience,” the indictment has another valence: Part of the shock here is how decidedly not shocking the alleged behavior is. The Miami Herald’s pathbreaking reporting on Epstein, conducted by the investigative reporter Julie K. Brown, was published in November 2018. The indictment brought by the SDNY is notably similar to the one brought against Epstein more than 10 years ago. It details a scheme that turned girls and young women into what the SDNY refers to as “victim-recruiters.” The Epstein modus operandi described both in court filings and in journalistic accounts has much in common with allegations about other rich, famous, and powerful men who have been accused of treating people as mere instruments of their own desires. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” the president, Epstein’s sometime associate, infamously bragged, once again saying, with stunning efficiency, the quiet part loud.
Jeffrey Epstein was not a star in the conventional sense. But he seems to have made use of the blunt physics of stardom: People orbited around him. He had armies of people—a labor force of its own—in his employ. His wealth appears to have afforded him his own brand of gravity. “His world seems to be at an astral distance from normal humanity,” Philip Weiss wrote of Epstein in a 2007 profile for New York magazine. It was titled “The Fantasist.”
That insulation might help explain another gutting element of the Epstein allegations: how blatantly—how teasingly—he flaunted his behavior. Epstein’s private jet was widely known as the “Lolita Express.” (Bill Clinton traveled on the plane; so did, reportedly, Prince Andrew, and Kevin Spacey, and Donald Trump.) When the writer Vicky Ward profiled Epstein for a 2003 article in Vanity Fair, she visited him in his Manhattan townhouse to conduct an interview. “The only book he’d left out for me to see,” Ward would later write, “was a paperback by the Marquis de Sade.” In the guest bathrooms of his Palm Beach mansion, Epstein reportedly kept soaps molded to resemble genitalia. In that house—and as the FBI agents discovered during their raid of his home on Saturday, in his Manhattan residence—he also kept pictures of naked girls.
Epstein flaunted his alleged crimes. He treated them as jokes, and as dares. In 2005, after the Palm Beach police raided his mansion and discovered not only the photographs of nude girls but also massage tables, Epstein, through his attorney, sent detectives an urgent message: “Mr. Epstein is very passionate about massages.”
It’s a defense that reads, in its context, as a trolling reply to intensely serious allegations—and as a testament to Epstein’s confidence that he would keep moving through the world as he had done for so many years: with slick impunity. Wealth enables; wealth protects. Wealth, indeed, is one of the reasons prosecutors argued against freeing Epstein on bail: With the machinery that money can purchase at his disposal, the financier might be a flight risk.
Wealth, too, in a culture that revolves so completely around its affordances, shelters. Epstein’s seven-story New York City townhouse—one of the largest in Manhattan—features a massive door that resembles those you might see in medieval fortresses; a closed-circuit-TV system; and a heating mechanism built into the sidewalk in front of the house so that, when winter storms hit, Epstein would never have to face the inconvenience of snow. He had a private island in the Caribbean—one of the homes where, the Miami Herald reported, he would traffic girls in for “sex parties,” trapping them in his version of paradise. (One of his accusers, Sarah Ransome, said in a separate lawsuit that she once attempted to escape the island by swimming from its shore—only to be apprehended by a search party that included Epstein himself.) “He lives in a different environment,” one of Epstein’s friends put it in 2007. “He’s of this world. But he creates this different environment.”
He did then. But the weather can change. On Saturday, while some agents were arresting Epstein as he disembarked from his private plane, another group of law-enforcement officers were on East 71st Street in Manhattan, in front of Epstein’s imposing home. The agents were forcing open its door. The picture of the moment, captured by one of Epstein’s neighbors, reads like a metaphor: The fortress, finally, was breached.
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