NEW YORK — Ghislaine Maxwell was Jeffrey Epstein’s main “partner in crime” who made his “pyramid scheme” of sexually abusing young girls possible for years, prosecutors said as her federal trial began Monday in Manhattan.
“For a decade, the defendant played an essential role in the scheme,” Assistant US Attorney Lara Pomerantz said in her opening statement. “She knew exactly what she was doing — she was dangerous.”
Maxwell, the daughter of a British media magnate, is the former girlfriend and longtime associate of Epstein, the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender, whose death in prison while awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking charges on Aug. 10, 2019, was ruled a suicide. With his death coming before he faced a jury, Monday’s proceedings in Maxwell’s case marked a major milestone in a saga that has stretched decades, only drawing renewed attention after a series of articles in the Miami Herald highlighting how the justice system had failed the women who said they were abused.
Federal prosecutors allege that Maxwell played a key role in Epstein’s sex trafficking operations and abuse from 1994 to 2004. According to the complaint, Maxwell recruited and groomed underage girls and encouraged them to perform illegal sex acts with Epstein — and was sometimes present for, or even participated in, the abuse. She is also accused of arranging for Epstein’s underage victims to travel to his various homes in order to facilitate sexual abuse.
She has been charged with conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, enticement of a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, sex trafficking conspiracy, and sex trafficking of a minor. If convicted, she could face up to 70 years in prison.
“Maxwell enticed minor girls, got them to trust her, then developed them into the trap that she and Epstein had set for them,” then–acting US attorney Audrey Strauss said at a press conference at the time of Maxwell’s arrest. “She pretended to be a woman they could trust. All the while, she was setting them up to be sexually abused by Epstein and, in some cases, by Maxwell herself.”
According to prosecutors, Maxwell and Epstein targeted young girls who had difficult home lives, especially children of single mothers, often promising to help them pay for school or start a career in acting or modeling. Maxwell allegedly served as a normalizing presence to the abuse, discussing sexual topics with the girls, then encouraging them to massage Epstein.
Massages were often how Epstein initiated sexual contact with his victims, prosecutors have said. “Calling it a massage was a ruse,” Pomerantz said.
The criminal case against Maxwell centers on the testimony of four unnamed women who said they were abused while underage, with two of the women claiming that Maxwell recruited them when they were only 14 years old.
“She knew what was going to happen to those girls,” Pomerantz said.
In addition to the four women, witnesses in the trial are expected to include the alleged victims’ relatives, former employees of Epstein, and members of law enforcement who searched his homes.
The first witness to testify on Monday was Lawrence Visoski, a pilot who flew Epstein’s private jets from 1991 to 2019. These plane trips have been a subject of much interest for years, with many of Epstein’s influential friends — who included Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Prince Andrew — rumored to have flown with him.
Maxwell’s defense lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, alluded to these powerful friendships in her opening statement, saying an “array of very, very interesting people” flew on Epstein’s plane, including politicians, scientists, celebrities, academics, and “even a former astronaut who became a senator.”
Visoski’s testimony will continue Tuesday, and it is not yet known if he will drop any famous names in his testimony, though he acknowledged Monday he did not always know exactly who he was flying. “That wasn’t my job, to jot down every person who flew on the aircraft,” he said.
Maxwell was arrested on July 20, 2020, after disappearing from the public eye for more than a year. (The FBI tracked Maxwell to Bradford, New Hampshire, using data and coordinates from her cellphone.) She was deemed a flight risk and has been held without bail since her arrest.
Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to all charges. In a pretrial court appearance, she told the court, "I have not committed any crimes."
In the defense’s opening statement, Sternheim cast doubt on the memories of Epstein’s accusers, whom she called “untrustworthy, uncorroborated, and unreliable.” She described some of the women as having a “troubled past” and using drugs. She also accused the women of exaggerating their stories “for a payday” from Epstein’s victim compensation fund.
Sternheim wavered in her depiction of Epstein, describing him both as a master manipulator whose death “left a gaping hole in the pursuit of justice,” as well as a “bright, fascinating man” and a “21st-century James Bond.” But she unequivocally praised Maxwell as “well-educated, well-traveled, [and] a graduate of Oxford” and claimed she was being treated as a “scapegoat” for Epstein’s actions.
“Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men," Sternheim said.