The death of Jeffrey Epstein in a New York prison cell last summer robbed his accusers of a chance for justice and shut down the tantalizing possibility that the secrets of a sordid life spent among the rich and powerful might be revealed.
Thursday’s arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell — almost exactly a year after Epstein was arrested — suggests a fuller accounting of his acts might yet come.
The charges paint Maxwell as a central figure in Epstein’s criminal enterprise. She spent years at his side. He described her as his “best friend.” She was his girlfriend for a time, though their relationship truly deepened in the years Maxwell was organizing his affairs, an arrangement that included running his households and piloting his helicopter.
And she stood at the very center of the web of wealthy and powerful figures surrounding Epstein. The network she inherited from her billionaire father, the late British publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, gave Epstein access to the highest echelons of society. She even introduced Brooklyn-born Epstein to Britain’s Prince Andrew, whose connection to the pedophile has forced the British royal from public duties.
What did she see? Whom might she incriminate? Those are just some of the questions a trial might explore. While Maxwell has repeatedly asserted her innocence, investigators and Epstein’s victims say she was the ringleader of the operation that coordinated years of sexual abuse in Florida, New York and beyond.
Epstein’s high-powered network means there’s potential for a public reckoning that could tarnish top figures on Wall Street, in corporate America and in Washington. Perhaps more important, a trial would at long last give victims a chance to face at least one of their alleged tormentors.
“There is no way for prosecutors to present a case against her without going into all the evidence they had against Epstein, because the charges here are intertwined,” said Jessica Roth, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Cardozo School of Law in New York. “The original indictment against Jeffrey Epstein made it clear that he didn’t act alone and that the government had evidence that other people were also involved.”
Maxwell, a onetime British socialite, was arrested at home in Bradford, New Hampshire, and could face as long as 35 years behind bars if convicted. A judge ordered her held in jail at least until she appears in court in New York, where she is charged. Her lawyer declined to comment.
Prosecutors described Maxwell as one of the “villains” at the center of Epstein’s exploitation of girls, saying she lured them into his clutches. She helped “normalize” the sexual abuse by her presence as a mature woman and by feigning interest in and friendship with the girls, Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said at a news conference.
Maxwell played a “critical role” in helping Epstein identify, befriend and groom minor victims for abuse, Strauss said.
The investigation is “ongoing,” she added.
Where that investigation will lead is uncertain — at least to the public. Maxwell may choose not to fight the charges and could agree to cooperate in the U.S. probe, opening up new avenues of inquiry for the government.
Prosecutors may also turn their sights on others. Investigators in New York still seek to interview Andrew, whom Maxwell introduced to Epstein; the prince’s lawyers have rejected U.S. claims that he’s refusing to talk, and Andrew denies any wrongdoing.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.S. hasn’t asked for an interview, but declined to comment on whether Britain would comply with such a demand. “No such approach has been made,” he said in an interview on LBC Radio on Friday. “It’s a matter for the Royal Family.”
Should Maxwell take her case to trial, the government will be forced to disclose much of the evidence it’s amassed. Epstein’s death last year in prison, which authorities ruled a suicide, appeared at the time to put an end to such a possibility.
Now, as the case against Maxwell moves forward, at least some of the questions will be answered.
Is Maxwell innocent, as she’s repeatedly said? If not, why did she aid Epstein — and how? How many girls and women did Epstein abuse? Did his scheme have help from lawyers or accountants? Did he or others try to buy the victims’ silence? What went on at Epstein’s private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands?
There are other mysteries. Why did federal prosecutors in Florida in 2008 allow Epstein to plead guilty to relatively minor felony charges of procuring an underage girl for prostitution and soliciting a prostitute? That plea deal, which they’ve defended as appropriate, came after the government identified dozens of girls he was suspected of abusing.
And why are prosecutors from the public-corruption unit in the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office now assigned to the case? That suggests a public official may be under investigation, said former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti.
“I hope that the investigation turns up additional evidence that has not come to light,” said Josh Schiffer, an Atlanta-based attorney who represents Epstein’s victims in civil cases. “I look forward to reviewing the evidence.”
For victims, a trial would provide the chance to be heard.
“For years, I feared Epstein and his ring,” Jennifer Araoz, who says she was raped by Epstein at 15 after being recruited to visit his Manhattan townhouse as a high school freshman in 2001, said in a statement Thursday. “Maxwell was the center of that sex-trafficking ring. Now that the ring has been taken down, I know that I can’t be hurt anymore.”
In coming days, Maxwell will be transported to New York, where she will appear in court, likely seek to be released on bail and probably begin to fight the charges. As she does, some of the mysteries surrounding the Epstein case may begin to be revealed.