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Epstein ‘elephant in the room’ as Ghislaine Maxwell trial opens

"Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men," a defense attorney said during opening statements.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The long-awaited trial of Jeffrey Epstein’s former girlfriend and longtime associate kicked off on Monday, setting up an expected six-week reckoning of Ghislaine Maxwell’s role in the deceased millionaire’s alleged pyramid scheme of sexual abuse.

Maxwell, 59, is accused of grooming girls as young as 14 years old to be sexually abused by Epstein — sometimes with her own participation — over the span of a decade, from 1994 to 2004. 

Delivering opening arguments on a snowy New York afternoon, prosecutors said the British socialite recruited teenagers, studied their hopes and dreams, won their trust, then lured them into sex acts they couldn’t legally consent to. 

“She helped normalize abusive sexual conduct. She put them at ease and made them feel safe, all so she could be molested by a middle-aged man. She knew what was going to happen to those girls,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz in opening arguments. 

“She preyed on vulnerable young girls, manipulated them, and served them up to be sexually abused.” 

After building a rapport with victims, Pomerantz said, Maxwell would ask them to give Epstein a massage in one of the designated massage rooms, filled with photos of nude women, that were in each of his residences — he had apartments in Manhattan and Paris, a villa in Palm Beach, and a ranch in New Mexico, in addition to his infamous private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands

The encounters would then turn sexual, with Epstein masturbating during the massage and touching, having sex with, or using vibrators on the minors. At times, Pomerantz said, Maxwell was in the room when it happened.

“Even when she was not in the room, make no mistake: She knew exactly what Epstein was going to do to those children when she sent them to him inside those massage rooms,” Pomerantz said. 

Maxwell, clad in a cream-colored sweater and black pants, passed notes with her attorneys while prosecutors for 30 minutes outlined the case against her. Her eyes were on the jury as members entered the room, and during attorney sidebars, Maxwell looked around the room.  

Seated in the courtroom was Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, who stayed for the government's opening and most of the defense arguments.

While some estimates put Epstein as having abused hundreds of victims, Maxwell’s indictment focuses on four women, three of whom will testify anonymously. 

Pomerantz focused her opening on a girl referred to as Jane, who met Epstein and Maxwell at an arts camp when she was just 14 years old. 

“What Jane didn’t know then was that this meeting at summer camp was the beginning of a nightmare that would last for years. That this meeting would pull Jane into a relationship with the man and the woman, who were each more than double her age. What she didn’t know then was that this man and this woman were predators,” Pomerantz said. 

According to her indictment, Maxwell facilitated hundreds of dollars in cash payments to the alleged victims, and during the latter part of the decade-long timeframe would also pay girls to recruit others to “massage” Epstein. 

Pomerantz said Maxwell was essential to the “pyramid scheme of abuse,” both providing a “cover of respectability” that gave the girls and their families a false sense of security and, as the “lady of the house,” keeping the abuse under wraps. 

In this courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara E. Pomerantz gives her opening statement while pointing to Ghislaine Maxwell, seated far left, on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (Elizabeth Williams/AP)

“Employees were to see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. There was a culture of silence. That was by design — the defendant’s design,” she said. “Because behind closed doors, the defendant and Epstein were committing heinous crimes.”  

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Maxwell’s role as Epstein’s “best friend and right hand” gave her access to his wealth and the luxury that came with it, Pomerantz argued, and maintaining a life of opulence was reason to keep supplying Epstein with victims: “These girls were just a means to support her lifestyle.” 

Bobbi Sternheim, Maxwell’s attorney, said she wanted to acknowledge Epstein as the “elephant in the room,” and asked the jury not to make her client pay for his crimes. 

“Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men. And women are often villainized and punished more than the men ever are,” Sternheim said. 

“The charges against Ghislaine Maxwell are for things that Jeffrey Epstein did. But she is not Jeffrey Epstein, she is not like Jeffrey Epstein, and she is not like any of the other men — powerful men, moguls, media giants — who abuse women.” 

Casting Epstein as an enigma who shrouded parts of himself from the view of others, Sternheim suggested Maxwell was not clued into everything he was doing. 

“He radiated what’s called a halo effect: he attracted people because of his charisma and his charm. But he also compartmentalized what he would disclose to people about his life,” Sternheim said. 

Epstein had the money and means to surround himself with “beautiful homes, beautiful surroundings, beautiful people,” she said, with power unchecked: “He had no wife, he had no children, he had no boss.”

Sternheim said Epstein’s accusers were not victims, but women capitalizing on his intrigue to get payouts from the victim compensation fund created by his estate after the 66-year-old was found dead in his jail cell in 2019, which was later ruled a suicide

“In many regards, he was like a 21st century James Bond,” Sternheim said. “His mystery has stirred interest, and his accusers have shaken the money tree. And millions of dollars have fallen their way.” 

Walking through each of the four accusers in arguments that lasted just over an hour, Sternheim said each of them had received millions from the fund, and that cooperating with the government enhanced the amounts they received. 

She encouraged the jury to focus on "memory, manipulation, and money," noting that charges go back as far as a quarter-century, and saying victims' recollection of, and feelings about, what happened to them has shifted over time with the help of civil attorneys.

Sternheim called Maxwell a "scapegoat for a man who behaved badly," prompting an objection from prosecutors.

“Epstein’s death left a gaping hole in the pursuit of justice for these women. Ghislaine is on trial here, and you heard about the conduct of Jeffrey Epstein — she is filling that hole, and filling an empty chair. She is a brand name; she is a lightning rod; she is a convenient stand-in," the defense attorney said.

Maxwell has been in custody since her July 2020 arrest. She pleaded not guilty in April to eight criminal counts: six stemming from the reported sex ring, and the final two accusing her of lying during a 2016 deposition.

Offering a glimpse into the expected month and a half of testimony ahead, prosecutors said they planned to call relatives of alleged victims, employees who followed a “culture of silence,” and law enforcement witnesses. 

Evidence “backing up” victim testimony will include flight logs, massage tables, a “school girl outfit,” and nude photographs, Pomerantz said. 

The first witness to testify late Monday was a former pilot of Epstein’s. Direct examination will continue on Tuesday.

Follow @NinaPullano
Categories / Criminal, National, Trials

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