On a muggy October morning in 2007, Miami’s top federal prosecutor, Alexander Acosta, had a breakfast appointment with a former colleague, Washington, D.C., attorney Jay Lefkowitz.
It was an unusual meeting for the then-38-year-old prosecutor, a rising Republican star who had served in several White House posts before being named U.S. attorney in Miami by President George W. Bush.
Instead of meeting at the prosecutor’s Miami headquarters, the two men — both with professional roots in the prestigious Washington law firm of Kirkland & Ellis — convened at the Marriott in West Palm Beach, about 70 miles away. For Lefkowitz, 44, a U.S. special envoy to North Korea and corporate lawyer, the meeting was critical.
His client, Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, 54, was accused of assembling a large, cult-like network of underage girls — with the help of young female recruiters — to coerce into having sex acts behind the walls of his opulent waterfront mansion as often as three times a day, the Town of Palm Beach police found.
The eccentric hedge fund manager, whose friends included former President Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Prince Andrew, was also suspected of trafficking minor girls, often from overseas, for sex parties at his other homes in Manhattan, New Mexico and the Caribbean, FBI and court records show.
Facing a 53-page federal indictment, Epstein could have ended up in federal prison for the rest of his life.
But on the morning of the breakfast meeting, a deal was struck — an extraordinary plea agreement that would conceal the full extent of Epstein’s crimes and the number of people involved.
Not only would Epstein serve just 13 months in the county jail, but the deal — called a non-prosecution agreement — essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe into whether there were more victims and other powerful people who took part in Epstein’s sex crimes, according to a Miami Herald examination of thousands of emails, court documents and FBI records.
The pact required Epstein to plead guilty to two prostitution charges in state court. Epstein and four of his accomplices named in the agreement received immunity from all federal criminal charges. But even more unusual, the deal included wording that granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators’’ who were also involved in Epstein’s crimes. These accomplices or participants were not identified in the agreement, leaving it open to interpretation whether it possibly referred to other influential people who were having sex with underage girls at Epstein’s various homes or on his plane.
As part of the arrangement, Acosta agreed, despite a federal law to the contrary, that the deal would be kept from the victims. As a result, the non-prosecution agreement was sealed until after it was approved by the judge, thereby averting any chance that the girls — or anyone else — might show up in court and try to derail it.
This is the story of how Epstein, bolstered by unlimited funds and represented by a powerhouse legal team, was able to manipulate the criminal justice system, and how his accusers, still traumatized by their pasts, believe they were betrayed by the very prosecutors who pledged to protect them.
“I don’t think anyone has been told the truth about what Jeffrey Epstein did,’’ said one of Epstein’s victims, Michelle Licata, now 30. “He ruined my life and a lot of girls’ lives. People need to know what he did and why he wasn’t prosecuted so it never happens again.”
Now President Trump’s secretary of labor, Acosta, 49, oversees a massive federal agency that provides oversight of the country’s labor laws, including human trafficking. He also has been on a list of possible replacements for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned under pressure earlier this month.
Acosta did not respond to numerous requests for an interview or answer queries through email.
But court records reveal details of the negotiations and the role that Acosta would play in arranging the deal, which scuttled the federal probe into a possible international sex trafficking operation. Among other things, Acosta allowed Epstein’s lawyers unusual freedoms in dictating the terms of the non-prosecution agreement.
“The damage that happened in this case is unconscionable,” said Bradley Edwards, a former state prosecutor who represents some of Epstein’s victims. “How in the world, do you, the U.S. attorney, engage in a negotiation with a criminal defendant, basically allowing that criminal defendant to write up the agreement?”
As a result, neither the victims — nor even the judge — would know how many girls Epstein allegedly sexually abused between 2001 and 2005, when his underage sex activities were first uncovered by police. Police referred the case to the FBI a year later, when they began to suspect that their investigation was being undermined by the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office.
Not a ‘he said, she said’
“This was not a ‘he said, she said’ situation. This was 50-something ‘shes’ and one ‘he’ — and the ‘shes’ all basically told the same story,’’ said retired Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter, who supervised the police probe.
More than a decade later, at a time when Olympic gymnasts and Hollywood actresses have become a catalyst for a cultural reckoning about sexual abuse, Epstein’s victims have all but been forgotten.
The women — now in their late 20s and early 30s — are still fighting for an elusive justice that even the passage of time has not made right.
Like other victims of sexual abuse, they believe they’ve been silenced by a criminal justice system that stubbornly fails to hold Epstein and other wealthy and powerful men accountable.
“Jeffrey preyed on girls who were in a bad way, girls who were basically homeless. He went after girls who he thought no one would listen to and he was right,’’ said Courtney Wild, who was 14 when she met Epstein.
Over the past year, the Miami Herald examined a decade’s worth of court documents, lawsuits, witness depositions and newly released FBI documents. Key people involved in the investigation — most of whom have never spoken before — were also interviewed. The Herald also obtained new records, including the full unredacted copy of the Palm Beach police investigation and witness statements that had been kept under seal.
The Herald learned that, as part of the plea deal, Epstein provided what the government called “valuable consideration” for unspecified information he supplied to federal investigators. While the documents obtained by the Herald don’t detail what the information was, Epstein’s sex crime case happened just as the country’s subprime mortgage market collapsed, ushering in the 2008 global financial crisis.
Records show that Epstein was a key federal witness in the criminal prosecution of two prominent executives with Bear Stearns, the global investment brokerage that failed in 2008, who were accused of corporate securities fraud. Epstein was one of the largest investors in the hedge fund managed by the executives, who were later acquitted. It is not known what role, if any, the case played in Epstein’s plea negotiations.
The Herald also identified about 80 women who say they were molested or otherwise sexually abused by Epstein from 2001 to 2006. About 60 of them were located — now scattered around the country and abroad. Eight of them agreed to be interviewed, on or off the record. Four of them were willing to speak on video.
The women are now mothers, wives, nurses, bartenders, Realtors, hairdressers and teachers. One is a Hollywood actress. Several have grappled with trauma, depression and addiction. Some have served time in prison.
A few did not survive. One young woman was found dead last year in a rundown motel in West Palm Beach. She overdosed on heroin and left behind a young son.
s part of Epstein’s agreement, he was required to register as a sex offender, and pay restitution to the three dozen victims identified by the FBI. In many cases, the confidential financial settlements came only after Epstein’s attorneys exposed every dark corner of their lives in a scorched-earth effort to portray the girls as gold diggers.
“You beat yourself up mentally and physically,’’ said Jena-Lisa Jones, 30, who said Epstein molested her when she was 14. “You can’t ever stop your thoughts. A word can trigger something. For me, it is the word ‘pure’ because he called me ‘pure’ in that room and then I remember what he did to me in that room.’’
Now, more than a decade later, two unrelated civil lawsuits — one set for trial on Dec. 4 — could reveal more about Epstein’s crimes. The Dec. 4 case, in Palm Beach County state court, involves Epstein and Edwards, whom Epstein had accused of legal misdeeds in representing several victims. The case is noteworthy because it will mark the first time that Epstein’s victims will have their day in court, and several of them are scheduled to testify.