Jeffrey Epstein’s dark legacy: Wealth, power, and the ongoing fallout of exploitation

In the shadows of power and wealth, Jeffrey Epstein’s meteoric rise concealed a dark underbelly of exploitation. From an unassuming start, he amassed a fortune managing money for billionaires, ingratiating himself into elite circles alongside figures like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Epstein’s criminal exploits came to light in 2005, leading to a controversial plea deal. Even after his 2019 death, the scandal persisted, shifting focus to his associate, Ghislaine Maxwell, who was found guilty in 2021. The aftermath implicated high-profile figures, shaking foundations and revealing the depths of Epstein’s insidious influence.

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By Anthony Lin

Jeffrey Epstein rose from an unlikely background to enormous heights of wealth and power, which he then used to sexually victimize many young women and girls. He moved in elite circles, with figures like Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Bill Gates flying on his private jet at different times. Epstein took his own life in a federal jail in New York in 2019, but his name lived on in various legal matters. A trove of legal documents relating to Epstein was unsealed in January. Overall, the names of more than 150 people who had some association with him were revealed, though the documents contained few revelations that hadn’t already been reported elsewhere.

1. How did Jeffrey Epstein make his fortune?

A college dropout, Epstein was able to get a teaching job in the early 1970s at a Manhattan private school. There, he made a connection with Bear Stearns Chief Executive Officer Alan Greenberg that he was able to parlay into a job at the bank. He eventually became a money manager for billionaires such as Limited founder Leslie Wexner and Apollo Global Management Chairman Leon Black, and he accumulated a fortune for himself in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Epstein had private aircraft, one of the largest mansions on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a private island in the US Virgin Islands, a Palm Beach, Florida, estate, a ranch in New Mexico and other properties. He made substantial gifts to Harvard University and other prominent institutions, and was courted for donations by many others.

2. When did Epstein’s sex crimes become known?

There were long rumors about Epstein’s taste for young women. In 2002, Trump called Epstein a “terrific” guy in a magazine interview, adding that “he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” In 2005, after a report by a woman that her 14-year-old daughter might have been molested at Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion, police arrested him. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting prostitution and served 13 months in custody, some under house arrest. The light punishment fed persistent rumors that he was being protected because other rich and powerful men also participated in his crimes. In July 2019, Epstein was arrested on federal sex-trafficking charges, with prosecutors in New York alleging he had abused girls as young as 13. He had managed to partly reintegrate himself in elite circles after his Florida conviction, so his New York arrest shined a light on the many people on Wall Street and in politics and business who remained friendly with him. Epstein was found dead by suicide in his lower Manhattan jail cell a month after his arrest.

3. Why didn’t the scandal end after his death?

Because prosecutors’ attention shifted to his onetime girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell. In 2021, a jury found her guilty of trafficking underage girls for Epstein. Prosecutors said she took the girls shopping and to movies and discussed sexual topics before encouraging them to give Epstein sexualized massages. The Maxwell case further renewed interest in Epstein’s crimes. 

4. What happened to the other people associated with Epstein? 

Many figures who were close to him, including Black and then-Barclays Plc CEO Jes Staley, stepped down from their positions; both men have said they had no knowledge of Epstein’s sex crimes. (Staley long maintained that he cut off his friendship with Epstein once he became head of Barclays. But legal documents claim he had indirect contact with Epstein for years after that, Bloomberg News reported in early February. He didn’t reply to requests for comment about the documents.) A suit by an Epstein victim, Virginia Giuffre, alleging that he “lent” her to the UK’s Prince Andrew for sexual abuse rocked the royal family and led to King Charles’s younger brother being stripped of honorific titles and royal patronages. Andrew settled the suit for an undisclosed sum last year. JPMorgan Chase & Co., where Epstein banked for many years, paid $365 million to settle two lawsuits alleging that it knowingly benefited from his sex-trafficking.

5. What were the documents released in January?

The documents date from a lawsuit Giuffre filed against Maxwell that was settled in 2017. They predate many of the more dramatic developments involving Epstein and Maxwell. At the time, Maxwell and a number of the people named in the documents objected to having their names disclosed in relation to the case, but many of the names have become public via other means in the years since. Several of them, including victims of Epstein’s abuse, testified at Maxwell’s trial. None of the famous people mentioned at the trial were described by witnesses as having known about Epstein’s sexual abuse, and the new legal documents contained no significant new names or allegations.

6. Who is named in the documents?

Among the most striking disclosures in the new documents was deposition testimony of another Epstein accuser, Johanna Sjoberg, who described meeting magician David Copperfield and pop star Michael Jackson but didn’t accuse them of any misconduct. Sjoberg also said she was groped by Prince Andrew and said Epstein told her that Clinton “likes them young.” Clinton has denied knowing about Epstein’s abuse. Clinton was also among many famous names mentioned at Maxwell’s trial as having occasionally flown on Epstein’s private jet, but none was described by witnesses as knowing about his sexual abuse.

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