By the time I got to downtown Manhattan for the Ghislaine Maxwell Trial, which opened this week, there was already a long line of journalists and curious observers outside the federal court of Thurgood Marshall – enough people to fill a socially distant courtroom and three overflow rooms, in which the process was transmitted via video stream. Maxwell, a 59-year-old former celebrity and daughter of British publishing mogul Robert Maxwell, is accused of helping Jeffrey Epstein – a man who has been variously described as her employer, boyfriend, and best friend – four underage girls from their mid-nineties to recruit, care for and sexually abuse until the mid-2000s. In 2019, Epstein, a multimillionaire and financier, was arrested for allegedly forcing dozen of young teenage women and girls into sexual acts. In August of that year, before his case went to trial, he died by hanging in his prison cell. Maxwell’s trial is widely viewed as the last chance to justice for the many women who claim to have been molested by Epstein. If convicted on all counts, she faces up to seventy years in prison. (She pleaded not guilty.)
Maxwell’s disappeared from the public eye for more than two years, but her trail was closely followed after Epstein’s suicide. We caught a glimpse of her in August 2019 when she was photographed having a San Fernando Valley In-N-Out burger. About a year later, she was caught in New Hampshire. Although her arrest was public – according to the Times, FBI agents reported on Maxwell’s front door and watched through a window as she rushed into another room in the house – we still did not see her.
So the desire in the courtroom to get a close look at this notorious woman was palpable. When one of the journalists banished to an overflow room, it struck me as ironic that while I could catch a glimpse of Maxwell, I still did so through the intermediary of a screen. On the second day of the trial, she wore a cream-colored sweater, dark pants and a blue surgical mask, and her black hair was loose and straight up to the shoulders. The outfit was a far cry from the much more flashy, revealing designer outfits of her high society Epstein years; rather, it reminded me of the kind of lady who might ask if you need help finding something on Nordstrom. The gaze seemed to be aimed at removing all thoughts of not just sex crimes, but sex itself from the jury’s minds. Standing shoulder to shoulder with her defense team, Maxwell remained largely indifferent throughout the trial.
The first witness to be called to the stand by the prosecution was Larry Visoski, who was hired as Epstein’s private pilot in 1991. (He testified on a clear, COVID-proof witness stand that enabled him to take off his mask.) Visoski – alert and courteous, with a freshly coiffed white head of hair and a dark suit paired with a brisk red and white striped tie – drew a surprisingly sane picture of his experiences with Epstein and Maxwell. (The latter, he said, was Epstein’s “No. 2” in property and travel matters.) His testimony appeared to be aimed more at investigating the very affluent world in which Epstein and Maxwell operated than at any criminal misconduct to point out on their behalf.
Visoski spoke mainly about real estate. The pilot walked U.S. Assistant Attorney Maurene Comey (one of the lead prosecutors in the case and a daughter of former FBI Director James) through the floor plans of a number of Epstein’s properties: the ten thousand acre Zorro Ranch in New Mexico, whose entrance gate is in infantile impression was decorated with the fictional “Z” logo of the daredevil; the tony townhouse on the Upper East Side; the private Caribbean island of Little St. James with its helipad and boat dock and its huge estate. Visoski worked closely with Epstein for almost three decades, piloting his planes (including a Gulfstream with a “burgundy red carpet” and a Boeing 727, referred to by the press as the Lolita Express) as well as his helicopters and ferries between the different houses, a lot of guests , best known are Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, and actors Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker.
Visoski’s report on Epstein was not exactly praiseworthy, but very impressed. At one point I counted the word “enormous” at least four times in about that many minutes. The pool on Little St. James was huge, as was the sound system in the financier’s house on the island. Likewise, the New Mexico spread, not to mention its sound system. (Visoski was also responsible for managing Epstein’s audiovisual needs besides piloting, and obviously still has a great respect for a good stereo setup.) While Visoski flew the planes that were populated like Maxwell’s houses – the The cockpit door usually remained closed and the pilot insisted that he had never seen sexual activity, whether it was a minor woman or not, during his nearly thirty years of service. As a car fanatic, he received several luxury vehicles from Epstein over the years and built a forty-acre home on the Zorro Ranch on the Zorro Ranch that the financier had given him college education, he said, Epstein paid for – to ride with Maxwell . “Do you remember her as a nice person?” Asked defense attorney Christian Everdell, a question that Visoski answered in the affirmative without hesitation. (As far as I could tell, the masked Maxwell remained expressionless even when he received compliments.) Had Visoski known from her or Epstein any evidence of inappropriate behavior towards minors, he would have resigned immediately. But as he spoke, I kept thinking that for Visoski, if only unconsciously, a whole lot must have ridden in ignorance.
If Visoski’s tale of the world that Epstein and Maxwell were inhabited was as wide open and inviting as the friendly sky in front of the windshield of his airplane, it was something for “Jane,” the first victim to take the stand later on Tuesday totally different. She testified under a pseudonym, describing her previous relationship with Epstein and Maxwell as a nightmarish traversal of a maze of oppressive rooms and dark corners in Epstein’s various properties, where she says her abuse took place. She recounted in low, measured tones how Epstein and Maxwell allegedly recruited, cared for, traded, and sexually abused her from 1994 when she was only fourteen. An aspiring singer, she met Epstein and Maxwell while attending Michigan Summer Art Camp Interlochen shortly after Jane’s father suddenly died of leukemia and her family found themselves in dire financial straits. She was eating ice cream when the two adults came up to her and, as she said, was “chatting”. Realizing that she was from Palm Beach, Florida, where Epstein owned an estate, the couple became friends with her and appeared interested in enhancing and supporting her artistic endeavors. Epstein, said Jane, began to give her money. (“This is for your mother. I know she’s having a hard time,” he apparently told her.) By now Maxwell reminded her of an older sister – friendly, funny, asked about school and friends. She took Jane to the movies and on shopping trips.
Jane, now in her early forties, is just a little younger than me. As I listened to her testimony, I recognized the items with mall status from the ’90s that she remembered buying Epstein and Maxwell for her: slippers, a cashmere sweater, Victoria’s Secret underwear, a ” preppy “shirt. But then she testified that Epstein and Maxwell’s friendliness soon grew sinister. One day, she said, Epstein silently led her to his pool house in Palm Beach, where he masturbated on her and made her “freeze in fear”. You have “never seen a penis” and felt “disgusting” and “ashamed”. Gradually, and under the guidance of Maxwell – who, as Jane said was a casual riot and pretended everything that was going on was “no big deal” – Jane realized that her role in the household was to make Epstein sexual to please. The abuse happened every time she saw him, which happened about every two weeks for the next two years. Maxwell taught her “what he liked” – rough, completely nude massages where the financier was touched and alternately touched and caressed “everywhere,” sometimes by Maxwell. Sex toys were involved even when Jane protested that they hurt her. She never told her mother what was going on. “My mother was so in love with the idea that these wealthy, wealthy people were interested in me,” Jane said, telling her to be “grateful” for the attention they showed her. Epstein and Maxwell tried to teach her a similar lesson. From the beginning they “bragged” and “made names drop”, Jane said of the rich and powerful people she knew and often took calls from her VIP friends in her presence. (That reminded me of a tactic recalled by a victim of Harvey Weinstein, who told her during the disgraced Mughal trial how he would brag about his phone calls to the Clintons.) Jane said she felt intimidated and intimidated captured.