Maxwell, Epstein were 'partners in crime,' prosecutor says at start of sex trafficking trial

Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein were "partners in crime" in the sexual abuse of teenage girls, a prosecutor said Monday in opening statements, with the defence countering that like so many women before her, Maxwell was being made a scapegoat for a man's bad behaviour.

Ghislaine Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to 8 charges of sex trafficking

In this courtroom sketch, Ghislaine Maxwell sits at the defence table during final stages of jury selection in New York on Monday. Maxwell's sex trafficking trial began Monday, with the British socialite accused of recruiting and grooming girls for financier Jeffrey Epstein to abuse. (Elizabeth Williams/The Associated Press)

Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein were "partners in crime" in the sexual abuse of teenage girls, a prosecutor said Monday in opening statements, with the defence countering that like so many women before her, Maxwell was being made a scapegoat for a man's bad behaviour.

At the start of Maxwell's sex trafficking trial, assistant U.S. attorney Lara Pomerantz said that the British socialite and Epstein enticed girls as young as 14 to engage in "so-called massages," in which sex abuse came to be seen as "casual and normal" after they were showered with money and gifts.

The prosecutor sought to make clear to a jury of 12 that there was no confusion about whether Maxwell, Epstein's longtime companion, was his puppet or accomplice.

She described Maxwell, 59, as central to Epstein's sex abuse scheme, which prosecutors say lasted for more a decade.

"She was in on it from the start. The defendant and Epstein lured their victims with a promise of a bright future, only to sexually exploit them," Pomerantz said.

Maxwell "was involved in every detail of Epstein's life," the prosecutor said. "The defendant was the lady of the house."

Even after Maxwell and Epstein stopped being romantically involved, the pair "remained the best of friends," Pomerantz said.

She said Maxwell "helped normalize abusive sexual conduct" by making the teenagers feel safe and by taking them on shopping trips and asking them about their lives, their schools and their families.

'The proverbial elephant in the room'

The prosecutor spoke from an enclosed plastic see-through box that allowed her to take off her mask, as Maxwell at times wrote and passed notes to her lawyers.

When she finished, Maxwell's lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, described her client as a "scapegoat for a man who behaved badly." Maxwell, she said, was being blamed for a man's bad behaviour just as so many women have before — all the way back to Adam and Eve.

"She's not Jeffrey Epstein. She's not like Jeffrey Epstein," or any of the powerful men, moguls and media giants who abuse women, Sternheim said.

"He's the proverbial elephant in the room. He is not visible, but he is consuming this entire courtroom and overflow courtrooms where other members of the public are viewing," she said.

Maxwell and Jeffery Epstein are shown in New York in 2005. Epstein died by suicide in a Manhattan federal jail in August 2019 as he awaited a sex trafficking trial. (Patrick McMullan/Getty Images)

Sternheim said the four women who would testify that Maxwell recruited them to be sexually abused were suffering from quarter-century-old memories and the influence of lawyers who guided them to get money from a fund set up by Epstein's estate after his August 2019 suicide in a Manhattan federal jail as he awaited a sex trafficking trial.

The lawyer said "accusers have shaken the money tree, and millions of dollars have fallen their way."

1st witness takes stand

The opening statements came in the afternoon, after hours in the morning were lost to questions about whether two prospective jurors could work throughout the six weeks that the trial is projected to last.

One prospective juror was dismissed after he acknowledged he'd had to listen to someone he knew who was "passionate" about the case. Another juror's employment was in jeopardy until the judge contacted the employer to speed the process of approval for the juror's service.

Maxwell — who once dated the financier — is accused of acting as Epstein's chief enabler, recruiting and grooming young girls for him to abuse. The charges against her stem from the allegations of four women who say she and Epstein victimized them as teens from 1994 to 2004.

Pomerantz said the abuse occurred at Epstein's homes, including his estate in Palm Beach, Fla., his posh Manhattan townhouse, a ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., a Paris apartment and a luxury estate in the Virgin Islands.

The prosecution's first witness was Lawrence Paul Visoski Jr., who worked for Epstein starting in the 1990s as a pilot on the private jets that shuttled Epstein, Maxwell and others between his various homes.

A prosecutor had Visoski start by describing the layout of the New York residence that he regularly visited to pick up luggage and do other chores. He was to return to the stand on Tuesday.

Faces up to 80 years in prison

Authorities charged Maxwell in July 2020, arresting her after tracking her to a $1-million US New Hampshire estate where she had been holed up during the coronavirus pandemic.

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to eight charges of sex trafficking and other crimes, including two counts of perjury that will be tried at a later date. She faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

Maxwell has vehemently denied wrongdoing and called the claims against her "absolute rubbish."

Maxwell's lawyers and family say she was Epstein's pawn, now paying "a blood price" to satisfy public desire to see someone held accountable for his crimes.

The wealthy, Oxford-educated Maxwell is the daughter of British newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell, who died in 1991 after falling off his yacht — named the Lady Ghislaine — near the Canary Islands. Robert Maxwell, whose holdings at the time included the New York Daily News, was facing allegations that he had illegally looted his businesses' pension funds.

Ghislaine Maxwell holds U.S., British and French citizenships and was repeatedly denied bail in the run-up to her trial.

With files from Reuters