NEW YORK — One woman was an aspiring model from a small town. Another invoked her own daughters in her remarks. Another said she had struggled with relationships because of her experience.
One by one, the women told a packed federal courtroom in Manhattan on Tuesday how Jeffrey Epstein had sexually abused them and used his power and wealth to silence them, sometimes for years. For many, it was their first time speaking about it in public.
A chair at the defense table remained empty: Epstein hanged himself in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center this month, where he was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
“For that, he is a coward,” said one of his accusers, Courtney Wild, who has said Epstein sexually abused her when she was 14.
It was a moment of catharsis. Never had so many of Epstein’s accusers, from so many places, gathered to tell grotesquely similar stories, laying bare the breadth of the Epstein’s sex trafficking operation.
“The fact I will never have a chance to face my predator in court eats away at my soul,” said Jennifer Araoz, who has accused Epstein of raping her when she was a 15-year-old student at a performing arts high school in New York. “They let this man kill himself and kill the chance of justice for so many others in the process, taking away our ability to speak.”
Wild and Araoz were among the nearly two dozen accusers who shared their accounts with Judge Richard M. Berman at a hearing called after federal prosecutors said they planned to drop the sex trafficking charges against Epstein in light of his death — a decision that requires a judge’s approval.
Though throwing out an indictment after a defendant dies is usually a routine matter, Berman, who called the suicide “a rather stunning turn of events,” said one reason he convened the hearing was to give the women their day in court.
“Mr. Epstein’s death obviously means that a trial in which he is a defendant cannot take place,” Berman said. “I believe it is the court’s responsibility, and manifestly within its purview, to ensure that the victims in this case are treated fairly and with dignity.”
At the hearing, Epstein’s lawyers said they were unsatisfied with the city medical examiner’s investigation into their client’s death, which found that Epstein had killed himself.
Reid Weingarten, one of Epstein’s lawyers, implored Berman — even if he dismissed the indictment — to conduct an independent investigation into Epstein’s death. Weingarten, citing the public interest in the case and “conspiracy theories galore,” said Berman could hold hearings or assign an independent lawyer.
“The court has a role to play,” Weingarten said. “It is the institution that most people have confidence in these very troubled times.”
The judge did not immediately act on the request. Prosecutors said a grand jury was already investigating Epstein’s death.
In 2008, Epstein avoided federal prosecution on sex trafficking charges in Florida, when he reached a widely criticized plea bargain with the U.S. attorney in Miami that let him plead guilty to state prostitution charges and serve 13 months in a local jail.
But the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan opened its own investigation and charged Epstein, 66, with sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy in July. The indictment said that between 2002 and 2005 he paid dozens of underage girls, some as young as 14, to have sex with him at his mansion in New York and his compound in Palm Beach, Florida.
The possibility that Epstein might stand trial on the new charges ended, however, when he was found dead in his cell around 6:30 a.m. Aug. 10. He had been taken off the jail’s suicide watch two weeks earlier after a failed attempt to kill himself. No guard had checked on him for about three hours, a violation of jail protocol, law enforcement officials said.
At the judge’s invitation, the rows of women in the gallery Tuesday stood and formed a line leading into the well of the packed courtroom, some clasping each other’s hands and whispering words of encouragement.
For more than an hour, they took turns describing their trauma and voicing their anger that Epstein had avoided accountability. Some women spoke anonymously; some through lawyers. Sixteen of them spoke in person, many with shaky voices, trembling hands and tears.
“I am every girl he did this to, and they’re all me, and today we stand together, those that are present and those that aren’t,” said Anouska De Georgiou, who said she was a naïve teenager when Epstein sexually abused her.
Another woman, identified only as Jane Doe, described how she was flown to Epstein’s New Mexico ranch in 2004 when she was 15. There, she said, he sexually assaulted her and took her virginity, telling her he was helping her “to grow.”
“After he finished with me, he told me to describe in detail how good my first sexual experience felt,” she said.
Chauntae Davies, an aspiring masseuse, said Epstein had flown her to his private island in the Caribbean, where his associate instructed her to give him a massage. She said the encounter became violent, when Epstein grabbed her wrist and pulled her body “onto his already naked body,” she said. She said she begged him to stop but “that just seemed to excite him more.”
Several of the women turned toward prosecutors during their remarks and urged them to continue investigating Epstein’s employees and associates, who they said had helped lure them into Epstein’s scheme. Some named Sarah Kellen or Ghislaine Maxwell as women who had helped bring them into Epstein’s orbit.
“Please finish what you have started,” said Sarah Ransome, another of Epstein’s accusers, who has said she was sexually abused by Epstein after she had been recruited to give him a massage.
Seated in the front row were the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey S. Berman, and the head of the FBI’s New York office, William F. Sweeney Jr.
Maurene R. Comey, a prosecutor, assured the judge that the government would still pursue others who may have aided Epstein in the sex-trafficking scheme, saying those investigations “have been ongoing, remain ongoing and will continue.”
Attorney General William Barr has called the shortcomings at the jail “serious irregularities.”
For Epstein’s accusers, his death was his final escape from justice. Some spoke in anguish, some appeared relieved, and others said they were still haunted by Epstein’s abuse.
“I refuse to let this man win in death,” Davies said. “I have found my voice now, and while Jeffrey may no longer be here to hear it, I will not stop fighting, and I will not be silenced anymore.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.