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Ex-Florida police chief: Jeffrey Epstein likely tipped off during 2005 child sex probe

NBC News logo NBC News 9/21/2019 Sarah Fitzpatrick and Rich Schapiro
a man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a building: Image: Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter © Dateline Image: Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter

Trigger Warning: This article contains information and details about alleged sexual assault and/or violence, which may be upsetting to some readers.

Resources to help survivors of sexual assault include the National Sex Assault Hotline (800-656-4673), and The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) online hotline.

Former Palm Beach police chief Michael Reiter spent years trying to convince state and federal prosecutors in Florida to bring serious charges against Jeffrey Epstein. Now, the retired lawman wants to tackle a new mission: to persuade lawmakers to take action to prevent the next Jeffrey Epstein from perverting the criminal justice system.

"Epstein found every loophole," Reiter told NBC News as part of a months-long "Dateline" investigation airing Friday night at 10 p.m. ET. "I want some system in the future that this can't happen again."

Reiter said he believes the state and federal prosecutors' handling of the Epstein case amounts to "the worst failure of the criminal justice system" in modern times.

The story begins in March 2005 when the Palm Beach police department received a call from the distraught mother of a 14-year-old girl.

The woman, Reiter recalled, said her underage daughter was having sex with an adult who lives in a mansion in Palm Beach.

Palm Beach police detectives immediately launched an investigation.

"They said, 'This is credible. This is believable," said Reiter, speaking in his first in-depth TV interview. "Our sense just from sitting in the room with the first victim was that this is something we've absolutely got to get on."

The interview with the initial young girl led to another and another.

"I have no problem telling you everything that I know," one of the girls told police in a videotaped interview obtained by NBC News.

Another told police that Epstein "pulled out this vibrator thing and he pulled down my panties."

The investigators were immediately struck by the consistency of the accounts, Reiter said.

"The stories were all the same," he said. "They all could describe the house in detail. They could describe what happened."

In many cases, the victims' very specific physical descriptions of Epstein's body matched.

But the detectives also observed that the accounts weren't perfectly aligned; that would have been a red flag that the stories were coordinated, Reiter said.

The investigators also noted something else of significance: many of the victims didn't know each other, so there was little chance that they would have come together to concoct false allegations.

Within those first few weeks, the investigation was already bearing fruit.

"We realized that this was basically a way of life for Epstein," Reiter said. "And it didn't take too long to realize that a lot of people were involved in this...This was a very prolific sexual predator."

Detectives picked through Epstein's trash and discovered incriminating messages on scraps of paper documenting phone calls.

"She is wondering if 2:30 is OK...She needs to stay in school," read one.

The notes, it was clear to police, were about "massages and sex," Reiter said.

"And it isn't just the phone messages," Reiter said. "Epstein had flowers delivered to one of the victims who was in a performance at her high school, congratulating her at the end of the performance."

NBC News has spoken with nearly two dozen women who allege that Epstein didn't operate alone. Reiter said the investigation identified adult women who had sexual contact with underage girls, and in some cases performed sexual battery on children. "This was a financially successful, smart, capable, well-networked and well-financed individual who built an organization around him that supported his criminal enterprise," Reiter said.

But as the months wore on with the police building their case, odd things began to happen.

When detectives armed with a search warrant entered his home with a video camera, what they found made them suspect he had been tipped off.

"The place had been cleaned up," Reiter said.

It wasn't completely devoid of evidence but a computer that contained all of the home's surveillance camera footage was gone. "And all the wires were left hanging there," Reiter said.

After six months of investigation, Reiter said, the local police department noticed a shift in attitude from the state prosecutors.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Image: Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter © Dateline Image: Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter

Reiter said the prosecutors told him the witnesses were not credible. The prosecutors, Reiter said, suddenly seemed dismissive of the case, and were uncooperative in approving critical investigative techniques that hindered the Palm Beach police department investigation.

Epstein, who had a massive bankroll and extensive connections, had assembled a high-powered team of lawyers, including Kenneth Starr, Alan Dershowitz, Jack Goldberger and Jay Lefkowitz. Around this time, Reiter said, the investigation took another strange turn; Epstein's defense team seemed to know details about the probe before they were made public.

"We believed that the content of our probable cause affidavit eventually, some time after we presented it to the state attorney's office, ended up with the defense attorneys," Reiter said. "Because minute details that nobody else knew that were in those documents were being refuted and contrary information provided by the defense."

"This," Reiter said, "never happened to me before in my career."

Reiter was so frustrated that he took the unusual step of asking the state attorney, Barry Krischer, to remove himself from the case, citing the office's "highly unusual" treatment of the investigation.

When that didn't work, the police chief turned his evidence over to the FBI.

"And they said, 'This is an easy case. This is a horrific situation. We'll put him away for the rest of his life,'" Reiter recalled.

"That's what the U.S. attorney, assistant U.S. attorneys, told us as well."

But Reiter's renewed enthusiasm didn't last long. In time it became clear that the federal probe was also stalling, though he believes the FBI agents were invested in the case.

Reiter arranged to meet face-to-face with the prosecutor in charge of the case, U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta. Acosta would go on to be named U.S. labor secretary under President Donald Trump.

The conversation, Reiter said, did not get off to a promising start.

"He basically said in a very measured manner that the defense in this case has successfully delayed and frustrated their investigation and their prosecution of the case," Reiter said.

But Reiter left Acosta's office hoping for the best after the prosecutor told him they were moving forward with the investigation.

"I left that meeting thinking, 'This guy hopefully is going to do his job,'" Reiter said.

It didn't turn out the way Reiter had hoped. In 2007, Acosta made the decision not to charge Epstein in federal court. Instead, he sent the case back to the local prosecutors.

Reiter was crushed. The same office that had seemingly refused to pursue Epstein aggressively was now back in charge.

Acosta agreed to sign a non-prosecution deal that ended the federal sex crimes investigation and spared Epstein the prospect of serving several years in prison. Instead, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution and served 13 months at Palm Beach county jail. Epstein was also required to register as a sex offender and pay his restitution to his victims.

"I've never seen anything like it," Reiter said. "It was extremely unusual and disappointing."

Reiter said he believes the result would have been different had the victims been underage boys.

"That would have shocked the senses more," Reiter said. "Somehow this hit a different place — that they were young women on the way to being women."

Epstein was released from jail in the summer of 2009. The case seemed behind him until 2018 when the Miami Herald published an expose highlighting the government's kid-glove treatment of a man accused of preying on dozens of underage girls.

Acosta defended the way his office handled what he described as a complicated case. "We believe we proceeded appropriately," Acosta said during a July 2019 press conference. "We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail."

But Acosta resigned as labor secretary two days later amid mounting criticism.

Krischer, the former state attorney, didn't return a request for comment from NBC News. But he released a statement in July defending his office and pushing back against Acosta's suggestion that state prosecutors were driving the case.

"If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the state's case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted," Krischer said.

Epstein was arrested on fresh charges in July. New York federal prosecutors charged him with sex trafficking and conspiracy in a case that featured similar allegations to those a decade earlier.

Epstein pleaded not guilty but he committed suicide inside his federal jail cell last month.

The death left Reiter thinking about the victims, and their lost chance to see him held accountable.

"I feel badly for the victims," Reiter said. "I realize that there's a catharsis in confronting Epstein and they'll never have that opportunity."

But he hopes that the entirety of the case will lead to systemic change.

"The criminal justice system needs to learn from this and make sure it can't happen again," said Reiter, who still lives in Palm Beach where he runs a security consulting firm.

Reiter wants to see legislation that bars minors from being labeled as prostitutes in the justice system. He also called on Florida lawmakers to close the loopholes that allow people like Epstein to get away with misdemeanors for child sex crimes.

"If you look at the first dozen victims and their accounts of what happened to them, it's clear to me he was coached by a lawyer on how to only commit a misdemeanor," Reiter said. "If you're a member of the legislature and you're out listening to this right now, fix this. It needs to be fixed."

Reiter also delivered a message to all of those girls whose lives were upended by a middle-aged sexual predator with endless resources available to him.

"I don't have any contact with the victims, and if they're listening now, I'm embarrassed for the way the criminal justice system treated them back then in Florida, Reiter said.

"But I want them to know that not every part of the system failed them. We did our job in the Palm Beach Police Department. And everything that happens here should lead to, in the future, if any of these things happen again to some other victim, that the system won't fail them."

Resources to help survivors of sexual assault include the National Sex Assault Hotline (800-656-4673), and The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) online hotline.

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