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Lawyers Offer Clashing Portraits of Ghislaine Maxwell

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 11/29/2021 Corinne Ramey, James Fanelli
© Elizabeth Williams/Associated Press

The sex-trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell began Monday with New York federal prosecutors and her defense team offering opposing portraits of the British socialite and sparring over her role in financier Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged sex abuse of underage girls.

In opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz said in a federal court in Manhattan that, between 1994 and 2004, Ms. Maxwell recruited young teenagers for Epstein and normalized abusive behavior, including showing them how to give him massages.

Ms. Maxwell, 59 years old, was for some time Epstein’s girlfriend but later worked for him, helping to create a culture of silence among his staff about the abuse, Ms. Pomerantz said. By procuring girls for Epstein, a multimillionaire with estates around the country and in Paris, Ms. Maxwell also enjoyed his jet-setting lifestyle and got to socialize with his circle of powerful and influential associates, Ms. Pomerantz said.

“She knew exactly what she was doing,” Ms. Pomerantz said. “She was dangerous. She was setting young girls up to be molested by a predator.”

Bobbi Sternheim, a lawyer for Ms. Maxwell, challenged that depiction, calling her client a scapegoat who wasn’t charged until nearly a year after Epstein’s death in August 2019. Epstein died by suicide in jail about a month after his indictment on sex-trafficking charges.

“She is a convenient stand-in,” Ms. Sternheim said of her client.

Ms. Maxwell faces six criminal counts at trial, including enticing a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts and transporting a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. She has pleaded not guilty and has said that she never committed a crime.


Video: Ghislaine Maxwell sex trafficking trial begins (The Washington Post)

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The trial, which is set to last about six weeks, is expected to provide a window into what prosecutors have described as Epstein’s sex trafficking of dozens of minors in New York, Florida and elsewhere. In pretrial appearances, Ms. Maxwell has worn a jail uniform. On Monday, dressed in a white sweater, Ms. Maxwell sat next to her lawyers, occasionally speaking to them and taking a sip from a coffee cup.

Four accusers and some of their relatives will testify about Ms. Maxwell’s alleged role in the abuse, according to prosecutors. Ms. Pomerantz said one of the accusers would describe how her abuse began, starting with Ms. Maxwell and Epstein befriending her while she attended a camp for talented teens.

Ms. Sternheim described Epstein as a “21st century James Bond” who attracted people with his wealth and charisma but compartmentalized and hid the darker parts of his life.

The lawyer challenged the four accusers’ memories of events, saying they had been warped by the passage of time. The defense plans to call a memory expert to speak about research showing how memories fade and how people can develop memories of events that never occurred.

The four accusers were also motivated by money, Ms. Sternheim said, noting that each was awarded millions of dollars from a victims compensation fund set up by lawyers and executors of Epstein’s estate. Accusers had their awards enhanced if they agreed to cooperate with the government, Ms. Sternheim said.

Ms. Pomerantz said the four accusers did receive settlements from the victims’ fund, but that money wasn’t a motivation.

“They would pay anything to have never met the defendant and Epstein,” she said.

Prosecutors said they would also show flight records of trips Ms. Maxwell and Epstein took with young teenage girls on private planes.

After opening statements, Lawrence Paul Visoski, a former pilot for Epstein, took the stand for the government on Monday. He was expected to continue his testimony Tuesday morning.

Write to Corinne Ramey at Corinne.Ramey@wsj.com

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