Victims and prosecutors see Ghislaine Maxwell as ‘center’ of Epstein’s scheme ahead of trial

Lawyers, victims and other members of the ‘#MeToo’ movement have assembled in Florida to watch Maxwell go on trial for pimping out her daughter

Victims and prosecutors see Ghislaine Maxwell as ‘center’ of Epstein’s scheme ahead of trial

A “shadowy global network” of men used the MySpace website to groom teenage girls in the late 2000s to trade sex acts for money and gifts, according to court documents, a range of victims and a prominent lawyer who filed the suit against the celebrity billionaire Jeffrey Epstein.

The powerful founder of the Maxim and Stuff magazines and his wife are both charged with soliciting prostitution from two teenage girls, which the couple denies. The pair have insisted all along that Maxwell was the “victim” of Epstein’s alleged involvement.

The pair’s lawyers see her as the “center” of the case against Epstein, who has said in interviews that he needed money and the girls were victims of “bad influences”.

Epstein, who received a $17m sentence for soliciting underage prostitution in 2009, is fighting a separate case in Florida against five women he says sexually abused him when he was a minor. The trial of Maxwell and Epstein’s wife, Grace, is set to begin in federal court in West Palm Beach in late March.

Jonathan Greene, a childhood friend of Jeffrey Epstein, says he fears repercussions for speaking out to the Guardian Read more

In the past few days, witnesses and lawyers assembled outside the courthouse to watch the trial unfold. On Friday, the Guardian spoke to more than a dozen young women – or women who represented them, like actress Eliza Dushku – who were the victims or alleged victims of abuse by Epstein in Florida and California in the late 2000s.

Much of the “intimate testimony” of the “victims” is shielded from public view but Greene, a former plaintiff in one of Epstein’s court cases and friend of the victims, said they included stories of how Epstein cajoled his young girlfriends, including actresses and models, to have sex with him.

The star accounts of the witnesses vary between glowing and damning. Some spoke of repeatedly, meticulously pleasuring other girls at the hands of their wealthy partners. Others said they were convinced that if they ever opened up about what happened to them it would be nearly impossible to convince the authorities.

Most of the women said they believed Ghislaine Maxwell would be the main fall-guy in any criminal prosecution of Epstein or other members of his “prostitution ring”, said Eleanor Alter, a prominent lawyer who represents dozens of women who were the victims of Epstein and his clients.

All of the women say they are grateful that Berry and other lawyers have looked out for them.

“We have attorneys who have been so working on our behalf for many years,” said a woman who asked to be called only Jane Doe. “We have watched the vilification and pain of reporting and having to face everyone we are innocent. It’s been a long struggle for all of us.”

Heidi Anne Balfour, a former model who said Epstein approached her in 2002, described himself as “the one who paid for” meetings with Epstein’s rich clients and friends. The men paid her $200 an hour to have sex in luxury settings, including a St John’s Island villa where she alleged the millionaire sodomized her and digitally penetrated another teenage girl who was forced to do it for cash.

Femi-Elizabeth Oyefeso’s account of Epstein’s manipulation, exploitation and mistreatment was typical of many women who said they had been forced to perform sex acts. She said she was “half a butt” of Epstein’s penile impulses as a teenager when he took her on trips to New York to meet wealthy potential clients who sent her money in return for sexual services.

“I know it sounds awful, but it was part of his business,” Oyefeso said. “He paid me to have sex and get girls into the business.”

This article has been amended to clarify that the eye bank has been working

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