Written by Benjamin Weiser and William K. Rashbaum
Jeffrey Epstein is dead. But the criminal investigation that led to the sex-trafficking charges against him is not.
Federal prosecutors and FBI agents who built the case against Epstein will turn their attention to people whom his accusers have said participated in a scheme that dates back more than a decade and involved the sexual exploitation of dozens of underage girls.
That could include a circle of close associates whom accusers said helped recruit, train and coerce them into catering to Epstein, a wealthy financier.
Soon after Epstein was found dead of an apparent suicide in a federal jail Saturday, Geoffrey S. Berman, the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said his office’s investigation would continue, and pointedly mentioned that the government’s indictment against Epstein included a conspiracy charge.
Daniel C. Richman, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who now teaches criminal law at Columbia University, said that meant the government already had identified additional targets despite the death of Epstein.
“Its use of conspiracy charges suggests it already has some living people in its sights,” Richman said.
Manhattan federal prosecutors have not charged or named anyone as a co-conspirator. But in 2007, a nonprosecution agreement between Epstein and federal officials in Florida said that prosecutors would not charge four women it identified as “potential co-conspirators.”
Berman’s office has maintained that it is not bound by the Florida agreement.
The stunning news of Epstein’s death prompted a swirl of new questions about its circumstances, including why jail officials removed Epstein, 66, from a suicide watch program that included daily psychiatric evaluations just days after he was found injured in his cell in what appeared to have been an earlier suicide attempt.
The US attorney general, William Barr, whose Justice Department oversees the federal Bureau of Prisons, ordered the FBI and department’s inspector general to investigate the circumstances around Epstein’s death.
But those circumstances also prompted outrage from his many accusers, who saw him as again eluding justice, years after escaping federal prosecution on similar charges of sexually abusing girls. He was allowed to plead guilty in 2008 to state prostitution charges in Florida, and served a 13-month sentence, spending most of his days on work-release.
“I never wanted him to die. I just wanted him to be held accountable for his actions,” said Michelle S. Licata, 31, who was among the dozens of girls who Palm Beach police and the FBI found were recruited to give Epstein erotic massages, which included his touching her breasts while he masturbated.
Still, many of his accusers can pursue civil claims against his vast estate, which is said to be worth more than $500 million, lawyers for some of his accusers have said.
Berman, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, appeared to have the frustration of Epstein’s accusers in mind when he spoke Saturday.
“To those brave young women who have already come forward and to the many others who have yet to do so,” Berman said in a statement, “let me reiterate that we remain committed to standing for you, and our investigation of the conduct charged in the indictment — which included a conspiracy count — remains ongoing.”
It is unclear whether others will be charged; but even before Epstein’s death, it was apparent that the investigation was expanding into his finances, with FBI agents and prosecutors gathering evidence from banks and others.
In addition to possible sex-trafficking conspiracy charges against others, prosecutors could also seek charges of aiding and abetting Epstein or money laundering, which could lead to trials and criminal forfeiture actions. The government could try to seize assets that could be sold and used to compensate his accusers.
Sharon Cohen Levin, a former federal prosecutor who led the Southern District’s money laundering and asset forfeiture unit, said another likely option would be for prosecutors to file a lawsuit known as a civil forfeiture action against Epstein’s properties, such as his $56 million mansion in Manhattan, claiming they were used to facilitate crimes.
The procedure has been used to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis in World II and to return it to victims’ families, she noted.
If prosecutors were to file such an action against Epstein’s property, Levin said, they would likely offer a detailed narrative of how the mansion, for example, was used to further his alleged trafficking of underage victims.
“The victims will lose the opportunity to face him in court, see him eye to eye and tell their story,” Levin said, “but they can still work with the government to get their story out.”
Lawyers for Epstein’s accusers said the news of his death was traumatic, but did not leave them without options.
David Boies, a New York lawyer who represents several of Epstein’s accusers, said his clients were surprised by the apparent suicide and unhappy that they would never be able to confront Epstein.
“On the other hand, they have been through a lot, and they are not going to give up, and to the extent that they can hold his estate liable and to the extent that they can hold the other people who worked with him responsible, they’re committed to trying to do that,” Boies said.
Lisa Bloom, a California-based lawyer, said she intended to file a lawsuit in the coming days on behalf of two accusers, naming Epstein’s estate as the defendant.
“The victims are entitled for compensation for the anguish he put them through over so many years,” Bloom said. She said her clients were older than 18 when Epstein victimized them in the early 2000s in New York and that they have been in touch with federal investigators.
Roberta Kaplan, who represents a woman who was a minor at the time she said she was abused by Epstein and was one of the victims cited in the federal indictment, said Epstein’s death was for her client “not only emotionally devastating but a real emotional roller coaster.”
But Kaplan was confident her client could still achieve justice through the courts. “It may not be justice through the criminal system,” Kaplan said, “but there should be some measure of justice as a result of civil lawsuits and civil claims.”
A Florida lawyer, Jack Scarola, said his clients were disappointed. But he suggested that the troubling and strange turn to the case could perhaps bring an unforeseen benefit. “They are hopeful,” he said, “that other victims may be relieved of some of the fear that has prevented them from coming forward while Epstein was still alive.”