Jeffrey Epstein once described the US Virgin Islands as “my favorite place to be.”
When he was there, Epstein had a knack for getting his way, according to public records and interviews with residents and local officials.
Epstein, the accused sex trafficker who killed himself in a Manhattan jail this month, used these islands as a personal and corporate hideaway, negotiating lucrative local tax breaks even as he faced federal investigations for sexual misconduct.
He cultivated close ties to the islands’ political and financial elite. He employed a governor’s wife. He hired an architecture firm owned by that governor’s uncle. He donated money, sponsored scholarships and even gave dozens of computers to a local lawmaker to distribute.
The islands became a haven for Epstein. His private plane would fly him to St. Thomas’ international airport, where he would board a helicopter that whisked him to his Little St. James and Great St. James islands. Once there, he was known to entertain famous friends and, his accusers have said in court filings, traffic underage girls for sex.
While federal authorities spent years criminally investigating Epstein, a spokesman for the local police department said it had no records of having visited his Virgin Islands properties.
“It was kind of accepted,” said Sasha Bouis, who used to run a floating restaurant anchored near Great St. James. “There was just this creepy old billionaire living out there.”
Since Epstein was charged with sex trafficking in July, his island operations have been under scrutiny. A few days after his Aug. 10 death, FBI agents and New York Police Department investigators raided Little St. James, which some locals say they had nicknamed “Pedophile Island.”
Federal prosecutors handling Epstein’s sex-trafficking case have said the investigation will not end with his death. In recent lawsuits, his accusers have lodged fresh claims about how they were sexually assaulted on his islands.
In the weeks ahead, the wrangling over Epstein’s assets is likely to play out on St. Thomas. Last week, lawyers handling Epstein’s estate filed his will in court on St. Thomas and said he had more than $570 million in assets.
Epstein arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1998, when he paid $7.95 million for Little St. James, a roughly 70-acre island. Epstein called it “Little St. Jeff’s.” In 2016, he bought the larger Great St. James for $17.5 million.
Over the years, he spent millions more developing the islands, including building a villa with a library, a Japanese bathhouse and a movie theater.
His construction projects led to repeated clashes between Epstein and the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources, according to paperwork related to his work permits reviewed by The New York Times.
A memo from the agency’s wildlife chief in 2010 noted that Epstein’s properties had “a long history of egregious and blatant disregard for environmental regulations.” Projects had “introduced several nonnative species to the island.” The arrival of one invasive species, the Cuban tree frog, led to a recommendation that all landscaping and building materials be inspected, the memo said.
Epstein’s lawyers resolved some disputes by paying fines, retroactively applying for permits and making donations, sometimes using funds from his charities.
In 2016, Epstein reached a settlement with the agency over unapproved construction projects on Great St. James. Officials soon accused his company of violating the agreement by not removing a beach bar cabana and by expanding a driveway, despite a stop-work order.
Epstein used St. Thomas to register a number of his businesses. Little remains known about their purposes. In public documents, many listed their addresses as Epstein’s office at the American Yacht Harbor complex in the Red Hook quarter of St. Thomas.
Epstein was rarely seen there. Last week, a man at the front desk said through an intercom that no one was available to talk to a reporter.
People around St. Thomas are reluctant to talk about Epstein — even after his death, locals say, there are fears about violating nondisclosure agreements or angering his close associates on the island.
Epstein went out of his way to ingratiate himself with local leaders. He donated 50 computers that a local senator could give away to schools and youth organizations. He financed programs at an elite local private school. He sponsored scholarships for a beauty pageant and a 2014 science and math fair for children in the Virgin Islands.
Epstein’s companies repeatedly were allowed to participate in a US Virgin Islands tax-cut program that allows certain people and businesses that invest at least $100,000 locally to have their income and other tax rates cut substantially or eliminated.
In 2012, one of his companies, Southern Trust, applied to take part — and cited his donations as a selling point.
“Those of you who know Mr. Epstein — he has been a long-term resident of the Virgin Islands — know that he has given generously over the course of the last 11 years to various charities in the Virgin Islands,” said Erika Kellerhals, one of Epstein’s lawyers, at a public hearing about the application.
That application was approved. So were Epstein’s previous applications for his advisory company, Financial Trust, and the Red Hook marina that he co-owned with a company owned by a New York businessman. The authority held a hearing on one application in 2009, shortly after Epstein pleaded guilty in Florida to soliciting prostitution from a minor.
The tax-incentive program is administered by a division of the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority. Some of its board members are appointed by the governor of the Virgin Islands.
From January 2007 to January 2015 — when Epstein’s various companies were participating in or applying for the tax program — the governor was John P. de Jongh Jr. The governor’s wife, Cecile, was the manager of Southern Trust. (It was not clear what that role entailed.) Epstein had also hired an architecture firm owned by de Jongh’s uncle for work on his private islands, records show. Efforts to reach the de Jonghs were unsuccessful.
In an interview, executives from the economic development authority said that Epstein’s businesses had qualified for and remained in compliance with the program, which has 71 participants. The authority would not disclose the dollar value of the nearly two decades of tax breaks Epstein’s companies received.
“I can’t say anything stood out in this particular case,” said Wayne Biggs Jr., the authority’s assistant chief executive.
Epstein had unusual plans for Southern Trust: He hoped to create an algorithm to mine information from genetic sequencing databases as a way to find treatments for cancer, according to the transcript of the tax-incentive hearing, which is where he extolled the Virgin Islands as his “favorite place.” Epstein had long cast himself as a science aficionado, inviting physicists to his island and even discussing how he could perpetuate his own DNA in the human population.
As he made the pitch for the tax break in 2012, he compared his DNA-sequencing efforts to those of the Wright Brothers and the science to “Frankenstein.” He also noted that he had a friend in New York who had a recent cancer diagnosis. “I’m leaving for New York after this meeting to go sit with the sequencers to see if I can save my friend,” he said.
“Places, frankly, like St. Thomas are the perfect place to sequence people because it is so isolated,” he added.
At times, the board seemed perplexed with his plan. Epstein offered reassurances.
“I am not a madman,” he said.