FBI wanted to arrest Epstein at Virgin Islands beauty pageant months before plea deal cut

Tom Winter and Sarah Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Dienst

The FBI wanted to arrest Jeffrey Epstein while he was judging a beauty pageant in the Virgin Islands seven months before he signed a non-prosecution deal that shielded him from federal sex crime charges, a Justice Department report says.

The 347-page report obtained by NBC News expands on an executive summary released Thursday of a probe into a more than decade-old sex abuse investigation of Epstein. The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility found that former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who oversaw the case when he was a top federal prosecutor in Florida in the mid-2000s, exercised “poor judgment” but did not engage in misconduct.

The full report quotes one prosecutor as telling a colleague that the FBI had “wanted to arrest [Epstein] in [the] Virgin Islands during a beauty pageant...where he is a judge.”

“The case agent recalled that she and her co-case agent were disappointed” about being denied the opportunity to make the arrest in May 2007, the report says, and an FBI supervisor overseeing the case was “extremely upset” about it.

It wasn’t until a year later, in 2008, that Epstein surrendered to authorities after signing a plea deal. That the FBI wanted to bring charges against Epstein in 2007 was already known but the agency’s interest in arresting him at a beauty pageant in the Virgin Island has not been previously reported.

The politically-connected financier had been accused of sexually abusing dozens of teenage girls in his West Palm Beach mansion. But he eventually pleaded guilty to state charges involving a single victim in a deal that spared him from serving a long prison sentence.

Epstein ultimately spent 13 months in jail and was allowed to leave almost every day through a work release program. He died by suicide inside a federal prison last year while awaiting trial on new sex trafficking charges.

The report says the federal investigation began when Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie Villafaña told Acosta that she was willing to invest the time and the FBI was willing to invest the money to investigate Epstein.

“But I didn’t want to get to the end and then have the [U.S. Attorney’s Office] be intimidated by the high-powered lawyers” for Epstein, she said in an email included in the report. “I was assured that that would not happen.”

Villafaña wrote in July 2007, nearly two months after the FBI wanted to arrest Epstein at the beauty pageant, “now I feel like there is a glass ceiling that prevents me from moving forward while evidence suggests that Epstein is continuing to engage in this criminal behavior.”

The report describes a year of back and forth communications between a cadre of Epstein attorneys, Villafaña, Villafaña’s immediate supervisors, and Acosta himself, some of which have previously been detailed in court filings. It includes summarizations of interviews with FBI agents, emails, and written documentation about the case.

Villafaña told the Justice Department that she believed Acosta “was influenced by the stature of Epstein’s attorneys.”

“[O]ne of the issues in the case was the . . . defense’s ability to describe the case or characterize the case as being legally complex,” Villafaña told investigators, the report says. “It was not as legally complex as they made it out to be.”

But the report says “neither Villafaña nor any of the other individuals OPR interviewed identified any specific evidence suggesting that Acosta, or any of the other subjects, extended an improper favor or benefit to Epstein because of a personal relationship with defense counsel.”

In a statement released Thursday, Acosta said the report "fully debunks allegations that the USAO improperly cut Epstein a 'sweet-heart deal' or purposefully avoided investigating potential wrongdoing by various prominent individuals."

The report also raises new questions about what federal prosecutors thought was going on with the original case investigated by local prosecutors in Palm Beach.

“The state intentionally torpedoed it in the grand jury so it was brought to us,” one of Villafaña’s supervisors wrote as federal prosecutors were weighing charges in 2007.

Federal prosecutors had concerns about the state prosecutor at the time, Barry Krischer, the report shows.

In an email, Acosta asked one of the supervisors of the case if it would be appropriate to give a heads up to Krischer on how they were going to proceed with the investigation. The supervisor advised Krischer, “no for fear that it will be leaked straight to Epstein,” the report says.

As the non-prosecution agreement was still being negotiated, Villafaña wrote an email to Acosta describing the pain of three alleged victims who were recently interviewed by investigators.

“One girl broke down sobbing so that we had to stop the interview twice within a 20 minute span,” she wrote. “She regained her composure enough to continue a short time, but she said that she was having nightmares about Epstein coming after her and she started to break down again, so we stopped the interview.”

“These girls deserve so much better than they have received so far, and I hate feeling that there is nothing I can do to help them,” Villafaña added.

Epstein’s attorney Ken Starr wrote a final email to Acosta when the case was concluded.

“While I am obviously very unhappy at what I believe is the government’s treatment of my client [Epstein], a man whom I have come to deeply admire, I recognize that we have filed and argued our ‘appellate motions’ and lost,” Starr said.

He concluded saying, “I would like to have . . . some closure with you on this matter so that in the years to come, neither of us will harbor any ill will over the matter.”