Ghislaine Maxwell is at the center of the Epstein controversy, but she's in hiding

Victoria Bekiempis

Prince Andrew’s recent interview about his relationship with the alleged child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein has sparked many questions but one stands out: what happened to Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite friend of the prince who is accused of procuring victims for the disgraced financier.

The Duke of York admitted ties to Maxwell and Epstein during the bombshell BBC Newsnight interview – while adamantly denying wrongdoing and expressing regret for continued association with Epstein.

Andrew said he met Epstein through Maxwell, the daughter of late media baron Robert Maxwell. Maxwell has vehemently denied allegations of wrongdoing but her current whereabouts are unknown, with media reports placing sightings of her in various cities in the US and Europe.

Related: The party prince: how Andrew got his bad reputation

Epstein killed himself in a Manhattan jail in August, following his arrest on federal sex trafficking charges.

At the center of this controversy is Epstein’s accuser Virginia Giuffre, who claims Maxwell recruited her to work as his masseuse when she was 15 years old. Giuffre has alleged that a sexual encounter took place with Andrew around 2001, when she was 17.

Giuffre claims Epstein flew her to London on his private jet. After dining with the prince and dancing with him at the Tramp nightclub, she claims, they had a sexual encounter in Maxwell’s Belgravia house.

Prince Andrew stands with Virginia Giuffre while Ghislaine Maxwell smiles in the background. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

A photo of Andrew posing with his hand around the teen Giuffre was purportedly taken at Maxwell’s home – she is seen smiling in the background. Andrew said in the Newsnight interview he last had contact with Maxwell earlier this year, before Epstein’s arrest.

Multiple women in addition to Giuffre have alleged Maxwell enabled Epstein’s sex trafficking ring, either recruiting them directly or planning visits to his homes.

Yet Maxwell’s fate remains an almost complete mystery. She has not been charged. And while she presently faces civil litigation, the likelihood of a court appearance is unknown. Her last public appearance seems to have been at a Los Angeles fast-food restaurant in August, though doubts have been raised about the veracity of that sighting.

Multiple attorneys listed for Maxwell did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Federal authorities have said the investigation into Epstein’s sex trafficking is ongoing. But, officially, their comment is general and does not relate specifically to Maxwell or anyone else.

Legal opinions about whether Andrew could face legal trouble in the US are split and Maxwell’s potential role in any legal move against the prince is unclear – though she would probably be vital to such a ploy.

Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston lawyer who exposed Catholic clergy sex abuse, said in an email attorneys would want to locate Maxwell in the US, as courts here would have legal power to get her to testify.

“Certainly, given Ms Maxwell’s central role in the Epstein matter, what Ms Maxwell has to say as a witness about Prince Andrew’s involvement will greatly affect the opinions of countless others whether connected to law enforcement or otherwise,” Garabedian wrote.

Asked whether this meant Andrew was exposed to US legal liability, Garabedian said, “It depends on the facts.”

Paul Shechtman, a veteran criminal law attorney who teaches criminal procedure at Columbia University Law School, said that while pursuing a case against Maxwell probably appeals to the federal prosecutors who arrested Epstein, targeting Andrew might not.

“Everything points to the fact that she is a serious subject of the southern district [of New York]’s investigation and at the same time, and for a variety of reasons, I don’t think he is,” Shechtman said.

Authorities would have to prove Andrew knew someone was underage, Shechtman said, and “as a general matter, having sexual relations with someone who’s underage is a state crime and not a federal crime.

“I think his exposure for a federal prosecution is quite small indeed,” he said, adding. “I think he can continue to be a prince.”

Rebecca Roiphe, a professor of law at New York Law School and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, said Andrew’s links to Maxwell meant he was caught up in the scandal, regardless of his links to Epstein. But that did not necessarily mean he would face charges.

“The mere fact that Prince Andrew was friends with Maxwell and she was allegedly involved in Epstein’s conduct does not itself prove Prince Andrew’s involvement,” she said in an email. “But it certainly raises questions that will affect publicity and in this particular case publicity is, on its own, quite powerful.”

Certainly Andrew’s Newsnight interview was a blow in the global courtroom of public opinion. But amid the fallout from such a catastrophic PR blunder, another uncomfortable fact emerged. With Epstein dead and Maxwell missing, Andrew has become the most public face of an ongoing investigation.

“Of course, if it’s proved that Andrew was involved with Maxwell and Epstein in the alleged criminal acts then he could face criminal liability,” Roiphe continued.

“Prosecutors are eager to hold someone responsible for Epstein’s alleged crimes. Maxwell is an obvious choice now that Epstein is dead but she is unavailable, which may mean that Prince Andrew is high on their list.”

Meanwhile, Epstein’s estate is facing numerous lawsuits from women who say he sexually abused them, many while they were underage. On Monday, a new lawsuit was filed by a woman identified as Jane Doe 15, who alleged that Epstein assaulted her at his New Mexico ranch when she was 15.

“Jane Doe was only 15 years old when Jeffrey Epstein preyed upon her, trafficked her and sexually abused her,” said the accuser’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, at a news conference. “She wants to speak her truth and encourage other underage victims of Jeffrey Epstein who have not yet asserted their legal rights.”