As Ghislaine Maxwell's trial begins, prosecutors say she ran 'a pyramid scheme of abuse' with Jeffrey Epstein

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ghislaine maxwell with lawyers court llustration
The defense lawyer Bobbi Sternheim pointing toward Ghislaine Maxwell beside Jeffrey Pagliuca in a courtroom sketch of a November 23 pretrial hearing on sex-trafficking charges.REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg
  • Prosecutors slammed Ghislaine Maxwell in their opening statement at her child-sex-trafficking trial.

  • They accused Maxwell of sex-trafficking girls with Jeffrey Epstein and sexually abusing them.

  • The trial in New York City is expected to last up to six weeks. Maxwell has pleaded not guilty.

NEW YORK — Prosecutors on Monday accused Ghislaine Maxwell of grooming and sexually abusing teenage girls, alleging at the British socialite's child-sex-trafficking trial that she ran "a pyramid scheme of abuse" with Jeffrey Epstein.

"For a decade, the defendant played an essential role in this scheme," Assistant US Attorney Lara Elizabeth Pomerantz said in her opening statement Monday afternoon. "She knew exactly what she was doing. She was dangerous. She was setting them up with a predator."

Pomerantz addressed the jurors in the Manhattan courtroom while enclosed in a plexiglass box because of COVID-19 safety procedures.

She laid out the stories of four accusers who are expected to testify in the trial. She said other pieces of documentary evidence and testimony from people who spent time with Epstein and Maxwell, including members of Epstein's household staff, would corroborate details of their stories.

Pomerantz said Maxwell and Epstein created a system in which they persuaded the girls in their web to recruit other teenagers for sex, creating a "flow of girls to abuse."

She said that Maxwell, as Epstein's top lieutenant and the manager of his numerous properties, created a culture of silence around the alleged sexual misconduct.

"The defendant was the lady of the house," Pomerantz said. "There was a culture of silence. That was by design. The defendant's design."

Pomerantz said Maxwell and Epstein targeted teenagers who were vulnerable, alleging they even looked up the backgrounds of their family members, and lured them in with promises of scholarships and shopping trips before Maxwell brought them to Epstein for sexual abuse. She said Maxwell used her identity as an adult woman to normalize sexual exploitation.

"She used the same excuse over and over to get the girls to touch Epstein: 'massage,'" Pomerantz said.

The opening statements mark the beginning of the trial, which is expected to last up to six weeks in a federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan. US District Judge Alison Nathan, who's overseeing the case, spent Monday morning finalizing the selection of alternate jurors in the trial and swore them in.

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges against her and has denied all wrongdoing.

What Maxwell is accused of

In an indictment, federal prosecutors accused Maxwell of sex-trafficking girls with Jeffrey Epstein, sexually abusing them herself, and lying about her actions in a deposition. FBI agents arrested Maxwell in her home in New Hampshire in July 2020, and she's been awaiting trial in Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center ever since.

Prosecutors identified four accusers who are expected to testify in the trial. Numerous other women have accused Maxwell of sexual misconduct in civil litigation as well.

ghislaine maxwell prosecutor opening
A sketch of Assistant US Attorney Lara Pomerantz pointing at Maxwell during opening statements at the start of Maxwell's trial on Monday.REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

At the heart of the trial is Maxwell's relationship with Epstein, the financier and convicted sex offender who killed himself in jail in August 2019 while awaiting trial on similar charges. Audrey Strauss, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York at the time of Maxwell's arrest, said Maxwell and Epstein ran a child-sex-trafficking operation together.

"Maxwell enticed minor girls, got them to trust her, and then delivered them into the trap that she and Jeffrey Epstein had set," Strauss said in a statement at the time. "She pretended to be a woman they could trust. All the while, she was setting them up to be abused sexually by Epstein and, in some cases, Maxwell herself."

A Florida law-enforcement investigation in 2006 identified 34 Epstein victims. But as part of a nonprosecution agreement, he pleaded guilty to state-level prostitution charges that gave him an 18-month sentence in a Palm Beach County jail. Epstein spent much of that time on "work release" in an office rather than in a jail cell.

A victims'-compensation program established by Epstein's estate after his death ultimately paid 150 claimants $125 million.

This article has been updated.

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