After months of torture, suddenly there was a sliver of hope. Sarah Ransome saw the unattended quad bike, and jumped on it. She raced off, heading to a remote corner of the 70-acre Caribbean island. A strong swimmer, she planned to swim the several miles from the private island of Little St James back to the island of St Thomas.
“I had been raped three times that day,” she said. “A shark would have been my best friend at that point. I didn’t even think about it – it was just, get me away.”
She didn’t get very far.
Her host, Jeffrey Epstein, had installed video cameras all over the island, she said. Within minutes of her setting out a team had appeared to try and persuade her to return to the house.
She sought out New York-based lawyers David Boies and Sigrid McCawley and in 2017, Miss Ransome filed a lawsuit against Epstein, his confidante Ghislaine Maxwell, and three alleged assistants, claiming she was trafficked for sex over the course of seven months. Ms Maxwell denied the allegations and applied for a Motion to Dismiss the Claim.
The case was eventually settled out of court, but Miss Ransome is telling her full story for the first time in the wake of Epstein’s suicide to encourage other young women to come forward.
Her story highlights how Epstein would prey on vulnerable women, using them to expand his network around the world, and how she believes he cynically changed his tactics to target “older” women after he found himself under federal investigation.
The sad sequence of events that led Miss Ransome to Epstein’s door began in Johannesburg, where she was born to British parents. Her mother was the daughter of Lord Gordon Macpherson, the second baron of Drumochter; her father, to whom she remains close, left at an early age and moved to Cape Town.
When she was 14 she says she was raped by a wealthy schoolmate of her brother’s. The South African police dropped the case, the first time she was let down by the authorities, and the first time she attempted suicide.
She swapped South Africa for the Scottish Highlands, moving in with her aunt and uncle just south of Inverness and attending Grantown grammar school, in Grantown-on-Spey. “I thrived,” she said. “I was head girl. I still have the badge.”
Miss Ransome was accepted to university in Edinburgh, but the costs mounted up and, unable to afford to continue, she dropped out.
Needing to make a clean break after a tumultuous relationship, fashion school in New York beckoned.
“My passion was always the fashion industry,” she said. “I’m quite spontaneous. Pack my bag, tourist visa, thinking, yay, let’s do this. I was so young and naïve. I was 22. I read about it and… New York!
“I moved here on September 1, 2006. I had no idea of the hornet’s nest I had walked into.”
Two weeks later, she was at a Manhattan nightclub, when she says she was approached by a young woman.
“She found out everything about me very quickly. I was so broken; I was an open book. It was like: ‘there’s this amazing guy, a philanthropist, this wealthy guy, he’s amazing, he’s helped me so much, he’s helped me achieve my dreams, he can help you.’"
She shakes her head when asked if there were any warning signs.
“No, not really. He was so charming, charismatic. We just went to the movies. I was 22. I didn’t really understand.
“And then a couple of days later she phoned me and said he really likes you and he wants to invite you to the island. But the only thing you can’t do: you mustn’t drink, and you are not allowed to smoke. But you’re going to go on a private plane, with a fabulous pilot, it’s going to be fun.”
In the increasingly-cold New York autumn, Miss Ransome, alone in New York, accepted the offer to fly to the Caribbean.
“The first time I knew something was weird, I was on the plane.
“During the duration of the flight everyone had fallen asleep. But I am a complete insomniac on planes. And they started having full on, hardcore sex on the bed, one of the girls and Jeffrey. There was no privacy. They did it in front of everyone.
“And from the time I got onto the island that was when the abuse began.
“They called me in, for the massages. The ‘massages’,” she said, making quotation marks in the air.
“I don’t think people quite believe that it was literally… There were some days I was raped three times a day. And then he would rape others.
“We had to be always around the house, so it would be easy to get there. For him and his friends, who he lent us out to.
“In six months I never saw him do a day’s work. I never saw him work. He was literally sexually abusing us all day long.”
She met Miss Maxwell on that first visit to the island, and she was often present during their frequent trips to the Caribbean retreat.
“There was no romance between them,” she said. “They were never like a couple. Jeffrey and Ghislaine were best friends, or like brother and sister. Never holding hands or kissing. And she wasn’t his employee.
“Ghislaine was the socialite. She made Jeffrey look good. I found him quite socially awkward – although in front of his guests he was charming.”
“He preyed on girls who had nothing. Who were pretty much homeless – I was pretty much homeless. I had just come from an incredibly abusive relationship in Edinburgh, I had no money,” she said.
“Jeffrey promised me a visa, and entrance to the Fashion Institute. He held all the power over me.”
By now Miss Ransome was living in an Upper East Side apartment building owned by Epstein. She had no idea that other girls were housed by Epstein in the same building.
Epstein took the trouble to ensure the girls didn’t become friends. If friendships blossomed, the girls would never see each other again.
Epstein controlled every aspect of their lives, Miss Ransome said – their homes, their food, their medical care, their physical appearances.
The willowy 5’9” young woman says she was told to lose weight, and starve herself down to eight stone. Miss Ransome laughs bitterly that she last weighed eight stone when she was aged eight.
“They would put plates of food down in front of me, and then they would be snatched away. They would tell the chef to give me a couple of slices of cucumber, and a tomato. So I had to sit at the table, hungry, and watching everyone else eat.”
Miss Ransome, depressed, lashing out, and “playing up”, was sent to a psychiatrist – paid for by Epstein. Miss Ransome told her everything, and the psychiatrist prescribed her powerful drugs.
“Jeffrey had a whole network of people controlling us, working for him whether they realised it or not."
In early 2007 Miss Ransome was sent to South Africa to look for a personal assistant for Epstein – he insisted that she had to be 18, and had to be found through a modelling agency.
Miss Ransome refused, knowing what the woman’s fate would be. She fled soon after, leaving New York for good – until returning to address the court last month, in the hearing to formally close Epstein’s case. He died by suspected suicide on August 10. Miss Ransome firmly believes he was murdered in jail, on behalf of powerful people wanting to silence him.
“The day Epstein was arrested was without question the best day of my life, without question,” she said.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Miss Ransome’s story is that, at the time, he was being investigated by federal police in Florida, following a 2005 tip-off that a teenage student was being paid to give massages to a billionaire in Palm Beach. Five months after Miss Ransome escaped, that investigation resulted in Epstein’s September 2007 plea deal, and 13 months in a private prison wing staffed by guards he paid for himself, allowed out on daily work release.
Miss Maxwell’s lawyers have denied any wrongdoing. In a motion to dismiss the 2017 suit, Miss Maxwell’s lawyer Laura Menninger, said: "This is not and never will be a sex trafficking case. It is the story of a brief, consensual relationship between two adults occurring more than ten years ago."
“Ms. Ransome may have come to regret her consensual relationship with Mr. Epstein, but that does not mean she was the victim of unlawful sex trafficking or that Ms. Maxwell is somehow liable for it," she wrote in court documents.
"To the contrary, Ms. Ransome, an adult, college-educated women, sophisticated in the ways of relationships and living large, knew exactly what she was doing.”
Miss Ransome is determined that the people around Epstein should be made to reveal what they knew.
“Jeffrey is one person in a whole spider web,” she said.
“If I, a British girl, was asked to recruit in South Africa, who else was asked? I met lots of Russians, Eastern Europeans. What about his life in Paris? You think there aren’t any 15 year olds in Paris who have been abused? Paris was a candy shop for him."
Miss Ransome is soon to start a course in computer coding, from the home she now shares with her partner in Spain.
Her family were reluctant at her decision to come forward, but now, she says, “respect my decision” and understand her mission to encourage others to speak out.
“I don’t see us as victims,” she said. “We are survivors."
In August, she was one of 20 women to recount their allegations against Epstein at a special hearing in a Manhattan court.
“I cannot describe to you how being in court, to address the judge, changed my state of mind. No amount of money or medication could bring me that,” she said. “And I believe they will follow through. And bring others to justice.”