In 2016, before Jeffrey Epstein was simply another dead pedophile, he was free and alive, and a small group of men were trying to peddle an Epstein-related hoax that should never have been possible to perpetrate. Those men were shopping a wild story around to various media outlets, including this one, claiming that Donald Trump had raped a 13-year-old girl at an Epstein-hosted orgy. The men were able to try to peddle that story because Epstein was—for an infuriatingly long time, due to a profound miscarriage of justice—allowed to go without more than a polite wrist-tap for his obvious, outrageous, widely acknowledged crimes against teenage girls.
And just when it seemed that Epstein was actually going to be held accountable for those many, well documented offenses, yet again, he’s escaped. Epstein’s apparent suicide this week—and the conspiracy theories and bad media coverage around it—obscures the real scandal as it was just beginning to emerge. At some point, perhaps, if we’re very lucky, the overheated speculation around Epstein’s death may turn to introspection. It might be worth asking ourselves, for instance, why the public is so much more engaged by Epstein’s bizarre jailhouse death than in listening to his living victims, or questioning the many shameless hucksters who have tried to use their pain for their own political and financial ends. In part, that’s because Epstein’s case has been inextricably linked with conspiracy for such a long time, making it near impossible for the lived experience of his victims to ever be fully heard over the din.
In 2005—14 years ago—a 14-year-old Florida girl and her parents told police she was coerced into accepting money to give him a sexual massage at Epstein’s mansion. That first story soon sprawled into a larger criminal case: in sworn statements, the teenager and several others said they’d been given cash to massage Epstein, massages that sometimes ended with him sexually assaulting them. (In the 2006 New York Times story about the case, the paper writes that a few girls said “he had penetrated them with his fingers or penis,” which is clearly defined as felony sexual battery under Florida law, and is a weirdly indirect way for the paper to phrase things.) The socialite Ghislaine Maxwell has been accused of procuring victims for Epstein, alongside a group of other former Epstein assistants, charges they have all denied.
As the Miami Herald’s blockbuster reporting later made clear, though, almost as soon as Epstein was charged, he was wriggling off the hook, negotiating an extraordinary deal with the office of then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta which allowed him to plead guilty to a state charge of soliciting minors for prostitution, a deal which required him to register as a sex offender and pay restitution, but didn’t end in him being federally charged.
According to his accusers, the abuse was far worse than what was outlined in the initial case. In 2015, a woman named Virginia Roberts Giuffre sued Prince Andrew, claiming that she’d been raped by him and Epstein when she was 17. (The lawsuit is ongoing, and a second accuser, publicly identified as Johanna Sjoberg, gave a deposition in 2016 that recently became public, in which she, too, says she was abused by Epstein and Prince Andrew.) The same year, Gawker published flight logs showing that a powerful group of people had flown over the years on Epstein’s private plane, including Bill Clinton and Alan Dershowitz. (Needless to say, everyone who’s ever been connected to Epstein is expressing shock, horror, and denying they abused anyone themselves, including Alan Dershowitz, who’s also being accused of rape by Virginia Roberts Giuffre.)
The Epstein allegations continued in this strange twilight for years; his outrageous plea deal and the charges against him were largely forgotten by the public. In those years, Epstein reached civil settlements with an unspecified number of victims, settlements whose wording required the women he’d abused to release him from any further responsibility “from the beginning of the world to the day of this release,” according to the Washington Post. When Epstein’s crimes were mentioned publicly, it was often by far right figures hoping to remind the public of the link between Epstein and Clinton, while ignoring that Donald Trump counted him as a friend too. Pizzagate promoter Mike Cernovich, for instance, was one of several parties on a motion to have court records unsealed in the Epstein case. (For Cernovich, this serves two apparent purposes: giving him more grist for claims that the media ignore sex offenders who are linked to Democrats, as he seemed to be implying in a recent tweet, and giving a veneer of legitimacy to his claim to be a journalist.)
In the end, Epstein’s case feels sickeningly familiar: a powerful man who, despite his known abuses, escaped justice for a staggeringly long time, and lived his life more or less in public, more or less unbothered. (It feels almost too pat that Epstein was arrested a little less than a week before R. Kelly, another allegedly monstrous person who was allowed to live a normal life for far too long.) Even the question of where, precisely, he was meant to check in as a registered sex offender was passed like a hot potato among NYPD officials and their counterparts in the Virgin Islands.
Epstein was finally arrested on federal sex trafficking charges on July 6, and died by suicide a little over a month later, while he was in pretrial detention in New York City. Yet the initial, overwhelming reaction hasn’t been groundswell of support for his victims, who have now been denied one form of justice, another outrage heaped onto their pain. “I am angry Jeffrey Epstein won’t have to face his survivors of his abuse in court,” one Epstein accuser, Jennifer Araoz, told NBC News in a statement; she says Epstein raped her when she was 15. “We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed, the pain and trauma he caused so many people.”
By the weekend, the president of the United States pissed gasoline all over the conspiracy blaze, retweeting conspiracy theories linking Bill Clinton to Epstein’s demise. (That he’d do so was particularly bizarre, given that Trump also knew Epstein for many years, calling him “terrific” and telling New York in 2002, that Epstein “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”)
It’s been a veritable Christmas morning for conspiracy peddlers, who have been linking his death to, among other things, the longstanding conspiracy theory that the Clintons murder their enemies, the so-called “Clinton body count.” By linking his death to such a longstanding conspiracy, it’s virtually inevitable that skepticism about his death will linger for years, as with the case of former Clinton White House aide Vince Foster, whose suicide has been falsely labeled a Clinton-backed murder for decades. It’s gotten weirder, even, than that: Promoters of QAnon—the increasingly bizarre pro-Trump conspiracy theory—are speculating that Epstein isn’t really dead at all.
Conspiracy theories, whatever their content, avoid taxing Epstein himself with responsibility, instead chalking it all up to a grand scheme. That’s not unlike how some outlets have portrayed him: Even after an ignominious death, while accused of a truly disgusting litany of offenses, Epstein is granted the occasional gift of euphemism. One Times story wrote that he was “dogged by accusations of sexual abuse,” which manages unintentionally to make the man sound like a victim. A Washington Post columnist named Kathleen Parker called Epstein a “perversely tragic figure,” a profoundly stupid thing to say.
In truth, Epstein’s crimes have always been curiously obscured by the public’s reactions, the irresistible urge that so many people have seemingly had to spin a real crime into a more useful and somehow even more salacious one. The short-lived Trump-Epstein lawsuit that I covered in 2016 was a good, if bizarre, example.
The suit was brought by a supposed woman using the name “Katie Johnson,” and it was found to be suspicious not just by Jezebel, but by the Daily Beast and by The Guardian, where reporter Jon Swaine found that the main person shopping the suit around, a guy calling himself “Al Taylor,” has a history of perpetrating hoaxes. None of us ever found convincing evidence that “Katie” was a real person or that her claims were checkable in any meaningful sense of the word. It was, and remains, unlike any other sexual assault story I’ve ever worked on: I was never allowed to speak directly to the alleged victim, and, unlike the many other women who have accused Donald Trump of sexual misconduct, the Daily Beast’s Brandy Zadrozny pointed out that the woman was a repeated no-show at press conferences and media interviews.
But the men pushing that lawsuit had a nifty trick: wrapping a somewhat far-fetched crime within a perfectly realistic kernel of truth. It was known back then, incontrovertibly, that Jeffrey Epstein abused teenagers, and got away with it, and that he’d been at least accused of doing so alongside staggeringly wealthy and powerful people. It was a preview, in a way, of the kind of rumors and lies and half-truths we’re seeing circulating now in the wake of Epstein’s death. When you combine a real crime with fiction, it starts to exert its own, dissonant gravitational pull, distorting reality in ways that make it almost impossible to pull back into a recognizable shape.
But his suicide is in no way an end to Epstein’s story or an examination of the responsibility many, many people bear for how it played out. And while the conspiracy theories and speculation around his death will likely live forever, hopefully the searing understanding of how badly his victims were wronged will too.