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  •   Home > News > International

    Before Ghislaine Maxwell met Jeffrey Epstein, there was fortune, fame, and a mysterious disappearance from a multi-million-dollar yacht

    Ghislaine Maxwell was once photographed with New York's celebrity elite. Now she is known as inmate 02879-509 and is about to go on trial for grooming girls for Jeffrey Epstein.

    It's the kind of place you might overlook at first. Secluded in the lush wilderness of New Hampshire, the suburb of Bradford is defined by its stately white colonial homes, stone walls and quaint restaurants.

    It does not boast a glorious lake or coastal view. And with a population of just 2,000 people, it wouldn't be the first place you'd look for a former socialite used to living the high life.

    In fact, in all the possible places Jeffrey Epstein's former associate was believed to be hiding — deep beneath the sea in a submarine, in a spectacular villa in the south of France, or traipsing somewhere on the coast of Spain — the small American town did not make the cut.

    Yet, it was on the outskirts of Bradford, within a luxurious compound perched on 156 acres of pine and oak forests where the mysterious Ghislaine Maxwell was discovered after more than a year evading authorities. 

    Near her front gate, the words "Tucked Away," carved into a rock, belied a secret hiding within.

    Maxwell paid $US1 million — in cash through a shell company in December 2019 — for her mountainous hideaway.

    According to locals, Bradford is a place where people "keep to themselves".

    But on July 2, 2020, Maxwell's illusion of privacy and seclusion was shattered by a knock on the door.

    Mere hours after sunrise, FBI agents surrounded the remote property, breaking through a locked gate and navigating a narrow, tree-lined, dirt driveway dotted with "No Trespassing" signs.

    As they approached the porch, police demanded that the woman inside let them in.

    Instead, through a window, the agents saw Maxwell ignore their order and flee to another room in the house, acting US Attorney Audrey Strauss wrote in a July 13 memorandum.

    When they ultimately forced their way through, they found Maxwell in an "interior room". Nearby sat a cell phone wrapped in tinfoil on top of a desk — "a seemingly misguided effort to evade detection," authorities noted.

    Despite tabloids placing her all around the world, Maxwell was found a mere six-hour drive from her former haunt in New York City.

    Agents were scathing in their account of her arrest to the public, describing her a "James Bond character" who "slithered away to a gorgeous property".

    In their view, she continued to "live a life of privilege while her victims live with the trauma inflicted upon them years ago".

    But July 2 marked the end of her lavish former life. Maxwell traded in the grand timber facade of her former home for a grim prison cell at the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn.

    The name that once graced New York's celebrity pages is now known as inmate 02879-509.

    She will face trial next week accused of recruiting and grooming a steady stream of girls as young as 14 to be sexually assaulted by Jeffrey Epstein between 1994 to 2004. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

    The fate of the woman once linked to some of the biggest names in the world now lies with the jurors and judge of a New York court.

    The six-week trial may finally offer some resolution to Epstein's victims, who failed to get closure after he died in jail in 2019.

    A life of privilege ends in scandal

    The youngest child of publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell and his wife Elizabeth's nine children, Ghislaine Maxwell was born into a life of wealth and privilege.

    She grew up in a 53-room mansion in Oxford, was "spoiled" by her father and attended some of the best private schools in England. She studied at Oxford University and is reportedly well-versed in several languages.

    Ghislaine was the favourite of the family's patriarch, Robert Maxwell — by then a household name in Britain because of his tabloid empire — and worked for him in her early life.

    She had stints as an executive at one of the soccer teams he owned, Oxford United, and worked at his Mirror Group newspapers.

    The senior Maxwell even named his $AUD27 million yacht the Lady Ghislaine. The Maxwell name not only opened doors to jobs in her father's company, but also to London's social scene.

    In his book, Ghislaine Maxwell, The Fall of America's Most Notorious Socialite, author Nigel Cawthorne describes the youngest Maxwell as a prominent member of society at the time.

    Later, she paved the way for her father's entry into the world of New York's rich and famous.

    "She's a socialite," Mr Cawthorne told the ABC.

    "Certainly she was everywhere, with everyone, all the time until, of course, she was in jail."

    But decades before she would face court over allegations she groomed underage girls for Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell's life was embroiled in a different scandal.

    In 1991, when she was just 29-years-old, her father disappeared from his yacht off the coast of Spain's Canary Islands. His body was later found "stiff, naked and floating" in the Atlantic.

    The strange circumstances surrounding the billionaire's disappearance stoked wild theories about what had happened to him. Was it a heart attack, an accident or a suicide?

    The official cause of death in 1991 was ruled a heart attack combined with drowning. But conspiracies still surround the case and even the youngest Maxwell has expressed doubts about the official report.

    "Ghislaine, however, uniquely in our family, has always thought he was murdered, and she's alone in that," her brother Ian Maxwell told ABC America's 20/20.

    "But it's her profound conviction that that is what happened."

    Adding to the intrigue were the revelations that Maxwell had plundered hundreds of millions of pounds from his companies' pension funds.

    Kevin and Ian Maxwell were later tried for fraud in relation to the scandal. But they were acquitted and cleared of any wrongdoing.

    Soon, the public had turned on the family. Within months, Maxwell had lost her father, her fortune and her social standing.

    In search of a fresh start, she left England and eventually crossed paths with a man who shared many similarities to her late father. It was financier Jeffrey Epstein.

    The socialite and Jeffrey Epstein

    While in New York, Maxwell went to parties, attended A-list events and mixed with the likes of Donald Trump and the Clintons.

    She also met Epstein, an elusive high-flying hedge-fund manager, whose clients included the billionaire retail magnate Les Wexner, owner of the Victoria's Secret chain.

    While it is unclear exactly when the pair first came face to face, Maxwell told a 2016 deposition she met Epstein sometime in 1991 through a "mutual friend". Photographs show Maxwell and the financier together at a party in November 1991.

    Ambiguity also remains over the nature of their relationship. Maxwell has been described as Epstein's former girlfriend, his associate, and in Epstein's own words, his "best friend".

    Their relationship reportedly started as a romance but later became a close friendship and in 1992, expanded into a business partnership.

    Maxwell said she was "consulting," helping to decorate Epstein houses and "hiring staff to help run those houses," according to her 2016 deposition.

    Her Rolodex was a who's-who of enviable connections among the rich, famous and politically-connected. She's been pictured with Elon Musk, Arianna Huffington and Michael Bloomberg.

    Rumours swirled about the pair's power – the financier was the money, while Ghislaine offered her contacts.

    And then their partnership allegedly turned into something more sinister.

    Maxwell delivered women 'into a trap'

    Ghislaine Maxwell now stands accused of grooming girls for Epstein, who died by suicide in prison in 2019.

    She is charged with crimes including enticing a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts and transporting a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.

    Prosecutors allege four anonymous women were groomed as teenagers by Maxwell for Epstein between 1994 and 2004.

    She enticed them, getting them to trust her, and then delivered them "into the trap that she and Jeffrey Epstein had set," acting US Attorney Audrey Strauss said at the time of Maxwell's arrest.

    Prosecutors allege she did this by befriending them, taking them shopping or to the movies. She normalised sexual abuse by undressing in front of them and encouraging them to massage Epstein, prosecutors said.

    "Without Ghislaine, Jeffrey could not have done what she did. Jeffrey was in charge, but she egged him on and encouraged him," an anonymous victim's statement read at an earlier hearing said.

    Maxwell also faces perjury charges for allegedly lying during a 2016 deposition. She is set to be tried separately on those charges.

    She has pleaded not guilty to the charges and has vehemently denied wrongdoing.

    "I have not committed any crime," Maxwell said at a pre-trial conference.

    Her lawyer has been contacted for comment.

    As Maxwell and Epstein enjoyed the high life, their alleged victims were often young, vulnerable and financially strained.

    Epstein was convicted for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution in 2008 and given an 18-month prison sentence.

    The controversial sweetheart plea deal has faced severe criticism and was brokered without notifying victims. It also included a non-prosecution agreement with the US and effectively closed down their federal indictment.

    Epstein served only 13 months, much of it on day release.

    Nearly a decade later, Epstein was arrested in New Jersey. While awaiting trial on allegations that he sexually abused dozens of underage girls, he died in prison.

    High profile men under the spotlight

    A cadre of rich, powerful and famous men were lured into Epstein and Maxwell's orbit.

    They included academics, politicians, business executives, billionaires and celebrities. But since Epstein's arrest and subsequent death, many have moved to distance themselves from the pair.

    Donald Trump has claimed he wasn't a fan of Epstein and had a "falling out with him a long time ago," while Bill Gates has said his meetings with Epstein were a "mistake" and "regrettable".

    Yet, the public will be avidly watching the trial to see if any of the famous names that Maxwell was once photographed with will come up.

    Outside of the court room, some high-profile figures have already faced consequences for their links to Maxwell and Epstein.

    There is Barclays chief executive Jes Staley, who was forced to stepped down amid an investigation into his links with Epstein.

    And before that Leon Black, the former CEO of private equity firm Apollo Global Management, resigned from his role amid reports about his financial involvement with the convicted sex offender.

    Even royals have found themselves under intense scrutiny, with Prince Andrew named as "a person of interest" by the federal attorneys prosecuting Maxwell.

    Virginia Roberts (now Giuffre) claims that she had sex with the Prince three times, including once in London in 2001 when she was 17 and being trafficked by Epstein.

    The Prince has vigorously denied the allegation in the past and in a disastrous interview, he declared he had "no recollection of ever meeting" Giuffre.

    He too was forced to step back from his duties in the wake of the interview.

    As for Maxwell, the consequences she may face now rest in the hands of a jury.

    But according to Mr Cawthorne, there's been signs of "a certain arrogance" in Maxwell's alleged behaviour, which has drawn more public scrutiny fresh off the back of the #MeToo movement.

    Victims wary about what to expect from trial

    In recent years, Ghislaine Maxwell had faded from the spotlight almost completely until her arrest.

    The intense media scrutiny around the upcoming trial ensures that will not happen again any time soon.

    Maxwell is considered the first high-profile woman to face trial for sexual abuse in the #MeToo era. But those acting on behalf of victims say they are warily awaiting the outcome.

    "Every time that there is what appears to be hope on the horizon for these victims, the rug gets snatched out from under them, and something happens," Spencer Kuvin, a Florida-based lawyer who has represented victims of Jeffrey Epstein, said.

    Prosecutors have stated in court filings that they have a strong case, although Maxwell's supporters and family claim the US government chose to pursue the case against her only after Epstein's death and subsequent public outcry.

    Her brother has argued her time in prison amounts to "torture" where Maxwell is repeatedly awoken throughout the night. Her lawyers have compared the level of surveillance to that of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

    Yet, she is considered such a flight risk that six bids for bail have all been rejected by the judge. She'll likely spend the rest of her trial in prison.

    Two years after Jeffrey Epstein died in prison, the upcoming trial of his former girlfriend is being viewed as a trial by proxy.

    "When [accusers] see Ghislaine Maxwell's arrested and her trial's coming up, they're all really looking at me going: 'Yeah, so what's going to happen this time?'" Mr Kuvin said.

    "They're very skeptical of the way the system has handled their claims."

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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