As Julie Brown watched the Senate hearings on Alexander Acosta’s nomination to become secretary of labor in 2017, she couldn’t help but talk to the television.
“Why aren’t they asking him this?” she asked. “Why aren’t they asking him that?”
Brown was frustrated by the limited questioning from senators about Acosta’s role in an unusual secret plea deal that, as a U.S. attorney in Florida, he had struck with Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire financier who had pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor, serving a mere 13-month sentence that allowed him to leave jail for 12 hours a day.
“It seemed like the lawmakers didn’t know the whole story,” Brown said in an interview.
So, after the Senate confirmed Acosta, Brown, an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald, went to her editor with a simple query: “I wonder what the women think about this.”
Brown then set out to tell the full story — not from Acosta’s or Epstein’s point of view but from the perspective of the scores of women who were girls when they were allegedly raped and trafficked by Epstein. They were identified in court filings as Jane Doe 1 or Jane Doe 2 or, as Brown pointed out, “Jane Doe 102.” (There were hundreds of accusers.)
Her search resulted in a blockbuster three-part investigation, published in November, in which she and video journalist Emily Michot were able to identify about 80 of Epstein’s accusers. The stories were a slow-burning fuse that led to an explosion: On Saturday, Epstein was arrested on new sex-crimes charges, leading to calls from leading Democrats for Acosta’s resignation over his handling of the case 11 years ago.
Though there have been surges of media attention about Epstein over more than a decade, no journalist had interviewed the women — now nurses and real estate agents and mothers and professionals — until Brown dove into the story last year.
Epstein gained the media’s notice as a wealthy, Gatsby-like character in the early 2000s. Even then, there were hints and suggestions about Epstein, a man who socialized with the likes of President Bill Clinton and Great Britain’s Prince Andrew, but no outward signs of criminality.
In 2002, when New York magazine published a story about Epstein, it included a quote from real estate mogul Donald Trump about the mysterious financier. Trump called Epstein a “terrific guy” adding, “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
One reporter who said she got close to the truth was Vicky Ward, who interviewed Epstein extensively in 2003 for a profile in Vanity Fair. Ward said she interviewed two young sisters who alleged they had been victimized by Epstein and spoke to their mother, too. But this part of Ward’s reporting was edited out of her story before publication by then-editor Graydon Carter, Ward said in an interview.
Ward said Epstein himself talked Carter out of it by pitting Epstein’s credibility against the word of “nobodies.” She added, “This was a story lying in plain sight. It just needed editors who would take these women’s stories seriously.”
People at Vanity Fair, including Carter, dispute Ward’s account. Carter, who is no longer with the magazine, calls Ward “an epic opportunist” now that the Epstein story has reemerged. “In the end, we didn’t have confidence in Ward’s reporting,” he said in a statement. “[She] simply didn’t have the goods — and she certainly didn’t have three people on the record, as she claims. She’s peddled this tale about Vanity Fair before. My question is: if her reporting was as sound as she claims it was, why hasn’t she ever found another venue for this part of the story? This has everything to do with her trying to get in the news to peddle a book about Epstein.”
Ward said the women withdrew their cooperation after Vanity Fair declined to publish their stories. She called Carter’s comments about her “disgusting sexism” and said she has no plans for a book.
Epstein drew extensive coverage beginning in 2006, following a lengthy undercover investigation by the FBI and Palm Beach police that led federal prosecutors to file a 53-page indictment outlining allegations that Epstein sexually abused more than 40 girls, many of them between the ages of 13 and 17. The most dogged chronicler was the hometown Palm Beach Post; Epstein maintained a Palm Beach villa that he used for lavish parties and where he allegedly lured and sexually assaulted the teenagers.
The Acosta-brokered plea deal, allowing Epstein to serve his sentence on a work-release basis, also attracted considerable attention.
And then the story, and much of the outrage it had engendered, largely faded.
In 2015, following a civil suit against Epstein, the now-defunct news site Gawker published a story about Epstein’s “little black book” that contained entries for celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Ralph Fiennes, Griffin Dunne, Ted Kennedy, David Koch and many of Epstein’s suspected victims. The book was annotated by Epstein’s former house manager, Alfredo Rodriguez, who tried to sell it in 2009 to some of Epstein’s accusers.
“We didn’t tell the grand sweep of this villain’s story,” said John Cook, the investigations editor for Gawker at the time, who edited the story about the black book and another about Epstein’s flight logs. “We said, ‘Here are these things, and they look bad.’ ”
But Gawker did report on Epstein’s habit of paying teen girls for “massages” — during which he allegedly penetrated them with sex toys, or had them perform sex acts on him, or were raped by him. The piece also reported that he had settled lawsuits from more than 30 “Jane Doe” victims since 2008.
“I’m sure Gawker barely scratched the surface of Jeffrey Epstein’s world,” wrote Nick Denton, Gawker’s founder, in a text message. “But it scratched.”
It was President Trump’s nomination of Acosta to head the Labor Department in early 2017 that forced the Epstein story — and Acosta’s role in it — into the headlines again. The Washington Post recounted Acosta’s role in Epstein’s crime and punishment in a lengthy story before Acosta’s confirmation hearing in March of that year.
Acosta was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 60 to 38.
Enter Julie Brown.
“Many people knew the contours of the Epstein case, particularly the fact that he’d been accused of preying on underage girls,” said Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor and a Miami Herald alum (Grueskin left the Herald in 1995. and never worked with Brown.) “It took the Herald’s series, though, to portray it as an utter failure of an institution we ought to be able to trust — the Department of Justice and U.S. attorney’s office.”
Brown’s triumph was getting victims’ voices on the record, said Cook. “It was masterful,” he said, adding that he sees the story as an example of how “you can do a lot by marshaling all the evidence even if it’s all been known.”
Brown, who reported from New York on Epstein’s arrest last weekend, said she understood why the women had not come forward before. She quoted an email she had received Tuesday morning from a reader: “At best they are prostitutes who knowingly took the money,” it read. “They should all be charged with prostitution.”
For Brown, that attitude epitomized the way the girls and young women who had accused Epstein were treated by the criminal justice system, by the media, and even by the lawyers prosecuting their case.
Brown’s voice cracked as she described an interview with one woman who was 14 and a high school freshman when she went to see Epstein. The woman told her that she just wanted money for school clothes, for shoes to replace the ones she had worn for three years and that had grown too tight. Epstein’s payment, for what the woman was told was going to be simply sitting topless in his house, would enable her to replace her shoes.
“I told them I wanted to understand what happened, and how it happened and how it affected their lives,” Brown said. “No one had ever asked them that.”
This story has been updated.