Somewhere, perhaps spread around the globe, Jeffrey Epstein claimed he had $559 million worth of assets just before he died in an apparent suicide on Saturday.
With every passing hour, more people are laying claim to a piece of the fortune that the financier and sex offender said he had amassed. They are elderly retirees trying to recoup losses they incurred when they invested their life savings in bonds and notes Epstein allegedly sold as part of a $470 million scam a quarter century ago. They are women, mostly now in their 30s, who say that as teenagers they were recruited and paid to give massages to Epstein — encounters they say quickly turned into sexual abuse.
They are all likely to have to wait in a very long and winding queue.
Some of those women now see Epstein’s estate as the path toward closure — one alleged victim, Jennifer Araoz, on Wednesday called her quest for Epstein’s money “my first step toward reclaiming my power.”
But the many competing claims will quickly crash into the messy and protracted reality of a contested probate and a federal investigation.
Starting immediately after the announcement of Epstein’s death in a federal prison cell in New York, alleged victims of the 66-year-old convicted sex offender began arguing that the only remaining ways they can get justice are to sue the women who they say enabled Epstein’s alleged sex-trafficking operation and to sue Epstein’s estate, seeking a share of his money.
“The pursuit of justice doesn’t end,” said Dan Kaiser, an attorney representing Araoz, a New York woman who on Wednesday sued Epstein’s estate, longtime Epstein friend and business associate Ghislaine Maxwell and three unnamed women who also allegedly recruited and groomed girls for Epstein. “It begins now.”
As prosecutors announced that they are shifting their investigation to look at co-conspirators who enabled Epstein’s alleged sex-trafficking ring, attention has focused on Maxwell. Although she has remained publicly silent, neighbors and acquaintances interviewed Wednesday said she appeared to have been living quietly with a friend, Scott Borgerson, in a secluded mansion in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., an oceanfront town north of Boston.
In an interview, Borgerson said he had been traveling and called Maxwell a “former friend.” He said she was not staying at his house. Asked if she had been there previously, he declined to answer. “My private life is my private life,” he said.
Maxwell could not be located Wednesday and her attorneys did not respond to requests for comment. Despite accusations by some of the women Epstein allegedly abused, Maxwell has long denied that she took part in or knew about any sexual misdeeds.
Araoz said in her suit that in 2001, when she was a 14-year-old freshman studying musical theater at New York’s Talent Unlimited High School, a young woman serving as Epstein’s recruiter invited her to his Manhattan mansion. There, Epstein allegedly paid her $300 per visit and promised to guide her into a career as a model or actress. But conversations over time turned to nude massages, which then became a year of once- or twice-weekly episodes of “abusive sexual assaults,” including a rape, the lawsuit alleged.
Kaiser said Araoz’s suit aims “to hold accountable wealth and power,” including the “elite and the plutocrats,” the politicians and business leaders who have been accused of participating in Epstein’s alleged sexual abuse of teens.
But Kaiser conceded that Epstein may well have hidden his assets in places where it will be difficult for U.S. claimants to reach them. “He took efforts in recent years to conceal his money,” the lawyer said.
In a summary of his assets that Epstein provided to a federal court in New York last month, he said he had $559 million, including $195 million in hedge funds and private equity investments, $112 million in stocks and bonds, $57 million in cash and more than $180 million worth of properties.
Epstein owned one of the largest houses in Manhattan, an apartment four blocks from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a 10,000-acre ranch in New Mexico, a mansion in Palm Beach and a private island in the Caribbean. He also has owned a Boeing 727 jet, smaller Gulfstream jet, a Sikorsky helicopter and at least seven Chevy Suburbans.
Over the past two decades, Epstein, who referred to himself as a money manager, kept the identities of all but a couple of his clients secret. But other affluent people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to be associated with Epstein’s alleged sexual abuses, have said in recent days that Epstein solicited their business, offering to place their assets in overseas accounts where they would earn strong returns and be sheltered from U.S. taxes.
Estate lawyers said the Epstein case has the markings of a sprawling legal mess that could turn out to be a bonanza for attorneys and an abiding frustration for those seeking redress.
“With all his lawyers, Jeffrey probably has figured out how to put his assets in a country where the law is very adverse to creditors,” said Harris Bonnette Jr., a lawyer in Jacksonville, Fla., whose practice focuses on trust and estate disputes and who teaches estate law at the University of Miami law school. “Add all this litigation and all these claims, and it’s going to last a very long time.”
In addition to the women who had sued Epstein before his death and those who may come forward in response to federal prosecutors’ call for victims to identify themselves, the Epstein estate will be under pressure from some of the thousands of people who invested more than $470 million in financial instruments sold in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Towers Financial, a company owned by Steven Hoffenberg.
Hoffenberg, who was convicted of running the massive Ponzi scheme and served 18 years in prison, has called Epstein the architect of that scam and said that Epstein’s assets should be tapped to compensate those who lost money on what turned out to be phony investments. Federal prosecutors at one point described Epstein’s role in the scam as central, but later removed his name from their accounts, speaking only of unnamed “co-conspirators.”
“I survived, but that old rascal took everything I had,” said Veriena Braune, a 91-year-old retired teacher in Granbury, Tex., who lost $112,000 in the Towers scam. Braune was one of many Towers victims who joined a lawsuit against Epstein that was filed and then withdrawn.
Hoffenberg said a similar suit will be refiled, aimed at providing his victims with restitution by tapping Epstein’s assets.
All claims from those who say they were victims of Epstein’s financial and sexual misdeeds will have to stand in line behind the IRS, the lawyers representing Epstein’s estate, and the executor of that estate, Bonnette said.
“Only then is what’s left over divided pro rata among the claimants,” he said.
A long process
That process is likely to drag on for years and those making claims will have to wait until the IRS audits the estate’s tax return, which does not happen speedily, Bonnette said.
Some of the lawyers for those making claims against the estate assume that the executor is likely to be Epstein’s younger brother, Mark, who is apparently Jeffrey Epstein’s only living close relative.
Mark, a real estate investor, last month came to his brother’s aid, suggesting he would put up his Florida property to help Jeffrey make bail. The judge in the case decided instead to keep Epstein locked up ahead of the trial that was to have taken place next year.
If he is the executor, Mark could have both a claim to inherit Epstein’s assets and a role in trying to protect those assets from other claims.
In a brief phone conversation Wednesday, Mark Epstein said he had no comment on the estate, accused reporters of a “feeding frenzy” and said he will respond to the uproar about his brother sometime in the future. “Stop calling me,” he said.
It is not clear whether Mark Epstein’s finances will be part of prosecutors’ investigation into Jeffrey’s assets. The younger brother’s real estate company, Ossa Properties, owns apartments in New York City and has an interest in an East Side Manhattan building that was used as an address by several entities and people connected to Jeffrey Epstein.
In addition to Araoz’s new suit, two of Epstein’s alleged victims who filed suit years ago asked a federal judge in Florida this week to scrap the immunity deal that Epstein and the people who were accused of enabling his sex trafficking were granted in 2007. Attorneys Bradley Edwards and Paul Cassell said the controversial nonprosecution agreement that Epstein’s lawyers negotiated with Miami’s then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta should be invalidated by Epstein’s death.
Under that deal, Epstein, four women — Sarah Kellen, Nadia Marcinkova, Lesley Groff and Adriana Ross — and other “potential co-conspirators” were told they would not be prosecuted for the sex-trafficking crimes that Epstein admitted to in 2008.
“It would be unfair to the victims if Epstein not only managed to cheat justice through his death but also left behind some kind of legal issue preventing the victims from obtaining the . . . remedy to which they are plainly entitled,” Edwards and Cassell wrote.
But Epstein’s lawyers and federal prosecutors in Florida want the nonprosecution deal left alone. “The past cannot be undone,” prosecutors wrote after Epstein was charged in New York last month with abusing dozens of girls in the early 2000s. “The government committed itself to the terms . . . and Epstein complied with its provisions.”
Frances Stead Sellers in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., and Kayla Epstein and Beth Reinhard in Washington contributed to this report.