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Early on in her opening argument, US attorney Lara Pomerantz pointed directly at Ghislaine Maxwell from a plastic see-through box in the center of a Manhattan federal courtroom, lest there was any doubt in the jury’s mind who was responsible for the horrific sexual crimes she was describing.
Ms Maxwell, the 59-year-old British socialite, multi-millionaire and former confidante to princes and billionaires, may have been the sole defendant charged with grooming and trafficking underage girls for sex, but she was not the only on trial.
The spectre of Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide only a few hundred yards from where the trial is taking place in a cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in August 2019, loomed large over the opening arguments on Monday.
“The defendant and Epstein,” was a phrase uttered more than a dozen times during Ms Pomerantz’s 30-minute opening statement, as she wove a tale of depravity and manipulation executed by two apparently equal partners.
Girls as young as 14 were lured into Epstein’s orbit by Ms Maxwell with promises of scholarships, mentoring, and donations so they could chase their dreams, according to the prosecution.
A young girl named Jane was targeted at an arts camp when she was just 14. Another, in a car park after being spotted by Ms Maxwell, who told her driver to stop the car so she approach the girl.
The abuse followed a similar pattern, Ms Pomerantz alleged. Ms Maxwell would usually befriend the girls, talk to them about sexually explicit subjects, and then use massage as a pretext to lure them into sexual abuse, the prosecution told the court.
The alleged sexual abuse and trafficking occurred between 1994 and 2004 in Epstein’s palatial properties, from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, to his waterside mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, his private hideaway in the US Virgin Islands and his ranch in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
Ms Maxwell was an “older, purportedly respectable woman” who would put the girls at ease and make them feel safe, “so they could be molested by a middle-aged man”, Ms Pomerantz said.
Ms Maxwell “preyed on and manipulated” the victims and “served them up to be sexually abused”, Ms Pomerantz said.
“There were times when she was in the room when it happened,” the prosecutor added.
Epstein and Ms Maxwell enjoyed a “personal, intimate relationship” in the 1990s, and after their romantic liaison ended became “the best of friends”, Ms Pomerantz told the jury.
Ms Maxwell later became “the lady of the house”, managing Epstein’s properties and enforcing a strict “code of silence” among staff.
“They were partners in crime. They had a playbook,” she said.
Together, they often targeted young girls from “difficult home lives” with single parents.
“They made these girls feel seen, they made these girls feel special,” she said.
“The defendant and Epstein were wealthy, powerful and well-connected, and they flaunted it.”
The offending later graduated into a “pyramid scheme of abuse”, where vulnerable girls already in Epstein’s payroll would encourage their friends and classmates to come to his homes for sexualised massages, and be given $100 bills in return.
Throughout the opening arguments, Ms Maxwell was relaxed and attentive. Wearing a cashmere turtleneck, black pants and black low-heeled shoes, she conferred frequently with her team of four lawyers, passing notes and writing busily, while maintaining a calm demeanour.
She has denied all the charges.
Queues began forming outside Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in downtown Manhattan from before 5am.
The line had swelled to more than 50 by the time the court opened just after 8.30am, and several hundred media and interested observers were eventually be let in to watch the trial in designated overfill court rooms.
Among them were several women who have accused Epstein and Ms Mawell of sexual abuse, but will not be taking the stand, including Sarah Ransome.
The start was delayed after one juror said they would face financial hardship as their employer only paid two weeks leave and the trial was expected to last six weeks.
Judge Alison Nathan personally phoned the HR department of the juror’s employer to see if the their leave could be extended.
Another juror said their spouse had surprised them by booking a vacation from 24 to 28 December, which would clash with the trial dates.
Judge Nathan eventually swore in the 12 jurors and six alternates just before lunchtime.
She warned them the case would attract “significant attention”, and warned them to avoid media reports or conversing with family or friends.
Ms Pomerantz’s opening statement finally began just after 2pm.
For the defense, Bobbi Sternheim opened her statement by saying the case was about three things: “memory, manipulation and money.”
She said her client had become a “scapegoat” for Epstein’s crimes and that the four “accusers” had sought to “reframe their stories for a payday” from a fund set up by the dead millionaire’s estate.
All four had received payouts ranging from $1.5m to over $3m from the victim’s fund, and their civil claims had been enhanced by their willingness to testify for the government, Ms Sternheim said.
Prosecutors made a string of objections over Ms Sternheim’s opening statements, and Judge Nathan eventually called counsel to her bench to confer.
Ms Sternheim went on to describe Epstein as a “21st Century James Bond”.
“He was... a mysterious man, without attachment. No wife, no children, no boss. He attracted all of these rich, powerful, famous people, before and after his fall from grace in around 2005.”
He was an eccentric who radiated a “halo effect” to attract wealthy politicians, scientists and businesspeople with his charisma, she said.
Late in the day, Epstein’s personal pilot Lawrence Visoski Jr took the stand as the opening witness for the prosecution. He told the court that between 1991 and the mid-2000s, he flew the disgraced financier between his homes in the US, the Caribbean and France every four days.
Outside court, crowds gathered throughout the day, a mixture of curious observers and conspiracy theorists.
Some set up a tent near the steps of the court, while a protestor shouted into a loud hailer “if Epstein didn’t get them, Gates will”.