Carl Hiaasen: Jeffrey Epstein’s wealth, power gave him protection that his victims never got
The more we learn about the late Jeffrey Epstein’s 13 months in so-called custody at the Palm Beach County Stockade, the clearer is the lesson:
It definitely helped to be rich, even if you were a monstrous sexual predator.
It didn’t help Epstein that much at the Metropolitan Correction Center in Manhattan, where he hung himself early Saturday.
For the sake of his many victims, Epstein’s death can’t be the end of this story.
Just last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate Epstein’s coddled life while serving 13 months of an 18-month sentence after pleading guilty in 2008 to two felony counts of prostitution.
One of those crimes involved soliciting sex from a minor, serial behavior of Epstein’s that had caught the attention of the FBI. A 53-page federal indictment resulting from that probe was spiked by then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, paving the way for the multimillionaire’s mysteriously lenient plea deal.
Even the most jaded observers of the justice system wouldn’t expect that royal treatment would be given to a slimy perv who recruited high-school girls to visit his Palm Beach mansion and give him massages.
Yet, according to records from the jail and sheriff’s department, Epstein enjoyed perks that no other convicted sex criminal would ever have the gall to request.
He took the concept of “work-release” to a whole new level. He was allowed to leave the stockade 12 hours a day, six days a week and, upon his return, stayed in a mostly empty wing of the facility.
For Epstein, jail wasn’t an incarceration so much as an inconvenience. Deputies were given permission to leave his cell unlocked while he was there. He was more of an out-mate than an inmate.
Sometimes he got to watch TV in a room normally reserved for attorneys visiting jailed clients.
During his daily road trips, he was followed by off-duty deputies who were paid $126,000 for their respectful supervision. The officers often wore business suits and addressed him as “Mr. Epstein.”
That’s usually not how cops talk to child molesters, but most child molesters aren’t being driven around by their own personal chauffeurs.
Typically, Epstein spent days at an office of the Florida Science Foundation, a nonprofit he founded shortly before his sentencing on the prostitution charges. WPTV reported it was the foundation that paid Epstein’s deputy escorts, who also were supposed to keep written records of who visited him there.
Attorney Bradley Edwards, who represents some of Epstein’s female accusers, said he knows of women who were brought to Epstein for sex while he was away from the stockade during the day. Those claims will be part of the new FDLE investigation.
Toward the end of his term, Epstein was even allowed to hang out at his mansion. That’s actually more “release-release” than “work-release,” but there were extenuating circumstances. How can you properly consult with your landscape architect if you’re cooped up in a cell?
The Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office has defended its handling of Epstein, saying he was treated no better than any first offender convicted of the same charges. To which imprisoned sex criminals all over the state might say:
So, can I get transferred to your jail? Please? Like, as soon as possible?
A spokesperson for Sheriff Ric Bradshaw told a reporter that there were no rules barring someone like Epstein from participating in work-release — and, besides, Epstein wasn’t officially registered as a sex offender until the day after his release from jail.
OK. Nothing like a pointless technicality to put everyone’s mind at ease.
DeSantis’ announcement of an independent investigation followed a letter from Bradshaw supporting the idea. A day earlier, state Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation had sent the governor more than 4,000 signatures on a petition urging him to take action.
The probe covers not only Epstein’s rich-and-famous lifestyle while in custody, but also the original investigation and plea settlement, including a controversial agreement sparing Epstein from federal prosecution.
Another aspect of the 2008 case begging to be examined is ex-State Attorney Barry Krischer’s decision not to prosecute the well-connected businessman on more serious child-sex charges, despite the urging of Palm Beach detectives.
Authorities in other jurisdictions where Epstein owns homes strongly suspect he continued pursuing and exploiting under-aged girls after he finished his sentence in Florida.
Public outrage about the case was reignited by new reporting from The Herald’s Julie K. Brown. The scandal cost Acosta, the former U.S. attorney, his job as labor secretary in the Trump administration. A key assistant in the case, A. Maria Villafana, resigned from the Justice Department late last week.
In July, Epstein was indicted in New York on sex-trafficking charges involving “dozens of minor girls” in Manhattan and Palm Beach between 2002 and 2005. Prosecutors said the victims were as young as 14.
Once the judge denied bail, Epstein knew he was stuck in jail until his trial.
This time, being rich didn’t matter. This time, the door on his cell stayed locked.
So the monster chose another way out, leaving a legacy of obscene privilege and predation.
Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172