When she walked into court on Monday morning for the penultimate pre-trial conference before she faces what will amount to the fight of her life, Ghislaine Maxwell looked just like she did 10 years ago. In fact, she looked better.
Thick black glossy hair. A black turtleneck sweater. Grey slacks. A bottle of Poland Spring in her hand. No cuffs anywhere. A smile, even, as she talked and shared a laugh with her lawyers, who were clearly fond of her. One brushed back her hair, another rubbed her back and shoulder, a gesture of sympathy.
It was a moment that caught me off guard and took me back in time. It reminded me of precisely why Maxwell had once had so many friends. Her vast number of acquaintances may not have all been people she was close with, because her lifestyle was so peripatetic — she was always traveling somewhere or other. Nonetheless, she drew people to her because she was funny, she was witty, she was extraordinarily charming… and, as I was reminded in that courtroom, also supremely confident.
Ghislaine Maxwell, as just about everyone knows, currently stands charged of helping the late sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein traffic and sexually abuse four women, three of whom were underage, as well as lying in a civil suit. (One of the more chilling sentences in the indictment reads: “Maxwell’s presence during minor victims’ interactions with Epstein, including interactions where the minor victim was undressed or that involved sex acts with Epstein, helped put the victims at ease because an adult woman was present.”) Opening arguments are scheduled for Nov. 29. She has denied all charges.
Given the horrific nature of the allegations, it’s not surprising that on Monday — unlike 10 years ago, when she was hosting dinners at her New York townhouse, proselytizing about her efforts to preserve the oceans through her philanthropy — I didn’t see a single “friend” of hers in court. (The only supporter I saw in attendance was her sister, Isabel.)
I knew Maxwell slightly because I am part of the ex-pat British community in New York, so I ran into her from time to time over the years. And I know a good number of her friends. Or former friends, I should say. So, what are they saying amongst each other as she heads to trial?
In the past year, I noticed something as I was reporting Chasing Ghislaine, an ID special (which premieres Nov. 22 on discovery+) and an Audible podcast of the same name: Hardly any of the people who went to drinks at her house or to dinners for Prince Andrew — many of them members of the British upper classes or American plutocracy — wanted to talk about Maxwell on the record. Many of them professed that they were horrified, disgusted at the allegations she is charged with.
One person who went to dinners that included Maxwell, Epstein, and Prince Andrew told me: “I can’t remember the last time I heard anybody say, ‘Poor Ghislaine, she should be allowed to say her story.’ I think everybody’s absolutely horrified, everybody’s embarrassed that somebody in our broader circle of us could have been behaving in such a terrible way.”
But, as I reached out again in the past week to her former friends, there were those — probably more than you think — who still wonder if she is really the monster she’s been pictured as in the media. Some wonder if she may yet prevail before a jury.
Reading this, you may be shocked. I know I was.
But, as I dug further, I began to see the complexity at play: There is questioning, voiced privately among a few people who used to have dinner with her, whether the government can prove its case. Partly that’s because the allegations are from so long ago, the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, but it’s also because these people still cannot see the Hyde in the Jekyll-and-Hyde that Maxwell allegedly is — or was. Jekyll, it turns out, was very dazzling.
People who heard rumors back in the early 1990s about Maxwell “finding girls for Epstein” say that they just do not believe that the Maxwell they knew, who liked designer clothes and expensive restaurants, would have been skulking around school-gates, as has been described in the civil litigation. They just can’t imagine the visual. (That charge is not actually in the government indictment, but one imagines it could come up in court.) “I don’t believe, and nobody that’s ever met her believes that she sat in a car recruiting school-age girls. No. Nobody believes that,” one person said to me.
“The idea that Ghislaine was the sort of person who’d be bothered to visit working class areas to pick up vulnerable girls doesn’t gel with the person I knew and worked for,” says a person who worked in Epstein’s Palm Beach home. “Ghislaine had far too high regard for herself. She’d have had time for shopping on Worth Avenue, yes, not wandering around West Palm [where many of Epstein’s Florida victims lived]. That would have been beneath her.”
A question that always comes up in speculation about the trial is who will she name as also being involved. More than one person has asked me, “Who should be afraid?”
The answer to that largely depends on whether Maxwell decides to take the stand in her own defense, ordinarily a tactic of last resort but a possibility in this case, according to a couple of legal experts. The answer is that if she takes the stand, she can say anything and name anyone as long as Judge Alison Nathan deems it relevant to her defense.
That gets to the main criticism I’ve heard about the trial, which is: Why is Maxwell alone facing charges for a scheme that was a socio-economic pyramid involving many others? Even David Boies, the attorney who represents several Epstein victims (though only one, Annie Farmer, is involved in Maxwell’s trial), told me earlier this year he knows that Epstein’s schemes involved far more people – both men and women – than just Maxwell. “I think it would be a miscarriage of justice if the other co-conspirators were not called to account,” he told me, saying he expected more indictments. Yet, so far, that has not happened.
One of the Epstein survivors who is not a government witness and who asked not be named told me she believes that Maxwell should be held accountable, but she also thinks that it’s unfair that others — including Lesley Groff, Epstein’s long-time assistant and who was one of four Epstein employees named in a non-prosecution agreement signed by Epstein in 2008 — are not on trial. This survivor never met Maxwell during the period she visited with Epstein, but, she says, she met Groff several times and Groff sometimes scheduled meetings between her and Epstein. Groff’s lawyer, Michael Bachner, told me that Groff was simply a business associate who had no knowledge of Epstein’s criminal activities. “Prosecutors have indicated in multiple conversations with me that, based on the evidence they have so far uncovered during the course of their lengthy investigation, they do not intend to bring criminal charges against Lesley Groff,” he says.
Bachner also says that, as far as he is aware, Groff will not be a government witness at Maxwell’s trial.
But it seems clear from court papers that other former Epstein employees will be government witnesses, and it’s precisely this sort of perceived cherry-picking that leaves a handful of people privately wondering if the legal process has now gotten weighted to an unfair extreme against one person who was not the mastermind criminal at the heart of what was a vast global enterprise.
That person, no one disputes, was Jeffrey Epstein.
A lawyer who has been in negotiations with Epstein’s estate on behalf of some survivors told me that one rumor going around is that Epstein changed his will the day before he died in jail in August 2019, reportedly a suicide, because he learned Maxwell was cooperating against him as he faced the charges of sex trafficking and abuse of minors. He took her out of the will is the scuttlebutt, according to my source. (Epstein’s lawyer Reid Weingarten says he does not know if this is true, but he doubts it).
But if Epstein did in fact deliberately kill himself, knowing Maxwell would wind up being his substitute in court, that narrative plays into what Ian Maxwell, Ghislaine’s brother, has been saying on TV: that his sister has been put on trial not for her crimes, but for Epstein’s. (This is a line Maxwell’s defense will take, judging by pre-trial filings).
Most people I spoke to think that no one is really listening to Ian. But a handful, including one person who knew Epstein and got financial advice from him for over 20 years, disagree: “Essentially we are about to watch the trial of Jeffrey Epstein — only Ghislaine is taking his place. This is about him. He’s dead so she’s got pay the price he should have, for justice to be perceived to have been done.”
This person adds: “And, by the way, I didn’t even like her.”
Vicky Ward is the host of Chasing Ghislaine, an Audible podcast and docuseries premiering on discovery+ on Nov. 22 and ID on Dec. 3.