The cops thought they’d handed prosecutors the easiest case ever, a slam dunk. The FBI spent many months painstakingly persuading some of the women Jeffrey Epstein had allegedly abused to tell their stories. Federal prosecutors in Miami finely honed the narrative they would present to a jury, a startling and sickening tale of an arrogant millionaire who they say systematically recruited and sexually molested barely pubescent girls — dozens of them.
But Operation Leap Year, the investigators’ code name for the massive effort a decade ago to put Epstein behind bars, turned out to be a tortured journey through the American apparatus of justice. And the man whose job it was to stop Epstein’s alleged sexual misdeeds ended up wrestling with the kind of pressure that a rich and powerful man could generate — pressure exerted through political, financial and emotional means.
In 2007, responsibility for removing Epstein from his bubble of wealth and impunity sat with Alexander Acosta, the soft-spoken top federal prosecutor in South Florida, still in his 30s, fairly new to the position, eager to make an impression and, according to friends, find his way back to a top administration job in Washington.
Conchita Sarnoff, author of “TrafficKing,” a book on the Epstein case, said Acosta told her a few years after Epstein’s dream team of prominent defense lawyers persuaded him to sign a non-prosecution deal ending the federal pursuit that “he felt incapable of going up against those eight powerful attorneys. He felt his career was at stake.”
Now, a dozen years later, Acosta, who resigned Friday as President Trump’s secretary of labor, is fighting to restore what’s left of his reputation, having struggled to demonstrate that he did the right thing in going after Epstein but then pulling the plug on the massive effort to lock the finance whiz in the federal clink.
Acosta’s decision back then to sign a non-prosecution deal that allowed Epstein to serve only 13 months in county jail, with permission to leave the building and go to work six days a week, has led to repeated waves of public outrage in the years since. In that deal, Acosta agreed not to pursue federal charges against Epstein or four women who the government said procured girls for him. In exchange, Epstein agreed to plead guilty to a state solicitation charge, register as a sex offender and pay restitution to victims.
“This agreement will not be made part of any public record,” the deal between Epstein and Acosta said. (The document was unsealed by a federal judge in a civil lawsuit in 2015.)
Last week burdened Acosta with what proved to be unbearable pressure after federal authorities in New York arrested Epstein on new sex trafficking charges based on abuses in New York and Florida. At a news conference Wednesday, Acosta tried to stanch the criticism, explaining that the deal he cut prevented local Palm Beach County officials from knocking the charges against Epstein down to a single count that would have resulted in no jail time and no registration as a sex offender.
The Epstein case’s extensive record, stretching across numerous civil lawsuits and investigations by state and federal authorities, reveals not a crisp portrait of white hats tilting against black hats, but rather a mottled mural of prosecutors who were eager to stop Epstein from preying on girls, but also sensitive to the young women’s desire not to have their names made public. And it shows a defense team that took advantage of the fact that many victims felt a bond with their accused abuser.
According to the lead FBI agent on the Florida case, “a majority of the victims” expressed concern about disclosure of their identities — including some whose parents didn’t know about their ties to Epstein — and some victims told the FBI they didn’t want anything bad to happen to Epstein.
“No victims expressed a strong opinion that Epstein be prosecuted,” the agent, E. Nesbitt Kuyrkendall, said in a court document.
At every point along the case’s twisting path from the Palm Beach County police department through local and federal authorities, in West Palm Beach, Miami and Washington, the seemingly simple quest to stop a man who had taken advantage of dozens of young women ran up against three hard facts: Epstein had a knack for winning people over, he had enough money and power to buy the very best legal firepower, and a decade before the #MeToo movement, it was still fairly easy to cast abuse that was short of rape as mere misbehavior rather than a shattering, serious crime.
Some people still argue that Epstein’s actions were relatively benign.
“The conduct is exaggerated,” one of Epstein’s lawyers said in an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his former client hasn’t authorized him to comment. “I know of no rape. Basically, it’s a masturbation case, a misdemeanor, maybe. Most of the girls weren’t that young, maybe 16 to 20.”
“They were just massages that turned into a little more than massages,” said Alan Dershowitz, another of Epstein’s attorneys. “It seemed like a small case, a half-dozen massages by local people. They were all 18. Nobody heard of anybody, like, 14.”
A strong reputation
To Acosta and his staff prosecutors, and to the detectives and police chief who first worked the case in Palm Beach, these were not massages. They were sexual assaults on the most innocent victims — children.
The Miami prosecutors concluded, according to U.S. attorney’s office records, that Epstein, working through his female assistants, “would recruit underage females to travel to his home in Palm Beach to engage in lewd conduct in exchange for money. . . . Some went there as much as 100 times or more. Some of the women’s conduct was limited to performing a topless or nude massage while Mr. Epstein masturbated himself. For other women, the conduct escalated to full sexual intercourse.”
For the detectives who first looked into the allegations, it was as straightforward as that. These policemen had sat with the teenagers and their parents and heard just how Epstein recruited young girls into his waterfront mansion and paid them to strip and do whatever he commanded.
But after the original case moved to Palm Beach County prosecutors, the Palm Beach police chief, Michael Reiter, got wind that the state attorney, although initially eager to get Epstein, seemed to be backing off, looking for ways to lessen the charges. A Palm Beach County grand jury that heard testimony from only one victim recommended just one charge, which Acosta contended would have meant that Epstein faced no jail time, would not have to pay restitution to his victims, and would not have to register as a sex offender.
Reiter later said in a deposition in a civil suit that the charge in Palm Beach would have been “very minor” compared to what the facts warranted. So Reiter — who, along with his detectives, worried that Epstein’s influence had made local officials reluctant to press the most serious charges — handed the case to the feds. An FBI agent promised to put Epstein away “for the rest of his life,” said a Florida law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The top federal prosecutor in South Florida was Acosta, the U.S. attorney in Miami from 2006 to 2009, who had already built a strong reputation. During his tenure, he pushed on public corruption cases, putting at least five elected Palm Beach county and city commissioners in prison.
Before the Epstein case, “there was never a voice raised against Alex Acosta,” said Bruce Rogow, a Florida criminal defense attorney. “He was not a grandstander. He was a work man. Some U.S. attorneys are very aggressive and they are showmen, holding lots of press conferences. That wasn’t how he operated.”
Acosta, who declined to comment for this article, had also been accused of putting politics first. In a 2008 report, the Justice Department’s inspector general said that Acosta, who ran the department’s civil rights division in Washington from 2003 to 2005, “did not take sufficient action” when attorneys in his office told him that a top deputy was hiring unqualified applicants. The report said the deputy “violated federal law” by using political affiliations to decide which lawyers to hire.
Still, Acosta was seen in Florida as an ally of crime victims, and he assigned the Epstein matter to some of his best lawyers.
‘An army of legal superstars’
They were going up against the best, too. Epstein, who in addition to his Palm Beach estate owned a spectacular house in Manhattan and his own island in the Caribbean (to which he flew on his private jet), assembled a hugely expensive lineup of legal brand names with, as one of the lawyers boasted in a letter, “a combined 250 years experience:” Harvard’s Dershowitz; former Clinton impeachment-era special prosecutor Ken Starr; Miami’s most famous defense attorney, Roy Black; Acosta’s former colleague, Jay Lefkowitz; one of Acosta’s predecessors as U.S. attorney, Guy Lewis; New York criminal defender Gerald Lefcourt; and several more.
Epstein’s side fought hard and, prosecutors and police said, dirty, too.
Reiter and the lead detective in the case, who has since died, said in depositions in civil suits stemming from the Epstein case that their trash was stolen by private investigators and that victims’ families were approached at their homes by people falsely claiming to be police officers.
Adam Horowitz, a lawyer who represented seven of the girls who accused Epstein, said private investigators hired by Epstein followed and intimidated the victims, who reported seeing strange cars parked in front of their homes.
Last week, Acosta, in a nationally televised news conference to explain his actions a decade ago, focused on his desire to assure that Epstein was convicted of a crime, punished with jail time and registered as a sex offender.
But in a 2011 letter explaining why he agreed to the non-prosecution deal, Acosta emphasized different reasons for his decision, focusing on “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors” by “an army of legal superstars.”
“The defense strategy was not limited to legal issues,” Acosta wrote. “Defense counsel investigated individual prosecutors and their families, looking for personal peccadilloes that may provide a basis for disqualification.”
Several of Epstein’s lawyers denied hiring anyone to harass or spy on anyone involved in the case. “Nothing like that was done,” Dershowitz said.
Acosta said one of Epstein’s lawyers accused him of “excess zeal in forcing a good man to serve time in jail” and threatened to make sure a book was published about the unfair prosecution “if we continued to proceed with this matter.” Acosta said in 2011 that the defense lawyers accused him of insisting on jail time for Epstein “merely because he is wealthy.”
At Wednesday’s news conference, Acosta did not repeat his earlier statements about undue pressure from Epstein’s defense team. He also did not repeat earlier comments that fellow law enforcement officials recalled in which Acosta said the Epstein defense had effectively frustrated the prosecution by swamping his office with legal arguments and complaints to Justice Department headquarters in Washington.
The decade-long debate over whether Acosta improperly backed away from powerful evidence in his own staff’s 82-page prosecution memo and 53-page indictment, which were based on evidence about 34 victims, has centered on just how strong the government’s case was. (The new case in New York mentions three specific victims but refers as well to “dozens of minor girls” who visited Epstein’s New York and Florida homes “to engage in sex acts with him,” the indictment says.)
Especially since the Miami Herald published articles last year in which dozens of women came forward to add to the accusations against Epstein, Acosta and his defenders — joined by Epstein’s defense lawyers — have argued that there were two significant problems with the case: It wasn’t a lock that the alleged crimes were federal rather than state matters, and many of the victims were reluctant to come forward with their stories.
“Most of Epstein’s victims were terrified to cooperate against him,” Acosta’s top deputy, Jeffrey Sloman, wrote in the Herald earlier this year. “Some hired lawyers to avoid appearing before a grand jury. One of the key witnesses moved to Australia and refused to return calls from us.”
A. Marie Villafana, the lead prosecutor in the Epstein case, said in a statement in a civil suit in 2017 that the victims’ reluctance to cooperate made it hard to push Epstein to trial. One victim who refused to cooperate was represented by a lawyer who was being paid by Epstein, Villafana said in a statement. She declined a request for an interview. That victim, known in court papers as Jane Doe 2, told the FBI that she hoped “nothing happens to [Epstein] because he’s an awesome man . . . and he didn’t do nothing wrong, nothing.”
Another victim told FBI Special Agent Timothy Slater that she wanted to “let this be in my past.”
But some lawyers for the victims paint a very different picture, saying their clients waited for visits from FBI agents that never happened.
Spencer Kuvin, who represented three teenage girls, said that although the Palm Beach police and the FBI built strong cases against Epstein, ultimately identifying dozens of minors who told how Epstein lured them to his home and sexually assaulted them, “they could have expanded it even further if they tried.”
The FBI interviewed only one of his three clients, Kuvin said, and each girl knew of many others who had also allegedly been molested.
“If you don’t talk to one girl, you may miss 10 more,” he said.
Horowitz said Acosta’s prosecutors frightened the girls he represented, telling them that “Epstein and their lawyers would make their life difficult.” “They did nothing to encourage them, comfort them or tell them about crime victims’ rights.”
Horowitz said it angered him to hear Acosta use the girls’ fear as an excuse for why prosecutors didn’t proceed to trial. “He was using that as a shield,” Horowitz said. “He said that handicapped us. No, your office is the one who placed that fear on them.”
Kuvin said the girls he represented were upset that the FBI never spoke to them. When they finally found out that the case had ended and Epstein had landed a light sentence, they believed it was because they were poor or middle class and he was rich.
“They figured the fix was in, and they were right,” Kuvin said.
Complaints to Justice
Even as Epstein’s defenders negotiated with Acosta’s prosecutors for a favorable deal, they were complaining about those same lawyers to Acosta’s bosses in Washington.
Through late 2007 and early 2008, after Epstein had signed a non-prosecution agreement with federal authorities, Epstein appeared to get cold feet about the deal.
His lawyers started bashing prosecutors as negotiating in bad faith. In a series of letters to Justice Department leaders and its Office of Professional Responsibility, Epstein’s lawyers accused the Miami prosecutors of bias and misconduct, demanding that two of Acosta’s employees be disqualified from the case.
Villafana later recounted the pressure she faced, telling Lefkowitz in a memo that “your letter now accuses me of ‘manufacturing’ charges of obstruction of justice, making obscene phone calls and violating child privacy laws.”
Epstein’s lawyers also pushed for top officials in Washington to overrule Acosta’s decision to press the case at all. “It went up through the ranks of Main Justice,” Dershowitz said. “We were looking for a better deal. A high-visibility case like this doesn’t get finalized unless it’s signed off on by Main Justice.” Criminal cases don’t usually get reviewed by officials in Washington, former top Justice officials said.
But the Epstein lawyers’ complaints reached the office of then-Deputy Attorney General Mark Filip, where government attorneys checked up on Acosta’s actions, according to people involved at the time. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
The Justice attorneys concluded that Epstein’s lawyers, worried that the terms of the non-prosecution agreement were too onerous, were looking for a way out of the deal, these people said.
The Epstein lawyers claimed “the Miami office was out of control, and needed to be reined in,” one former Justice Department official said. “We looked at it, and decided those claims were nonsense.”
Justice pushed back. In a June 2008 letter to Epstein lawyers Starr and Lefkowitz, senior associate attorney general John Roth concluded that “federal prosecution of this case is appropriate.” Nothing the prosecutors in Miami had done “gives us any reason to alter our opinion,” he wrote.
In the end, the Justice officials who looked at the allegations were more concerned by how Epstein’s defense team behaved toward the victims than by anything prosecutors had done, according to a person involved in the discussions at the time.
Back in Miami, the defense kept hammering against the very notion of a case against Epstein. From the start, they had argued that Epstein was being singled out because of his wealth. When the case was still in Palm Beach, Dershowitz wrote what he called “a long analysis of the sentences meted out in cases involving massages by underage girls.”
Data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that in South Florida in 2008, more than 9 in 10 sexual abuse and prostitution cases in federal court were settled through a plea bargain rather than going to trial. The median sentence meted out for sexual abuse cases was 10 years, and for pornography and prostitution cases, eight years and one month.
As negotiations dragged on, Epstein’s lawyers sought to make certain that the victims were kept in the dark.
Internal Justice Department emails show that Villafana, the lead prosecutor, yielded to defense lawyers’ demand that Acosta’s office not inform victims about the non-prosecution agreement.
“You raised objections to any victim notification,” Villafana wrote to Lefkowitz, “and no further notifications were done.”
In October 2007, Lefkowitz met with Acosta for breakfast and then wrote to Acosta to express gratitude for not notifying the victims: “[T]hank you for the commitment you made to me . . . that your office would not . . . contact any of the identified individuals, potential witnesses, or potential civil claimants.”
When FBI agents reached out to a handful of Epstein victims to let them know that the case was moving toward a resolution, Epstein’s lawyers complained and the notifications ceased, according to court papers.
“From the time the FBI began investigating Epstein until Sept. 24, 2007 — when the NPA [non-prosecution agreement] was concluded — [Acosta’s] office never conferred with the victims about a NPA or told the victims that such an agreement was under consideration,” U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra wrote in a ruling in February.
The judge, presiding over a suit in which some of Epstein’s victims say the government failed to keep them informed, said Acosta’s office egregiously violated the law that requires crime victims to be told about vital developments in their cases.
Most of the wrangling over Epstein’s deal did not include Acosta directly, according to three of Epstein’s attorneys, who said they negotiated instead with four of his deputies. And Acosta’s defenders — who perhaps paradoxically now include some of Epstein’s lawyers — say that he could not have known that Palm Beach County officials would let Epstein out on work-release during his jail term.
As head of his office, Acosta bore the ultimate responsibility for the case. And if he has now paid the price by losing his Cabinet position in Washington, Acosta also deserves an odd kind of credit for Epstein’s latest arrest, said attorney David Boies, who represents seven women who say Epstein molested them.
Acosta’s appointment renewed interest in the deal he brokered for Epstein, and the resulting scrutiny revealed the leniency of the deal and how it had been kept secret from the victims.
“There is a good chance that if Acosta had not gotten appointed, Epstein would still be free,” Boies said.
“If Acosta never became secretary of labor, none of what’s happened in the last week would ever have happened,” said another of Epstein’s lawyers. “No one would have cared by now. If there was any vetting of Cabinet officers by this administration, none of this would ever have happened.”
Sari Horwitz and Aaron C. Davis in Washington and Lori Rozsa in Palm Beach contributed to this report.