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Jeffrey Epstein: The story of abuse, truths and lies as told by the internet

The unsealing of hundreds of documents on the magnate’s sex trafficking network has sparked a barrage of fake news, with Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks falsely accused of being included in the court filings

Jeffrey Epstein
Jeffrey Epstein, in a court appearance in West Palm Beach (Florida), on July 30, 2008.Uma Sanghvi (AP)
María Porcel

“Epstein Island Flight List (Official).” You don’t need to navigate the deep web or go through complex documents to find lists like this one. One look at social media — in particular X, formerly Twitter — and you’ll find many lists with this or similar names. But they are not very official, and for the most part, the names on them have been completely invented. Neither Oprah Winfrey nor Pope John Paul II, Tom Hanks, Jimmy Kimmel, Matthew Perry or Mikel Arteta were clients of the child sex abuse operation run by Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. They didn’t fly in their planes or drink champagne in their mansions. And not everyone quoted (either at length or in passing) in the hundreds of documents, such as Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Michael Jackson, David Copperfield and Stephen Hawking, did anything illegal or immoral. Some didn’t even know Epstein. But that, as fake news runs wild, does not matter to the liars online.

The story of billionaire pedophile Epstein, who together with his lover-friend-girlfriend Maxwell (who has denied the accusations) ran a child sex trafficking operation, has provided many juicy headlines for the media. If it weren’t so nightmarish, it would be fit for a series. Epstein, a self-made, brilliant kid from Brooklyn, who started but did not finish two college degrees, entered investment banking and managed fortunes worth more than $15 billion. He himself amassed a fortune of more than $500 million before hanging himself in jail. Maxwell, the daughter of a British press magnate (Robert Maxwell, considered the Citizen Kane of his time), who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The two were likeable, well-connected and discreet. Their story included private islands, helicopter trips, flights on a private plane called Lolita, parties in mansions... But behind the glamour was a network of abuse that authorities have been investigating for almost two decades. It’s come to the fore after the judge in charge of the case unsealed 40 legal documents on January 3, and another 160 on January 4 and 5.

There are thousands of pages to the documents. Few have read them, but that hasn’t stopped the comments and fake lists claiming to contain the names cited in the documents. What’s more, even if a person was named, it doesn’t mean they are suspected of wrongdoing. In the United States, where fake news runs rampant, individuals have used the case to attack almost any public figure and spread false accusations. Shortly after the documents were unsealed, a video appeared of Tom Hanks dancing with a kippah on his head and a tallit on his shoulders. Below the footage, an alleged CNN chyron said that the actor had converted to Judaism and fled to Israel “following the release of Epstein’s client list.” To begin with, there is no client list. What’s more, Hanks isn’t even mentioned in the documents. The chyron was made up, as confirmed by CNN. The images of Hank came from the 2014 wedding of record executive Scooter Braun. The video can still be found on Facebook, but now it comes with a warning: “Video altered. Independent fact-checkers have indicated that this information could be misleading to individuals.”

Oprah Winfrey also does not appear in the Epstein documents, as some media outlets looking for clicks suggested with misleading headlines. In an apparent bid to stop the spread of the fake news, the presenter and producer — in the midst of a promotional campaign for her film The Color Purple (a remake of the 195 movie directed by Steven Spielberg, who also doesn’t appear in the document) — has closed the comments section on her Instagram account, which has 23 million followers. There is also no connection between her and Michael Jackson, whom a victim of Epstein’s network remembers being at Epstein’s mansion in Palm Beach. Neither the football coach Mikel Arteta nor the recently deceased actor Matthew Perry appear in any of the documents, nor as flight passengers. This is just fake news.

Everything, or almost everything, has been known about Epstein for years: his abuses, connections, fortune, dealings and close relationship with those in power. It was known that he had been friends with Donald Trump in the 1990s, when they were seen laughing together at parties. The former president himself said years ago that Epstein was “a terrific guy.” “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side,” he said back in 2002. They were different times. Five years ago, when Trump was president and Epstein was arrested and sent to prison (where he would die by suicide, shortly after, in August 2019), he said that they knew each other from Palm Beach (Florida), where they both had homes and belonged to the same circles. But this time, Trump said they were far from friends: “I was not a fan.”

Trump’s name is included in the unsealed court filings: one victim, Johanna Sjoberg, recalls in her disposition that once, when they couldn’t land in New York and detoured to nearby Atlantic City, Epstein said: “Great, we’ll call up Trump and go to the casino.” But that does not mean that Trump belongs to Epstein’s circle or his sex trafficking operation.

The same is true for Bill Clinton. The former U.S. president appears in the documents because Sjoberg is asked: “Do you know if Bill Clinton was a friend of Jeffrey Epstein?” She replied: “I did not know they were friends until I read the Vanity Fair article about them going to Africa together.” When asked if Epstein ever talked to her about Clinton, Sjoberg said: “He said one time that Clinton likes them young, referring to girls.” But she does not go any further. In 2019, Clinton acknowledged that he had flown on Epstein’s private plane between 2002 and 2003. For years, both Trump and Clinton have tried to publicly distance themselves from the convicted sex offender.

The late Stephen Hawking is named in a typo-ridden email from Epstein to Maxwell, in which he offers a “reward” to disprove the allegations of Virginia Giuffre, one of the victims of Epstein’s sex trafficking ring. “You can issue a reward to any of Virginia’s friends, acquaints, family that come forward and help prove her allegations are false,” the email stated. “The strongest is the Clinton dinner, and the new version in the Virgin Islands that Stephen Hawking participated in an underage orgy.”

Images shared online claim to show the alleged fragments of the documents that talk about Hawking, but they have been manipulated. There is nothing more than that phrase, in addition to old images from 2006 in which Hawking is seen with other scientists at a conference in the Caribbean, financed by Epstein.

In the unsealed court filings, Sjoberg and Giuffre — two of the main victims of the sex trafficking ring — make powerful statements and provide more names of Epstein’s associates. Giuffre accuses Prince Andrew, the third son of the late Queen Elizabeth II, of abusing her when she was a minor. She took him to trial, but they reached an out-of-court settlement two years ago. Prince Andrew’s name is clearly in the Epstein documents, along with detailed allegations.

In her deposition, Giuffre also speaks about “another prince” and a “Spanish president,” whose name she does not remember. She described the latter as a man aged around 40, who was “tall,” with “dark hair” and a “foreign accent.” Giuffre believes that she met him in the early 2000s in New Mexico, in the southern United States, where Epstein had a ranch. However, the term “Spanish” in the U.S. can also mean Hispanic or Latino.

In the Epstein documents, there are names, addresses and even telephone numbers. But there are also words, sentences and entire pages that are redacted. The unsealed court filings will provide some answers, but not a list of famous people in compromising situations. The documents neither list Epstein’s friends nor the clients of his sex trafficking network. In 2019, 2,000 pages were released, and more and more documents have been unsealed since then. These are court filings that — rather than leaking any scandal — give an account of the long, difficult and repetitive process Epstein victims have been gone through in a bid to be heard. It’s a fight that for now seems far from over.

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Sobre la firma

María Porcel
Es corresponsal en Los Ángeles (California), donde vive en y escribe sobre Hollywood y sus rutilantes estrellas. En Madrid ha coordinado la sección de Gente y Estilo de Vida. Licenciada en Periodismo y Comunicación Audiovisual, Máster de Periodismo UAM-EL PAÍS, lleva más de una década vinculada a Prisa, pasando por Cadena Ser, SModa y ElHuffPost.

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