"Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story" by Julie K. Brown; Dey Street Books (464 pages, $27.99)
"Perversion of Justice" tells two terrible stories and one uplifting one.
The terrible ones are about the appalling criminal career of child rapist Jeffrey Epstein and the efforts of countless powerful people to protect him from its consequences.
The uplifting one is about the investigative reporter who set in motion his downfall — and about how she achieved it amid a crisis in local journalism.
The author of "Perversion of Justice" is Julie K. Brown, a longtime reporter for the Miami Herald. Many journalists write books expanding stories they’ve covered, but one thing Brown does differently is show her methods. A basic rule of reporting is to keep yourself out of the story, but here her description of both the hard work of investigation and the perilous current state of newspapers adds an important dimension to the story.
In the early 2000s, Jeffrey Epstein was already a marginal celebrity, a billionaire money manager (despite a sketchy background) who owned a huge townhouse in Manhattan, a New Mexico ranch and a private Caribbean island in addition to his Palm Beach mansion.
His celebrity connections, many of them clients, included politicians on both sides of the aisle as well as figures from Wall Street, show business and academia.
In 2005, the Palm Beach Police Department began investigating reports that Epstein had molested and raped a number of young girls between the ages of 13 and 16. The police found almost three dozen victims whose statements, along with those of other witnesses and supporting records, described Epstein, assisted by several women, bringing the girls to his mansion with the promise they would be paid for giving massages, which turned into sexual assaults. The girls would then be pressured to bring Epstein new victims in a twisted sexual variation on a Ponzi scheme.
Despite substantial evidence of multiple crimes, Epstein was arrested in 2006 on just two prostitution-related charges. He assembled a platoon of lawyers that included Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr.
“Ultimately,” Brown writes, “the FBI would take over the investigation. The man who would oversee the federal case was a young, rising star in the Republican Party who had ambitions to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.”
That man, Alexander Acosta, would sign off on Epstein’s plea deal when, in 2008, he was convicted and sentenced to 13 months in the county jail. There his cell door was usually unlocked, and he was allowed daily “work release” at an office in Palm Beach — where, it was later revealed, he continued to be visited by young girls.
The case faded from headlines. Brown, in the meantime, was garnering awards for her investigative stories for the Herald about abuses in Florida’s prison system, which included sex trafficking. She was often reminded of Epstein’s case, she writes, because Googling “sex trafficking” and “Florida” always brought up his name.
So in 2017, when then-President Donald Trump nominated Acosta to be Secretary of Labor, she was “astonished that Epstein’s name barely came up, and that the questions Acosta was asked showed that the senators didn’t understand the gravity of what Acosta had done. He sailed through the nomination process.”
Brown had been looking for a new investigative project, and the Epstein case was it. She was puzzled to discover that Epstein had been granted immunity from prosecution, an arrangement usually given to witnesses who share valuable information, not the criminal in the case.
She was also surprised to find that a number of Epstein’s victims had filed civil suits against him — and against the federal government, a highly unusual tack.
The victims became her angle into the story. Court records were so heavily redacted most of their names were blacked out, but she followed leads — making phone calls, knocking on doors, sending letters — until she found more than 60 of them, including four willing to talk on the record.
Even a decade later, they were strikingly similar, Brown writes. When they were Epstein’s victims they were pretty blue-eyed blonds, “waiflike prepubescent girls from troubled backgrounds who needed money and had little or no sexual experience.”
They told her chilling stories of their abuse by Epstein and made it clear he was running an extensive international sex trafficking operation. After he was arrested, they told Brown, “private investigators hired by his lawyers stalked and threatened the girls and their families.” Many of them lived in fear of him a decade later, deeply traumatized by their experiences.
Brown also delved into the shocking number of legal and law enforcement personnel who helped protect Epstein. When money didn’t entice people to his side, threats and deception were deployed. The scale of corruption Brown describes is breathtaking.
The series she wrote about Epstein for the Herald was published in November 2018. A new federal investigation was opened soon after, and on July 6, 2019, Epstein was arrested in New York on an array of federal sex trafficking charges. On July 12, Secretary of Labor Acosta resigned. On Aug. 10, Epstein was found dead in his jail cell.
"Perversion of Justice" does not explode any new bombshells about the Epstein case; what it does is put all of it together, revealing its scale and its appalling nature.
Brown writes that she does not believe Epstein killed himself, but she does not speculate on what might have happened. She offers a mini biography of his most notorious associate, Ghislaine Maxwell, who went into hiding in 2016 but was arrested a year ago and awaits trial on sex trafficking and perjury charges.
Woven into these stories is Brown’s own, a story thousands of journalists will recognize. She is fiercely dedicated to her job, even through a decade and more of ever-contracting budgets at news operations, round upon round of layoffs and pay cuts, shrinking resources and intensifying competition for them.
She writes not only about the payoffs for her persistence and instincts, but about the dead ends and rabbit holes reporting can lead to. She confesses that her obsession with stories like Epstein’s have had an impact on her personal life — when she drives her son from Miami to Tallahassee to start college, she writes that she can’t remember the last time they spent eight hours alone together.
It’s hard work, and its very existence is threatened. But as "Perversion of Justice" demonstrates, it’s essential. Powerful forces conspired to let Jeffrey Epstein get away with every evil act, but a newspaper, and this book, turned over the rock they hid beneath.