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What to know about the Jeffrey Epstein 'John Doe' files that were just unsealed

A protest group called "Hot Mess" holds up signs of Jeffrey Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City.
Stephanie Keith
Getty Images
A protest group called "Hot Mess" holds up signs of Jeffrey Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City.

A federal judge has begun unsealing court records related to as many as 153 people whose names appear in documents in a lawsuit over the sex-trafficking ring orchestrated by Jeffrey Epstein. It's a much-anticipated development in a case where speculation long focused on the late financier's "black book" of friends and contacts.

The fact that names are mentioned in the court documents does not imply a link to the criminal activities that prompted sweeping federal charges against Epstein and his partner, Ghislaine Maxwell. Many of the names come up only in passing, or in settings that are "not salacious," as Senior U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska recently said.

Many of the most prominent individuals were already known to have links to Epstein because of previous court cases or disclosures in the media. Most of those publicly named have denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of Epstein's criminal activities previously.

The allegations are extraordinary, as they claim acts of illegal sexual predation took place within an elite world of power and influence. For people following the story, the unsealed documents contain the most detailed allegations yet of how a trafficking ring intersected with the highest social circles.

The records hold prominent names, from former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump to magician David Copperfield. Also mentioned is Britain's Prince Andrew — who settled a case filed by Epstein accuser Virginia Giuffre in 2022, after denying having met her.

More than 40 documents were released on Wednesday, and 19 more on Thursday, representing some 1,270 pages of depositions and other records. More releases are expected.

Why are the documents coming out now?

It comes down to two factors: insistence by Epstein's victims for a public accounting of his crimes, and a local newspaper's pursuit of the full story.

Dozens of women stepped forward to accuse Epstein and Maxwell of preying on them when they were teenagers or otherwise vulnerable, in a reckoning that began in the early 2000s and gained steam with the Me Too movement. One of the most well-known is Giuffre — who sued Maxwell for defamation in 2015 after Maxwell called her a liar for claiming to be a victim of a sexual conspiracy run by Epstein and Maxwell.

Maxwell settled Giuffre's lawsuit in May of 2017. But journalist Julie K. Brown and the Miami Herald — whose reporting put Epstein's actions under new scrutiny — then fought to have the records unsealed.

Judge Preska eventually ordered many records unsealed in full, noting that in some cases, the people in question hadn't objected. In others, she said, the person's identity was already widely known, citing wide media coverage of the lawsuit. But she is also keeping the identity of many Jane Does confidential, due to their status as minors when they were abused.

Along with Giuffre's case, the court papers also include testimony and details from a suit filed in 2008 by two "Jane Does" — Epstein survivors who sued the U.S. government over a secret plea deal with Epstein they said was far too lenient and violated their rights under the Crime Victims Rights Act. Giuffre's defamation suit then drew upon records in that case.

Who are the men formerly known as 'John Doe'?

A Google Map image from 2011 shows the Palm Beach, Fla., home of the late disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. The structure was <a href="https://www.palmbeachdailynews.com/picture-gallery/news/2021/04/19/developer-demolishes-house-late-financier-and-sex-offender-jeffrey-epstein-358-el-brillo-way-palm-be/7291631002/">demolished in 2021</a>.
/ Google Maps/Screenshot by NPR
Google Maps/Screenshot by NPR
A Google Map image from 2011 shows the Palm Beach, Fla., home of the late disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. The structure was demolished in 2021.

The documents confirm the identities of a number of "John Does," from Clinton and Trump to people such as late New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, actor Kevin Spacey, former Vice President Al Gore and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who helped Epstein secure his controversial non-prosecution agreement in Florida, also appears. It's worth noting that in the years since some of the testimony was recorded, Giuffre, who had accused Dershowitz of sexually assaulting her, settled her dispute with him in 2022, saying that it was possible she was mistaken. Dershowitz has denied the allegations.

Also mentioned is French modeling agent Jean-Luc Brunel, who like Epstein was found dead in a jail cell after an investigation into the sexual exploitation of minors.

New details emerged in the deposition of Johanna Sjoberg, an Epstein accuser who was a student at Palm Beach Atlantic College when Maxwell hired her to work in Epstein's home — initially as an assistant of sorts, and then as a masseuse.

Sjoberg alleged she met David Copperfield during a meal at Epstein's Florida house in the early 2000s. Copperfield seemed to be a friend of Epstein's, the woman said. But she claimed her conversation with the magician also touched on the financier's darker side.

"He questioned me if I was aware that girls were getting paid to find other girls," Sjoberg said.

Epstein became a registered sex offender in Florida in 2008, after pleading guilty to state charges as part of his deal with the U.S. government.

What about Trump and Mar-a-Lago?

Former President Trump is not accused of wrongdoing in the documents. But his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., has repeatedly been mentioned in court filings related to Epstein, whose mansion at 358 El Brillo Way was only about a mile and a half up the coast from the private club.

Mar-a-Lago was a critical nexus point in the trafficking ring's eventual exposure: It's where Virginia Giuffre, who would go on to become Epstein and Maxwell's most vocal accuser, says she was first recruited by Maxwell when she was a teenager working at the club's spa.

In Giuffre's account, she discussed massages with Maxwell, who then arranged for her to visit Epstein's home and give him a massage. In her deposition, Maxwell said Giuffre's mother drove her to Epstein's house — and that she spoke to Giuffre's mother outside while Giuffre was inside.

Epstein and Trump have famously been photographed together, including at Mar-a-Lago. The documents also depict an encounter between the two.

In Sjoberg's deposition, she alleged that, during a flight to New York on Epstein's private plane, bad weather required a landing in Atlantic City instead.

"Great, we'll call up Trump," Sjoberg claimed Epstein said, relaying how the group on the plane then visited Trump's casino. When asked if she ever gave Trump a massage, Sjoberg replied, "No."

The case also has another Trump connection: The U.S. attorney in Florida who granted Epstein a widely criticized deal in 2007 was Alexander Acosta — who became labor secretary under President Trump in 2017. When Epstein's 2019 arrest raised new criticism of Acosta, he resigned.

Who were Epstein's victims?

Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims Sarah Ransome, center left, and Elizabeth Stein, center right, arrive at a Manhattan federal court for the sentencing of former socialite Ghislaine Maxwell on June 28, 2022.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Getty Images
Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims Sarah Ransome, center left, and Elizabeth Stein, center right, arrive at a Manhattan federal court for the sentencing of former socialite Ghislaine Maxwell on June 28, 2022.

Dozens of young women have stepped forward to accuse Epstein of sexually victimizing and exploiting them. In court papers and trial testimony, they have described depraved actions perpetrated not only by Epstein but also by his friends and business associates.

After years of loud denials from Epstein and his associates, those women have increasingly had a chance to be heard in recent years, as civil and criminal cases against Epstein and Maxwell piled up. In court testimony, many of the women described how the pair lured them into their orbit as teenagers, with promises of career advice and other help. Instead, they were ordered to perform sexual acts with men who would help Epstein continue to gain influence and fortune.

"The public has wondered and many have rightly demanded to know how Epstein operated his vast, global sex trafficking enterprise and got away with it for decades," Giuffre's longtime attorney Sigrid McCawley said in a statement to NPR. And while some questions of "who enabled and facilitated him and who participated in an operation that resulted in unspeakable harm and devastation to the lives of countless girls and young women" have been answered, she said, "many have not."

Unsealing the documents, she added, moves closer to the goal of fighting sex trafficking and holding people to account.

After his death, Epstein's estate set up the Epstein Victims' Compensation Program, which paid out a total of more than $121 million to more than 135 people who filed claims.

Why are people still so interested in Epstein?

The identities of many people who spent time with Epstein have long been shrouded by legal protections. And as the newly unredacted documents allege, some of the world's most famous and powerful figures had relationships with Epstein even after his legal problems became well known.

Prosecutors said Epstein's abuses spanned continents just like his splashy lifestyle, from his "Zorro Ranch" in New Mexico to properties in New York City, Palm Beach, Fla., and most notoriously, his own private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He also took entourages along on trips to England and Thailand.

The scale of Epstein's activities would require a host of participants and enablers — including those who didn't sexually exploit young women themselves, but instead helped Epstein maintain a sprawling enterprise of wealth and access that allowed him to live outside of the law.

In recent years, large banks such as JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank, both of which had dealings with Epstein, have agreed to pay hundreds of millions dollars to settle lawsuits related to Epstein's actions. Neither bank has admitted wrongdoing.

Was anyone held accountable for Epstein's abuses?

In 2022, a federal judge sentenced Ghislaine Maxwellto 20 years in prison for her part in the sex-trafficking ring she helped Epstein run for a decade.

Epstein never faced a federal trial over the crimes of which he was accused. Roughly a month after his arrest on sex-trafficking charges in 2019, he died after being found unresponsive in his jail cell in Manhattan. His death at age 66 was ruled a suicide.

Accusations against Epstein were long obscured by legal maneuvers — such as the controversial non-prosecution agreement he negotiated in 2007 with federal prosecutors in Florida. That plea deal with then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta resulted in Epstein pleading guilty to lesser state charges in 2008. It also prevented him and any co-conspirators from being prosecuted for federal sex crimes in southern Florida.

Before Maxwell's arrest and prosecution, one of the only people to serve serious prison time in relation to Epstein's crimes was Alfredo Rodriguez, Epstein's former household manager, who was arrested after trying to sell a copy of Epstein's "black book." Rodriguez was sentenced to 18 months in 2012, for obstruction of justice. He died in 2015.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 4, 2024 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the name of Microsoft founder Bill Gates appeared in the released documents. While Gates has spoken about having spent time with Epstein, his name was not in the unsealed court records. Gates has called his association with Epstein "a huge mistake."
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.