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Prosecution links Ghislaine Maxwell to Jeffrey Epstein, while defense says she is being blamed for his actions

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(CNN) — Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein created a “pyramid scheme of abuse” by offering cash to poor underage girls, luring them into a web of sexual abuse, prosecutors said Monday in opening statements of Maxwell’s criminal trial.

Prosecutor Lara Pomerantz told jurors that in the 1990s, Maxwell would procure girls for Epstein via the “ruse” of a massage. “You’ll learn that the cover of massage was the primary way the defendant and Epstein lured girls into sexual abuse.”

The playbook eventually changed as they began to give $100 bills to poor teenage girls from broken homes, promising them money and access to resources, Pomerantz said.

“By the early 2000s, the defendant and Epstein found an easier way to maintain a continuous flow of girls to abuse,” Pomerantz said. “Instead, they devised a pyramid scheme of abuse, a scheme that no longer required the defendant to personally find young girls for Epstein.”

In response, Maxwell’s defense told jurors in their opening statement their client was a scapegoat for Epstein’s abuse. Instead, her attorney portrayed her as a victim of sexism.

“Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple. Women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men and women are often villainized and punished more than the men ever are. The charges against Ghislaine Maxwell are for things that Jeffrey Epstein did. But she is not Jeffrey Epstein,” defense attorney Bobbi Sternheim said.

The opening statements come on the first day of Maxwell’s federal trial on charges including conspiracy and sex-trafficking. The trial is likely to give a glimpse into the enigmatic life of the late Jeffrey Epstein, Maxwell’s close confidante who died in jail in 2019 before he was due to stand trial.

After opening statements, the government called its first witness: Epstein’s former pilot Lawrence “Larry” Visoski.

Maxwell was first charged in July 2020 with enticement and conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, transportation and conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity for allegedly grooming and recruiting underage girls from 1994 through 1997.

Prosecutors later added two sex-trafficking charges, alleging Maxwell interacted with a 14-year-old girl on multiple occasions in Palm Beach, Florida, and encouraged and enticed her to recruit other girls to perform “sexualized massages” on Epstein despite knowing she was under 18.

The pilot, who began working for Epstein in 1991, testified Maxwell frequently traveled on Epstein’s private jet between 1994 and 2004 and would often facilitate travel plans with Visoski for Epstein.

He described his memory of the pair’s relationship as more personal than business-like, but more “couple-ish” than actually romantic. He didn’t remember seeing them kiss or hold hands, he said.

Logging the names of all passengers on Epstein’s private flights was not a priority, but they tried their best to be accurate, Visoski said. For international flights, he had to report an accurate passenger log, he said.

Visoski often flew Epstein between New York, Paris, St. Thomas, New Mexico and Florida, and would frequently go to Epstein’s properties at those locations, for example, to facilitate luggage for Epstein and his guests, the pilot testified.

Visoski will continue testifying Tuesday morning.

Maxwell has denied any wrongdoing, telling the court at a recent hearing, “I have not committed any crimes.” She faces up to 70 years in prison if convicted on all six counts. The trial is expected to last about six weeks.

The British socialite was arrested nearly one year after Epstein was arrested on charges in connection to allegations he ran a sex-trafficking enterprise at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach from 2002 to 2005. That indictment alleged Epstein worked with employees and associates to lure the girls to his residences and paid some of his victims to recruit other girls for him to abuse.

Epstein was found dead in his prison cell shortly after his arrest in 2019. The medical examiner later determined the cause of death to be suicide by hanging.

He was a convicted registered sex offender after he pleaded guilty to two state prostitution charges in 2008.

Maxwell, a once very public socialite known for jet-setting with Epstein and other high-profile figures including Prince Andrew and former Presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, seemingly fell off the grid after Epstein was arrested as he disembarked a flight from Paris in July 2019.

Prosecutors preview their case in opening statements

Pomerantz began her opening statements by describing Maxwell as the lady of the house, running Epstein’s homes for over a decade and sharing in his luxurious lifestyle, all while aiding and abetting his abuse of minor girls.

Maxwell ran a tight ship to create a culture of silence for Epstein, the prosecutor said.

“Employees were to see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. There was a culture of silence. That was by design — the defendant’s design — because behind closed doors, the defendant and Epstein were committing heinous crimes. They were sexually abusing teenage girls,” she said.

The prosecutor said Maxwell had a hands-on role in the abuse.

“She manipulated the girls, groomed them for abuse, helped the girls feel comfortable as friendliness escalated to abuse,” Pomerantz said. “Sometimes she was even in the room for the massages herself, and sometimes she touched the girls’ bodies and even when she was not in the room, make no mistake, she knew exactly what Epstein was going to do to those children when she sent them to him inside the massage rooms; massage rooms inside the houses the defendant ran for over a decade.”

Jurors will hear from alleged victims, their family members, former members of Epstein’s staff, including pilots and employees who worked in the Palm Beach residence, as well as law enforcement agents who conducted the 2005 search of Epstein’s Palm Beach residence and his Manhattan mansion in 2019, the prosecutor said.

In addition, prosecutors plan to show the jury flight logs for Epstein’s private planes, FedEx records for a gift Epstein sent to one girl when she was just 15, and explicit photos from inside Epstein’s homes.

The prosecutor also told jurors they would hear about the Epstein Victim Compensation Program, which awarded money to some of the girls in the case who accused Maxwell and Epstein of abuse.

“You’ll also hear that a fund to compensate girls who Epstein abused awarded some of these witnesses millions of dollars. But it will be obvious to you at this trial that these witnesses would have paid anything for this not to have happened to them. They would pay anything to have never met the defendant and Epstein,” Pomerantz said.

Maxwell focused her attention on the jury during the prosecutor’s opening statement, but at times she stared off in the direction of the judge.

When prosecutors spoke of one witness, using the pseudonym Jane, Maxwell took notes.

Defense attacks alleged victims

Bobbi Sternheim laid out the defense’s strategy in opening statements: Attack and undermine the four women set to testify about their interactions with Maxwell and Epstein.

Sternheim told jurors the trial is about memory, manipulation and money. Victims have manipulated their memories of alleged abuse by Epstein to include Maxwell because they’ve been financially incentivized to take Maxwell down in the wake of his death, she said.

She acknowledged Epstein’s abusive behavior and his known schemes to some extent, but maintained Maxwell was roped into prosecution efforts only after his death because of their long relationship.

“She is a scapegoat for a man who behaved badly,” Sternheim said. “She is a target, a bull’s eye of anger for women who were or otherwise believe they were victimized by Epstein. Epstein’s death left a gaping hole in the pursuit of justice for many of these women.”

“Yes, Jeffrey Epstein manipulated the world around him and the people around him. He compartmentalized his life, showing only what he wanted to show to the people around him, including Ghislaine,” she said.

The defense attorney repeatedly told jurors the alleged victims outlined in the indictment “reframed” their stories of abuse against Epstein to include Maxwell for the sake of a payday. She placed blame on civil attorneys who she said saw Epstein and Maxwell as easy targets for lawsuits.

The defense attorney spoke at length about the Epstein Victim Compensation Fund, telling jurors the alleged victims in this case received millions in an “enhanced” compensation package through the program for cooperating with the government.

Sternheim went through each alleged victim expected to testify, discrediting them for different reasons including delayed reporting and substance abuse.

The parties took more than one sidebar after several objections from prosecutors. The prosecution objected to certain language used by Sternheim about the alleged victims’ potential financial motives in the case and the defense argument that Maxwell is an innocent stand-in on trial in Epstein’s place.

Alleged victims to testify at trial

The four alleged victims in the case are identified in the indictment as Minor Victims 1 through 4.

Maxwell was present and involved in some of the abuse alleged by Minor Victim-1, court documents say. That victim allegedly first met Maxwell when she was approximately 14 years old and was sexually abused by Epstein at his properties in New York and Florida, according to the indictment.

Maxwell “involved” the girl in group “sexualized massages” on Epstein, undressing in front of the girl and was present when Minor Victim-1 undressed in front of Epstein, the indictment says.

Minor Victim-2 traveled to New Mexico in 1996 where Epstein allegedly abused her at his ranch. Maxwell allegedly groomed Minor Victim-2, giving her an unsolicited massage while she was topless. Maxwell also encouraged Minor Victim-2 to massage Epstein, according to the indictment.

Judge Alison Nathan ruled ahead of the trial jurors would be instructed they cannot convict Maxwell based on testimony regarding the sexual conduct between Epstein and a woman identified in the indictment as Minor Victim-3 because she was 17 at the time and therefore over the age of consent in the relevant jurisdictions.

Her testimony as a witness will still be relevant to the overall alleged conspiracy to entice minors to engage in illegal sexual conduct. Allegedly befriending and grooming her, Maxwell introduced the young girl to Epstein in London when she was 17, according to the indictment.

Maxwell encouraged her to perform sexualized massages during which she was allegedly abused by Epstein in 1994 and 1995.

Minor Victim-4 first met Maxwell when she was recruited at approximately 14 years old to give sexualized massages to Epstein at his Palm Beach residence. Between 2001 and 2004, Minor Victim-4 was paid hundreds of dollars in cash for her interactions with Epstein during which he’d sexually abuse her, according to the indictment.

The victim also allegedly recruited other young females to provide sexualized massages on Epstein at his and Maxwell’s request. At times, Maxwell called the victim from New York to schedule the massages on Epstein upon his return to Florida. Maxwell also sent gifts from New York, including lingerie, to the victim’s home in Florida, the indictment says.

Maxwell’s counsel maintains she is innocent and was only charged because Epstein died.

What we might see in court

Previous court filings have previewed what evidence and testimony will be part of this case.

A former employee at Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion will testify about an address book containing contact information for alleged underage victims and high-profile celebrities Epstein and Maxwell associated with, according to court documents. It’s unclear at this point if jurors will get to see a copy of the book during the trial.

The employee will testify this copy aligns with her recollection of the bound and sewn, typed book that contains contact information for Maxwell’s family members and the alleged victims in this case, court filings say.

Judge Nathan said during the final pretrial hearing she’d hear the unnamed employee’s testimony about the book before she rules on whether jurors can see any of it.

Prosecutors say the book belonged to Maxwell and copies of it and another belonging to Epstein were placed around Epstein’s home for convenience, per a house manual obtained via a search warrant.

Prosecutors allege Maxwell had a pattern of grooming Epstein’s victims, making them comfortable by taking them on outings like shopping and going to see movies, and asking about their personal lives.

An expert on child sex abuse, Dr. Lisa Rocchio, is expected to testify for the prosecution on the grooming of minors for sexual abuse, a concept at the crux of the government’s argument for the charges against Maxwell in the indictment.

Judge Nathan ruled the defense may also call expert witnesses to combat the expected testimony from the prosecution’s expert.

Dr. Park Dietz is expected to downplay grooming in testimony for the defense, saying grooming can simply be kind behavior that does not inherently have to be associated with sexual abuse, according to a defense motion.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus is also expected to testify for the defense about memory distortion and the tendency of victims to remember core information but forget or misremember peripheral details around a traumatic event, according to a defense motion.

Loftus was similarly paid to testify on the subject in Harvey Weinstein’s defense in the 2020 trial that ended in a conviction of the disgraced movie mogul on sexual misconduct charges.

Maxwell faces two additional perjury charges connected to allegations she lied during a 2016 civil deposition which are expected to be handled in a separate trial.

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