“To this day, I feel really guilty.” That’s what one of Jeffrey Epstein’s victims, who says Epstein raped her at age 15 in the early 2000s, told NBC News in an interview that aired Wednesday about not sharing her story years ago.
“If I wasn’t afraid to come forward sooner then maybe he wouldn’t have done it to other girls,” Jennifer Araoz told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. Araoz detailed for NBC how she was first lured in 2001 into meeting Epstein, who is now facing newly unsealed federal sex trafficking charges, at his Manhattan mansion near where she attended high school. Initially, the 14-year-old Araoz, who had lost her father to AIDS two years earlier, was told by another young woman that Epstein was “very powerful” and a “great guy” who might be able to help her achieve her dream of becoming a Broadway actress. The first several times Araoz met with Epstein, the woman came along. But eventually, Araoz started meeting with him alone, and Epstein would insist on her giving him massages in her panties while he pleasured himself. Each time, she would leave with $300. Finally, she says, he forcibly raped her during a visit when she was 15, and she never returned.
It’s the very type of classic predation, with an added element of conspiracy, that led federal prosecutors in New York to effectively seek a do-over on the sweetheart deal federal prosecutors in Florida, led by Trump Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, offered Epstein a little more than a decade ago.
And while Araoz expressed regret that she wasn’t able to protect more girls from Epstein’s abuses, Acosta shares no such reflections years later. In fact, Acosta held a press conference Wednesday in which he painted himself as a heroic figure in an episode where he claimed state prosecutors were getting ready to set Acosta free without doing jail time for his crimes.
“I wanted to help them,” Acosta told reporters. “That is why we intervened. And that’s what the prosecutors of my office did — they insisted that he go to jail and put the world on notice that he was and is a sexual predator.”
But that deal amounted to just 13 months in a state prison, which Epstein was allowed to leave on work-release for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Acosta called the program “B.S.” on Wednesday but again blamed the state, saying, “it was not what we expected.”
The problem for Acosta is that what the state decided to do with its case didn’t have to have any bearing whatsoever on what federal prosecutors decided to do. In fact, that’s exactly what Barry Krischer, the Palm Beach County state attorney at the time, said following Acosta’s attempt at revisionist history.
“No matter how my office resolved the state charges, the U.S. attorney’s office always had the ability to file its own federal charges,” Krischer told the New York Times. “If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the state’s case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted.”
In a statement, Krischer added, “Federal prosecutors do not take a back seat to state prosecutors. That’s not how the system works in the real world.”
Many former federal prosecutors expressed that exact same sentiment. Former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade told MSNBC that while she is usually hesitant to second guess the work of other prosecutors, she found one aspect of Acosta’s explanation “woefully inadequate.”
“If the state was proceeding in a way he found unacceptable,” McQuade said, “that did not in any way prevent him from pursuing the case (federally).”
Acosta also claimed that he chose not to go trial because the victims were “scared and traumatized.” That is undoubtedly true. But there were dozens of victims and federal prosecutors are explicitly trained to work with people who have experienced trauma. While some of the girls may have been unable to withstand trial, others likely would have.
“He had more than 30 minor child victims,” former federal prosecutor Chuck Rosenberg told MSNBC Wednesday evening. “Even if a bunch of them didn’t want to testify—and I completely understand that—some number would.” Rosenberg added that if for some reason prosecutors were unable to build the case with the 30-plus victims they had identified, “if they didn’t feel they had the quantum of proof they needed, they simply could have continued the investigation until they did—there was no time stamp on this.”
“It just doesn’t add up, it doesn’t make sense,” he concluded.
What makes more sense is that federal prosecutors in Florida either willingly cut Epstein the deal of a lifetime or they were intimidated into doing so. Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie Brown thoroughly documented the chummy relations between the defense team and the prosecutors. And Acosta himself wrote a letter in 2011 outlining the intimidation federal prosecutors faced from Epstein’s defense team.
“What followed was a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors.” Epstein had assembled a world-class legal team, including Alan Dershowitz, Kenneth Starr, and Roy Black (best known for having defended William Kennedy Smith against rape charges in Palm Beach.) “One member of the defense team warned me that the office’s excess zeal in forcing a good man to serve time in jail might be the subject of a book if we continued,” Acosta writes. In his view, excessive zeal more aptly described the actions in Epstein’s camp: “Defense counsel investigated individual prosecutors and their families,” seeking to unearth personal issues that might lead to disqualification of members of Acosta’s team.
Acosta and his team of investigators folded in the face of a rich and powerful man with a high profile and excessively resourced defense team. In other words, they failed to do their job, which was to seek justice for the innocent victims of Epstein’s predation and protect more underaged girls from falling prey to him in the future.
And while Jennifer Araoz feels terrible that at 15 she wasn’t able to do more to save other girls from suffering the same fate she did, Alex Acosta is selling some perverted fairytale that he performed heroic acts in the midst of this tragedy. And no, he doesn’t exactly have regrets.
“Look, no regrets is a very hard question. You always look back and you say, ‘What if?’” Acosta said during Wednesday’s press conference. “We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail. He needed to go to jail.” For 13 months, with work-release six days a week, 12 hours a day.