When you look back through photographs of Ghislaine Maxwell out and about on New York’s social scene the heiress always appeared to be surrounded by adoring friends and occasional lovers. By all accounts she possessed a kind of unquantifiable magnetism that drew people in.
But at the opening of her sex-trafficking case on Monday morning they were nowhere to be seen.
Her older sister Isabel cast a lonely figure as the sole member of the Maxwell clan to turn out in support. Even husband, American entrepreneur Scott Borgerson, was notably absent.
One self-described former friend, Christopher Mason, spoke briefly to gathered reporters, telling them he couldn’t believe how far his old pal had fallen. He had come to gawp at the spectacle of the whole thing.
Maxwell’s side was vastly outnumbered by Ghislaine’s accusers. They waited patiently in line with journalists and members of the public to get their chance to see the woman they claim facilitated their abuse at the hands of her former boyfriend, Jeffrey Epstein. The prosecution is only citing four victims in court. She has denied the charges.
It was a day some of them had waited more than two decades for.
Sarah Ransome, a British woman who alleges she was groomed by Maxwell and raped by Epstein, but is not due to testify, held back tears as she told media: “I have so many emotions. I never thought this day would come.”
Reporters queued up outside the federal Thurgood Marshall courthouse in Lower Manhattan – situated just steps from the prison where Epstein was found hanged in his cell – from 5am on the dark and chilly November morning. Arriving at 5.45am, I found myself in 12th place. I had bought myself a battery-powered gillet to protect against the biting pre-dawn cold.
Stringent Covid-19 rules meant the court was only letting in five in-house press and just two external, assigned on a first-come first-serve basis. The line snaked down the road and around the corner. Dozens had to be turned away from the morning session.
Court marshals said they had only seen such a high level of interest in one federal case in the past decade – the trial of Mexican drug baron Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2019.
Some journalists had even hired professional place-holders, who are usually paid to wait in line for cut-price Broadway tickets.
Protesters too turned out in force outside the courthouse, waving banners and shouting through megaphones about a global paedophile cabal.
Covering the Epstein story you become used to hearing the conspiracy theories the case seems to attract. It’s a deep state operation, or a Mossad plot to undermine US presidents and British royalty. Back in January, a dial-in phone line was hijacked by so many apparent followers of the QAnon that it had to be abandoned.
A Twitter account claiming to be providing an inside account of the trial that the “mainstream media is hiding”, accrued 300,000 in a matter of days.
Entering and exiting Thurgood Marshall is something of a Kafkaesque affair. Phones, laptops and other electronics must be handed over at the federal courthouse door before you can get through security – an unnecessarily lengthy rigmarole.
Once in and seated, the hearing moved just as slowly. Eleventh-hour juror conflicts delayed the start, as two members of the panel raised scheduling and work-related issues.
One expressed concern their work would not pay them for their six weeks out of work (the length of the trial), the other had been surprised by their spouse with a four-day Christmas getaway.
After they took their places, Maxwell lit up. It was her chance to do what she does best – charm people.
Wearing a pale sweater and smart trousers, Maxwell looked the best I’d seen her since she was arrested on sex-trafficking charges in July last year.
I’ve sat in on a few pre-trial hearings in the case and the thing I’m most struck by is how intimate Maxwell is with her lawyers. Her legal team greets her each morning with hugs, back rubs and a Starbucks coffee. The socialite always makes sure to lean in very close when she whispers in their ears.
I caught a particularly affectionate moment between Maxwell and her attorney, Jeffrey Pagliuca, who stroked her forehead and brushed away her hair the other day. It could have been a ploy for the court, but it felt genuine.
Maxwell is not just incredibly tactile, but expressive too. She gives a lot away with her body language. During the prosecution’s opening statement she fixed her gaze on the jury, only looking away for a few seconds at a time to scribble notes in her pad, clearly trying to establish a connection with the 12 men and women who will decide her fate.
Then when it came to the government’s first witness, Epstein’s long-time pilot, she sat back in her seat with her arms folded, rolling her eyes to signify her displeasure.
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