BY TOM HAYS AND LARRY NEUMEISTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEW YORK (AP) — One by one, 16 women who say they were sexually abused by Jeffrey Epstein poured out their anger, lashing out at him as a coward and a manipulator, after a judge gave them the day in court they were denied when he killed himself behind bars.
“He robbed me of my dreams, of my chance to pursue a career I adored,” said Jennifer Araoz, who has accused Epstein of raping her in his New York mansion when she was a 15-year-old aspiring actress.
The hearing was convened by U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, who presided over the case after federal prosecutors had Epstein arrested last month.
The question before the judge was whether to throw out the indictment because of the defendant’s death, a usually pro forma step undertaken without a hearing. But the judge offered Epstein’s accusers an extraordinary opportunity to speak in court.
In addition to the women who spoke, statements from over a dozen others were read in court by their lawyers.
Repeatedly, the women described themselves as survivors and said they hoped coming forward would help other women. They vented their fury over Epstein’s alleged crimes and his suicide in his jail cell Aug. 10 while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges involving dozens of teenage girls.
“He is a coward,” said Courtney Wild, who has said she was sexually abused by Epstein in Florida at 14. “Justice has never been served in this case.”
“The fact I will never have a chance to face my predator in court eats away at me,” Araoz said. “They let this man kill himself and kill the chance for justice for so many others.”
Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who has said she was a 15-year-old working at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club when she was recruited to perform sex acts on Epstein, told the court: “My hopes were quickly dashed and my dreams were stolen.”
Sarah Ransome, who said Epstein pressured her into sex when she was in her early 20s, encouraged federal prosecutors in their effort to go after those who helped the financier in his pursuit of victims, saying, “Finish what you started. … We are survivors, and the pursuit of justice should not abate.”
Among those under scrutiny: Epstein’s girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, who has been accused of recruiting young women for his sexual pleasure and taking part in the abuse. She has denied any wrongdoing.
In opening the session, the judge called the 66-year-old Epstein’s suicide a “rather stunning turn of events.” He defended his decision to let the women speak, saying, “Public hearings … promote transparency and provide the court with insights and information that the court might otherwise not be aware of.”
During the 2½-hour proceeding, the women sometimes clutched one another to lend support. Most remained composed, but several cried as they described falling into Epstein’s web. His suicide left some of them angry, others sad. One said she was relieved that he was gone and could abuse no others.
Some women described their shame and embarrassment, saying Epstein manipulated them, dangling his wealth and power and connection to celebrities and political figures, while seizing on their vulnerabilities.
Several of the women chose to testify anonymously, including one who said she was 15 when she was flown to Epstein’s New Mexico ranch. While molesting her, he was also “explaining to me how beneficial the experience was for me and how he was helping me grow,” she said.
She said that as he abused her, she could see framed pictures of him on a dresser, smiling with celebrities.
Teala Davies, taking deep breaths to steady her voice, said she was 17 when she was victimized. She said she thought Epstein was the most powerful person in the world.
“But the end is here, and here I stand, feeling more powerful than he will ever be,” she said.
A New York City coroner ruled that Epstein hanged himself. But one of Epstein’s lawyers, Martin Weinberg, challenged that finding during Tuesday’s hearing, saying an expert hired by the defense determined that broken bones in his neck were “more consistent with pressure … with homicide” than suicide.
“Find out what happened to our client,” the lawyer told the judge. “We’re quite angry.”
When a prosecutor said the manner of Epstein’s death was irrelevant to Tuesday’s proceedings, the judge responded: “Well, I don’t know. … I think it’s fair game for defense counsel to raise its concerns.” But the judge took no immediate action on the request, and prosecutors noted that a grand jury is already investigating the death.
At his death, Epstein was being held without bail, accused of abusing girls in the early 2000s at his mansions in New York and Palm Beach, Florida.
In the wake of his suicide, the warden of the federal jail and the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons were removed, and two guards who were supposed to be watching Epstein were placed on leave.
Epstein’s lawyers contended he could not be prosecuted because he signed a non-prosecution deal with federal authorities over a decade ago in Florida that resulted in a 13-month stint in jail on state prostitution-related charges. Federal prosecutors in New York said that deal did not prevent the new charges.
The Associated Press does not identify alleged victims of sex crimes unless they give their consent, which several Epstein accusers have done.