A protest group called ‘Hot Mess’ hold up signs of Jeffrey Epstein in front of the US Federal courthouse. Picture: /GETTY IMAGES/AFP/STEPHANIE KEITH
A protest group called ‘Hot Mess’ hold up signs of Jeffrey Epstein in front of the US Federal courthouse. Picture: /GETTY IMAGES/AFP/STEPHANIE KEITH

New York — A New York woman who said she was sexually assaulted by Jeffrey Epstein at the age of 14 sued the disgraced financier’s estate and a former associate on Wednesday, in the start of an expected wave of lawsuits.

Jennifer Araoz said in her complaint that she was starting out in high school when an Epstein associate brought her to the financier’s massive mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, beginning a grooming process that led to months of sexual abuse, including what she called a “brutal rape”.

The lawsuit in New York County supreme court among the first of a series by women made possible by the state’s Child Victims Act, which opens a one-year window to sue over alleged sexual abuse regardless of how long ago it occurred.

Epstein, who once counted US President Donald Trump and former president Bill Clinton as friends, died on Saturday of an apparent suicide. He was found unresponsive in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, after having apparently hanged himself, prison authorities said.

The complaint described Epstein’s massage room as having a ceiling painted as a blue sky with clouds and angels, ‘to give the appearance that you were in heaven’

Epstein was arrested on July 6 and pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking involving dozens of under-age girls between 2002 and 2005. Prosecutors said he recruited girls to give him massages, which became sexual in nature.

Araoz’s lawsuit says former Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell facilitated Epstein’s abuse of several girls by overseeing their recruitment and “ensuring that approximately three girls a day were made available to him for his sexual pleasure”.

A lawyer who has represented Epstein did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Lawyers for Maxwell did not immediately respond to similar requests.

Accuser’s anger

Araoz told reporters on a conference call that she is “angry” that Epstein’s death means he will never face her in court but wanted to exercise her legal rights in civil court. “Today is my first step towards reclaiming my power Jeffrey Epstein and his enablers stole from me,” she said. “They robbed me of my youth, my identity, my innocence and my self-worth.”

The complaint described Epstein’s massage room as having a ceiling painted as a blue sky with clouds and angels, “to give the appearance that you were in heaven”.

It also detailed a variety of alleged misconduct by Epstein towards Araoz, including what she called an insinuation that she owed him because of the money he paid her. “I take care of you, you take care of me,” the complaint quoted Epstein as saying.

The other three unnamed defendants in Araoz’s lawsuit, all women who allegedly worked for Epstein in New York, include a maid, a secretary, and a “recruiter” who helped procure under-age girls for him.

Dan Kaiser, a lawyer for Araoz, said on the conference call that holding Epstein’s “adult enablers” responsible is “a very large part of this story”. He called Maxwell a key figure in maintaining and concealing Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking ring, although Araoz never met her.

“She is absolutely culpable for the injuries that these girls sustained,” Kaiser said, referring to Maxwell.

To obtain damages in civil lawsuits against Epstein’s estate, victims will need to prove claims by a preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt as in a criminal case.

Lenient 2008 settlement

In 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty in Florida to state charges of solicitation of prostitution from a minor in a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors that has been widely criticised as too lenient.

The US attorney in Miami at the time, Alexander Acosta, resigned as US labour secretary in July as that agreement came under fresh scrutiny following Epstein’s latest arrest.

Epstein had been on suicide watch since the arrest but a source familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was not on watch at the time of his death.

On Tuesday, US attorney-general William Barr ordered the transfer of Epstein’s jail warden, after condemning “serious irregularities” at the facility. Two guards have been placed on leave. Barr also said the criminal investigation into Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking and the role of possible co-conspirators will continue.

Trump has called for an investigation into Epstein’s death. FBI agents are expected to visit the Manhattan jail on Wednesday, MSNBC said.

It is not known if Epstein had a will. His lawyers said last month that Epstein had about $559m of assets, including two private islands and four homes, and that the Manhattan mansion was worth about $77m.

Los Angeles lawyer Lisa Bloom and New York lawyer Roberta Kaplan told Reuters this past weekend that they intend to file lawsuits in New York against the estate this week.

Reuters