The much-anticipated trial of Ghislaine Maxwell got underway Monday in New York City with a prosecutor and a defense attorney painting conflicting portraits of Maxwell, who is accused of enabling convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz, who gave the prosecutors' opening statement, said Maxwell identified and targeted vulnerable young women and then "served them up" to Epstein.
“She put them at ease and made them feel safe, all so that they could be sexually abused by a middle-aged man,” Pomerantz said. “There were times when she was in the room when it happened.”
Maxwell was no mere Epstein employee, Pomerantz said. She was "the lady of the house" who made sure that what happened behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors, Pomerantz said, and she and Epstein "had a playbook."
“First they got access to young girls," Pomerantz said. "Then they gained their trust.”
Pomerantz said the next stage involved getting the girls comfortable with sexual contact with Epstein.
“The defendant massaged Epstein in front of the girls and then encouraged them to massage Epstein,” she said. “What was happening in those massage rooms was not a massage. It was sexual abuse.”
Maxwell attorney Bobbi Sternheim said in her opening statement that prosecutors were going after Maxwell because they can't try Epstein, who hanged himself in prison two years ago.
“Ever since Eve has been blamed for tempting Adam with an apple, women have been blamed for things men have done,” Sternheim said. “She is not Jeffrey Epstein. She is not anything like Jeffrey Epstein.”
“Ghislaine Maxwell is on trial as a scapegoat for Epstein,” she said.
Sternheim also appeared to downplay Epstein's depravity, saying "he had many positive traits."
“In many regards he was like a 21st century James Bond," she said.
Sternheim said much of the government's case rests on the memories of the four accusers. She said their incentive for coming forward is "personal monetary gain."
“There will be no eyewitnesses to their accounts,” she said.
Sternheim was followed by the first prosecution witness, Larry Visoski, a longtime pilot of Epstein's private planes. He was at the control of several flights on which Maxwell and unidentified "females" were listed on flight manifests obtained by NBC News.
“It was pretty much every four days we were on the road flying somewhere,” said Visoski, who is expected to return to the stand Tuesday.
Epstein’s flights became the focus of intense media scrutiny after it was discovered that former President Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, lawyer Alan Dershowitz and a host of other celebrities took trips on his planes.
An alleged victim, who isn’t part of the case, said in a civil lawsuit that Maxwell trafficked her to Prince Andrew when she was 17. He has denied the allegations.
Maxwell, 59, British socialite who insists she is innocent, is accused of helping Epstein recruit and abuse four underage girls, mostly in the 1990s.
Maxwell was taken to the courtroom in Lower Manhattan from a lockup in Brooklyn where she has been held without bail.
Wearing a cream-colored long-sleeve top and black pants, Maxwell could be seen chatting with her lawyers before the proceedings got underway. And like everybody else in the courtroom, including the 12 jurors, she was wearing a mask against Covid-19.
While Maxwell and Epstein are suspected of having preyed on dozens of young women, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan of Southern New York has limited prosecutors' scope to testimony centered on the four women, all of whom will be identified publicly by pseudonyms, prosecutors said.
All four are expected to take the stand to testify against Maxwell at some point, prosecutors have said. The trial is expected to last six weeks.
Epstein, a multimillionaire financier who was friendly with powerful and wealthy men like Clinton, former President Donald Trump and Ohio billionaire Leslie Wexner, was found dead in August 2019 in a Manhattan jail while he was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. His death was ruled a suicide.
Before the prosecution and the defense begin their opening statements, another of Maxwell's and Epstein's accusers arrived at the courtroom.
Sarah Ransome isn’t one of the four women who are expected to testify at the long-awaited trial. And while NBC News generally doesn’t identify sex abuse victims by name, Ransome has spoken openly about Epstein and Maxwell and has a memoir coming out, "Silenced No More: Surviving My Journey to Hell and Back.”
“We all know he did not act alone,” Ransome said in a 2019 hearing before a different federal judge, weeks after Epstein hanged himself.
At this trial, Maxwell faces six counts tied to allegations that she tried to entice minors to travel and engage in illegal sex acts, that she conspired to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and that she engaged in a sex trafficking conspiracy.
Cameras are barred from federal courtrooms, so there will be no video or recordings of the trial.