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Jeffrey Epstein’s island: What really happened there?

Accusers say billionaire’s private paradise of Little St James in US Virgin Islands was centre of international sex trafficking ring

Io Dodds
San Francisco
Tuesday 16 January 2024 04:58 GMT
Which big names are on the Jeffrey Epstein list?

The guests to Epstein’s islands came from across the world and from the highest ranks of society: celebrities and scientists and members of royal families, touching down in a private jet and then boarding a helicopter to the island.

Its owner liked to call it “Little St Jeff”. The locals called it “Paedophile Island”.

But what is the truth about Little St James, the 75-acre private paradise in the US Virgin Islands that billionaire sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein once called home?

Little St James Island, one of the properties of financier Jeffrey Epstein, is seen in an aerial view in July

A criminal complaint from the attorney general of the US Virgin Islands described it as “the perfect hideaway and haven for trafficking young women and underage girls for sexual servitude, child abuse and sexual assault”.

On this island, the complaint says: “Epstein and his associates could avoid detection of their illegal activity from Virgin Islands and federal law enforcement, and prevent these young women and underage girls from leaving freely and escaping the abuse.”

The island featured in Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex trafficking trial in December. She was convicted of five sex-trafficking charges and was sentenced to 20 years behind bars plus a $750,000 fine on Tuesday, 28 June.

Finally, in May 2023, it was sold to a wealthy investor for less than half of its original asking price, with the hope of turning it into a luxury resort.

Here is everything we know about Little St James and what Epstein did there.

Where is Jeffrey Epstein’s island and what is it like?

Little St James is a small island fringed by coral reefs in the bright blue waters of the US Virgin Islands, with sheltered inlets and forested groves rising to dramatic windswept ridges and craggy cliffs.

It lies just off the south-eastern tip of St Thomas, one of the Caribbean archipelago’s three main islands.

The Virgins were purchased from Denmark by the US government at the height of the First World War in order to stop them being used as a German submarine base.

Today, many financial experts regard them as a tax haven, with huge discounts on corporation tax and personal income tax available to companies based there.

It was in the Virgins that Epstein registered as a sex offender in 2010, following his first conviction for child prostitution in 2008. He also based his shell companies in a small unmarked office in a seaside strip mall on St Thomas, alongside a Sam’s Mini-Mart and a salon called Happy Nails.

In 1998, he bought Little St James from venture capitalist Arch Cummin via a shell company, reportedly paying just under $8m (£6m). The new owner quickly scoured away all the native vegetation and replaced it with 40-foot palm trees.

Starting in 2007, Epstein began a massive programme of building and remodelling that drew suspicion from local officials. His main compound nearly doubled in size, sprouting into a plush mansion with an outside terrace connecting the master bedroom and the swimming pool, along with a desalination system.

Satellite photos show a sprawling network of terraces, cottages, beach houses, swimming pools, docks, utility buildings, a helipad, a tennis court, slipways, some kind of enclosed lake or lagoon, and various huts of unknown purpose, all connected by palm-lined roads where golf buggies ferried guests from place to place (a journey across the island reportedly took about five minutes).

Stunning drone footage posted on YouTube offers a closer look, with a huge sundial at the centre of the island big enough to walk around on and two tall American flags posted at opposite ends of the island.

At the other end from Epstein’s manor is a squat, boxy blue and white striped structure often referred to as a “temple”, surrounded by a terrace with a red labyrinth motif. It previously had a golden dome and two gold statues on its roof, which were reportedly torn off in Hurricane Maria.

The building differs greatly from Epstein’s original planning permit for an octagonal music pavilion and has become a lightning rod for fevered speculation. Theorists have variously described it as the entrance to an underground lair, an altar to an Egyptian deity, a burial ground for his parents, or a site of ritual sexual abuse, but an investigation by Business Insider concluded that it was most likely a private study and music room for Epstein.

In 2016, Epstein also bought the neighbouring island of Great St James, about twice as large at 165 acres, allegedly pretending that the real buyer was a Dubai businessman named Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem.

“He wasn’t well received,” one St Thomas resident told the Associated Press. “People think he’s too rich to be policed properly.”

What was life like on the island?

In the days before his 2008 conviction, Epstein would visit Little St James two or three times a month, staying several days at a time. One former employee described it as “a Zen-like retreat” where the financier would stroll around in flip-flops, with “meditative music” playing from speakers and the women often sunbathing topless.

There were always women, of course: frequently attractive, sometimes suspiciously young, on the arms of Epstein or one of his many guests or, sometimes, ferried over in groups aboard a 38-foot boat called the Lady Ghislaine, reportedly after Epstein’s longtime associate Ghislaine Maxwell.

The island had a staff of about 70, from groundskeepers and gardeners through laundry ladies to on-call boat captains. They wore black or white polo shirts and were sworn to strict secrecy, with instructions to stay out of Epstein’s sight when doing their work. They were also forbidden to enter either of Epstein’s two offices in the main manor, one of which housed a closely guarded steel safe.

According to The LA Times, Epstein also had an enthusiasm for “pirate treasure”, his name for old rum bottles and crockery found about the island. He would pay servants between $100 and $1,000 for interesting finds in good condition.

A screenshot from a TikTok video in which an ‘urban explorer’ scopes out the blue and white ‘temple’

“He was a very kind man and, while I don’t approve of things he’s been accused of, I liked him very much,” Miles Alexander, who together with his wife Cathy ran the island between 1999 and 2007, told The Daily Mail. “Our job was about discretion. We have a clear conscience that we didn’t witness anything untoward.”

The South African couple described how Epstein did not like to eat meals in front of people, instead taking snacks to eat in his room where he would also receive daily massages. Disturbing him there was “absolutely forbidden”, although they did once find a box of sex toys while he was out.

When they were hired, the Alexanders say they were told: “What Jeffrey Wants, Jeffrey gets.”

Who did Epstein host on his island?

Of course there were always guests. Among the famous names reportedly hosted by Epstein were theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Nobel laureate Lawrence Krauss, comedian Chris Tucker, Victoria’s Secret magnate Les Wexner, model Naomi Campbell, former Tony Blair aide Lord Peter Mandelson and Prince Andrew of the United Kingdom.

It has been claimed that Bill Clinton was also a guest, though he denies ever having been there. Donald Trump reportedly flew on one of Epstein’s private jets, but it is unclear if he visited the island. The magician David Copperfield is even said to have proposed to supermodel Claudia Schiffer there.

Guests would arrive on one of Epstein’s Gulfstream jets at Cyril E King Airport on St Thomas, in a private area separate from the main runway. They would then be shuttled to Little St James on one of Epstein’s black helicopters.

Renowned British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking enjoys a barbecue on Jeffrey Epstein's Caribbean island Little St James while attending a conference on St Thomas in March 2006

Epstein was fond of treating the guests, reportedly paying for a submarine to be modified to give a sea bed tour to Professor Hawking, who had never been underwater before. One former employee described it as “like a five star hotel where nobody paid”.

Cathy Alexander remembers Prince Andrew as one of the more gracious visitors, describing him as “great fun and very undemanding”. One day he returned from the beach in “great mirth”: one of his companions had stepped on a sea urchin and he had urinated on her foot to salve it.

Ms Alexander recalls him slipping her a $350 tip, which was “unexpected, because other guests didn’t”.

In January 2024, up to 200 Epstein associates are expected to be unmasked after a judge ordered the unsealing of court documents in a lawsuit brought by Ms Guiffre against Maxwell.

Many of the documents, to be unsealed anytime from 1 January, have previously been publicly released – though names were redacted.

In December 2023, US District Judge Loretta Preska ruled that there was no legal justification to keep the names redacted as “John and Jane Does”.

This has paved the way for several famous figures to find their names publicly linked to Epstein – some of whom may be alleged visitors to the island.

Didnt anyone notice Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking?

Certainly they did. From the start, locals on St Thomas whispered darkly about Epstein’s activities, calling his private jets “the Lolita Express”. When scuba divers swam near the island, security guards would reportedly appear to patrol the edge of the water.

At one point, Epstein was ferrying about 200 workers back and forth every day to build his projects. “When he was there, it was keep to yourself and do your thing,” one of them told the AP, adding that the mogul would sometimes give away old material or surplus material.

Airport staff on St Thomas could see who Epstein was bringing with him on the Express. “On multiple occasions I saw Epstein exit his helicopter, stand on the tarmac in full view of my tower, and board his private jet with children - female children,” a former air traffic controller told Vanity Fair.

Prince Andrew: I stayed at convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein's house because I am 'too honorable'

“My colleagues and I definitely talked about how we didn’t understand how this guy was still allowed to be around children. We didn’t say anything because we figured law enforcement was doing their job. That is regrettable, but we really didn’t even know who to tell, or if anyone really cared."

Another airstrip employee said: “There’d be girls that look like they could be in high school. They looked very young. They were always wearing college sweatshirts. It seemed like camouflage, that’s the best way to put it.

“I could see him with my own eyes. I compared it to seeing a serial killer in broad daylight. I called it the face of evil... It was like he was flaunting it.” Sometimes the girls would be carrying shopping bags from designer brands such as Gucci and Dior.

The Alexanders also grew suspicious. “They looked like they had stepped out of an underwear catalogue,” Cathy told The Mail. “They walked around with very few clothes on or lounged around by the pool with nothing on. It was like that most of the time. I was concerned about their ages. A few of them looked very young and I couldn’t help but wonder if their mothers knew where they were.”

Miles Alexander added that he had sometimes had to refuse Epstein’s requests to smuggle in female guests by boat without logging their names and passport numbers with the government of St Thomas.

The couple’s unease grew until they finally quit in 2007. “In our final meeting, [Epstein] told me I had always been his conscience,” Alexander said. “I’m certainly battling with my conscience now.”

What really happened on Epstein’s island?

That is the subject of multiple ongoing court cases, but the accusations are shocking.

According to a lawsuit filed by Prince Andrew’s accuser, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, Little St James was the centre of a worldwide grooming scheme in which recruiters working for Epstein targeted young women who were open to abuse and manipulation, played on their hopes and fears, dazzled them with “displays of vast weath and power” and then force them to have sex with clients while keeping them in line with threats and blackmail.

The lawsuit described the islands as just one step in a worldwide web of private flights that ferried sex trafficking victims to London, Paris, Tangier, Granada (in Spain), St Louis, Palm Beach, Atlantic City and beyond.

Ms Giuffre said that Prince Andrew had sexually abused her on Little St James when she was 17, which the prince “unequivocally” denied. In 2022, he agreed to settle the suit out of court for an undisclosed sum, without admitting liability.

A graphic from Virginia Giuffre’s lawsuit against Prince Andrew, showing stops in Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking network

The Virgin Islands attorney general’s office made similar claims, saying: “Between 2001 and 2019 the Epstein Enterprise transported underage girls and young women to the Virgin Islands, who were then taken via helicopter or private vessel to Little St James where they were deceptively subjected to sexual servitude, forced to engage in sexual acts and coerced into commercial sexual activity and forced labour.

“To accomplish his illegal ends, Epstein formed an association with multiple defendants and others (both companies and individuals, who were willing to participate in, facilitate, and conceal Epstein’s criminal activity in exchange for Epstein’s bestowal of financial and other benefits, including sexual services and forced labour from victims.”

Some of those victims, it added, were as young as 12.

Drone captures FBI raiding Jeffrey Epstein's Caribbean home

The complaint also alleged that Little St James served as a prison for the victims, with Epstein controlling all communication with the outside world. It said that one 15-year-old tried to escape by swimming, but Epstein organised a search party, recaptured her and confiscated her passport.

“Remember, he owns a whole island,” said attorney general Denise George in 2020. “So it wasn’t a situation where a child or a young woman would be able to just break away and run down the street to the nearest police station.”

One alleged victim told CBS News that she had been raped in Epstein’s office in St Thomas and that he had a gun strapped to the bedpost in his bedroom on Little St James. The complaint says Epstein kept a computerised list of underage girls in or near the Virgin Islands who could be brought to the island.

Why didn’t anyone do anything?

Authorities made several attempts to investigate Little St James. As a sex offender, Epstein was required to re-register every year and officials did try to visit the island in 2018 to verify his address.

But according to the attorney general's complaint, Epstein refused the officers entry at the dock, claiming it was his “front door” and insisted on meeting them in his office on St Thomas. He also made employees sign confidentiality agreements that banned them from talking to law enforcement and required them to report any inquiries to Epstein.

“Monitoring a sex offender with his own private islands and the resources to fly victims in and out on private planes and helicopters represented unique challenges and allowed the Epstein Enterprise to limit scrutiny,” the complaint says.

In addition, both Little St James and Great St James are protected areas due to their coral reefs and wildlife. Local planning officials suspected Epstein of exceeding his building permits and the attorney general's complaint says that he was fined thousands of dollars for breaking environmental rules, yet that kind of money was nothing to Epstein.

New York prosecutors announce their case against Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell

In fact, the complaint argues that Epstein's purchase of Great St James was simply a ruse to hide what was happening on Little St James. “The Epstein Enterprise purchased the island for more than $20m because participants wanted to ensure that it did not become a base from which others could view their activities or visitors,” it says.

“Epstein purchased these properties to further shield his conduct from view, prevent his detection by law enforcement or the public, and allow him to continue and conceal his criminal enterprise.”

A ‘criminal enterprise’

In December 2022, the US Virgin Islands filed a lawsuit in a federal court in New York against JPMorgan Chase alleging the Wall St bank had been complicit in helping Epstein traffic vulnerable women and girls into “sexual servitude” at his two secluded islands.

The USVI’s attorney general alleged JPMorgan helped “pull the levers” through which Epstein paid his network of enablers and victims.

Epstein withdrew as much as $750,000 a year in cash from JPMorgan accounts even after the late paedophile had been “red flagged” by the bank as a child sex offender, attorneys for the territory alleged in the lawsuit.

JPMorgan rejected the allegations and tried to shift blame for Epstein’s crimes onto high-ranking USVI officials. Their lawyers claimed that the USVI shielded him from accountability while “reaping the benefits of his wealth”.

In early 2023, the USVI quietly began issuing subpoenas for the bank’s top executives and other powerful, peripheral figures who were dragged into the case.

Among them were JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, Tesla CEO and Twitter owner Elon Musk, and Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

There is no suggestion that any of the men were involved in Epstein’s offending.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said he did not recall ever hearing about Epstein until after his arrest in 2019

When Mr Dimon was quizzed under oath by USVI attorneys in late May, he said he did not recall ever hearing about Epstein or his sexual misconduct until after his arrest in 2019.

Mr Dimon, a Wall Street power player who has expressed an interest in running for president, said he first heard about Epstein “when the story blew wide open”.

According to a transcript of the video deposition, Mr Dimon was confronted with an email from Epstein’s former assistant suggesting the pair were scheduled to meet as far back as 2010.

He replied emphatically that he had never had an appointment, never met, or never known “Jeff Epstein”.

In court filings in May, JPMorgan accused the islands and senior officials of enabling Epstein to commit his crimes.

Lawyers for the bank claimed high-ranking USVI officials had been bought off by Epstein and actively worked with him while “reaping the benefits of his wealth.”

“He gave them money, advice, influence, and favors. In exchange, they shielded and even rewarded him,” they wrote.

JPMorgan also claimed that Epstein had bankrolled a USVI official’s political campaign who later awarded him tax breaks.

Then in September, weeks before the case was due to go to trial, JPMorgan announced it had settled the case for $75m without admitting it was at fault.

In a statement, the bank said it would pay $55m to Virgin Island charities and anti-trafficking organisations, and $20m to cover the island territory’s legal expenses.

What will happen to the island now?

Epstein died in prison in 2019, in what authorities have ruled to be a suicide. In June 2023, a scathing US government report laid bare a catalogue of errors leading to his death, but confirmed the orginal assessment.

After that, for nearly two years, the fate of Little St James and Great St James were was in limbo after the government of the US Virgin Islands asked a judge to give it control of Epstein’s old assets.

The billionaire’s executor fought that request, saying they want to use his assets to set up a relief fund for sexual assault victims, and asking the government to unfreeze his two islands so they can sell them off.

Ms George countered by accusing them of mismanaging the estate and paying “for lawyers, landscaping, and helicopter fees, but not the brave women who have stepped forward to participate in the compensation fund”.

But in November 2022, the US Virgin Islands reached a settlement with the Epstein estate, which agreed to pay the government $105m and half the proceedds from an eventual sale of the islands, plus $450,000 to epair environmental damage.

Authorities said that Epstein had removed the ruins of old colonial structures from the days of slavery.

With the path to a sale now clear, investor Stephen Deckoff announced on 3 May 2023 that he would buy both islands for $60m, with the hope of opening a 25-room luxury resort by the end of 2025.

That money was less than half of the $125m asking price that was originally attached to the islands.

In the meantime, Little St James has become a hotspot for morbid tourists, “urban explorers” and social media influencers attempting to access the island and make videos. Travelers frequently ask about it, and some local boat operators make it part of their tours.

In November 2021, Google removed a number of offensive prank reviews from the island’s listing on Google Maps after they were brought to the tech giant’s attention by The Independent.

Vernon Morgan, a taxi driver on St Thomas, told the AP that he would rather people left it alone. “It brought some kind of notoriety to the Virgin Islands,” he said.

“We would much rather that the Virgin Islands be seen in a different light.”

This article was originally published in November 2021, and has been updated since then with new information. It was amended on 2 January 2023 to remove the claim that Bill Gates had received a subpoena from the USVI (he did not), and on 30 January 2023 to correctly attribute a list of alleged sex trafficking locations.

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