‘She was so dangerous’: where in the world is the notorious Ghislaine Maxwell?

Emine Saner

Riding up on a white horse, Ghislaine Maxwell made quite the impression. “She’s got the whole equestrian attire. She’s so elegant,” recalls Maria Farmer. Farmer was 26 and trying to build a career as an artist when she was invited to stay at a ranch in Ohio with Maxwell and run an art project.

It was the mid-90s and this was the second time the two had met. Farmer had encountered Maxwell and her friend Jeffrey Epstein at her New York Academy of Art graduate show. She would go on to work for the pair for a year, at the front desk of Epstein’s Manhattan mansion. She was perfectly placed to see who came to the house – and says she witnessed young teenagers being brought through the doors by Maxwell. Following an alleged sexual assault by Maxwell and Epstein, Farmer went to the police. She was ignored.

More than 20 years on, her account – along with the testimonies of several other women, including an allegation of abuse from her younger sister, Annie, who was 16 at the time – has helped to create a picture of Epstein as a prolific sex offender, who abused countless underage girls. It is a scandal that has drawn in other powerful men, most notably Prince Andrew. One woman, Virginia Giuffre, says she was trafficked by Epstein to have sex with Andrew on three occasions. He has repeatedly denied the allegations, most recently in his disastrous TV interview.

In July, Epstein was charged with sex trafficking, and in August he killed himself in his prison cell while awaiting trial. Since then, attention has turned to Maxwell, 57, his right-hand woman. Yet Maxwell has seemingly vanished. “From what we know, Ghislaine Maxwell was a principal enabler to Jeffrey Epstein when he was alive,” says the lawyer Dan Kaiser. Kaiser is representing Jennifer Araoz, one of the women who says she was raped by Epstein, and who is suing his estate, Maxwell and three other “enablers”.

Maxwell in 2001 at her London house standing behind Prince Andrew and Virginia Roberts (now Giuffre). Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

“She was integral in maintaining the sex trafficking ring,” says Kaiser. “She provided important administrative services in terms of the hiring of recruiters, and management of those employees, the making of appointments and dates for interactions between Mr Epstein and the underage girls that were providing sexual services to him. She also maintained the ring by intimidating girls, by ensuring their silence.”

Kaiser continues: “Jeffrey Epstein couldn’t have done what he did for as long as he did it without the services of somebody like Ghislaine Maxwell. She is as culpable, in my judgment, as Jeffrey Epstein himself.” Maxwell has always denied the allegations and has never faced criminal charges. Her lawyer has not responded to a request for comment.

It is believed that Maxwell and Epstein met shortly after the death of her father, the media tycoon Robert Maxwell. After his suspicious fall from the yacht he had named after his daughter – the Lady Ghislaine – in 1991, a £460m black hole was discovered in his companies’ pension fund. Maxwell was the youngest, and said to be favourite, of his nine children. They were close, and she was devastated by his death.

She had moved to New York that year, after her father bought the New York Daily News. In London, she had become something of a socialite and she set about becoming the same in Manhattan. It is not known how Epstein and Maxwell met, but she is thought to have been his girlfriend initially. In a 2003 Vanity Fair profile, he described her as his “best friend”.

“She was always the most interesting, the most vivacious, the most unusual person in any room,” the journalist Vicky Ward wrote in that Vanity Fair profile. “Her Rolodex would blow away almost anyone else’s I can think of.” Her British accent – shaped by Marlborough College, then Oxford University – was considered exotic by 90s New Yorkers. She seemed unusually accomplished, too. If what has been said is true, she is a helicopter and submarine pilot and speaks four languages.

Maxwell with (from left) Donald Trump, Melania and Epstein, in 2001, at Mar-a-Lago. Photograph: Davidoff Studios/Getty Images

The journalist Conchita Sarnoff knew Maxwell and Epstein socially before the pair began dating, and later helped to expose Epstein’s crimes. She says of Maxwell: “She seemed in love when I first saw them together. I believe Jeffrey was taking care of her. I feel Ghislaine clung to Jeffrey because she felt protected by him.” She says Epstein, whom she describes as chilly, with limited social skills, “seemed less in love but more enamoured”.

Tom Bower, who authored a biography of Robert Maxwell, wrote in a piece for the Times in August that Maxwell “worshipped rich, domineering men”. In Epstein, a financier, she would have found someone who could restore the extravagant lifestyle she desired – after the death of her father, her finances were reduced. She and Epstein seemed mutually dependent – she on the financier’s money, he on her contacts and social ease.

Her social standing was such that it would probably be easier to list the influential people to whom Maxwell was not connected. She was close to Bill Clinton and attended Chelsea Clinton’s wedding; she donated to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. There are photographs of Maxwell with Arianna Huffington, Elon Musk and Michael Bloomberg. She knew Donald Trump and members of the Kennedy family. She was connected to the British royal family through Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Maxwell and Epstein – who loaned Ferguson money to pay off debts – were guests of Andrew at events, including some at Windsor castle, Balmoral and Sandringham.

Prince Andrew, in his recent Newsnight interview, said guests at the parties and dinners in Epstein’s New York mansion included “academics, politicians, people from the United Nations”. But we know now that it was not just influential friends Maxwell cultivated. One of her friends, Euan Rellie, told Tatler: “Every single interesting, pretty, new girl to arrive in New York would end up going for tea with Ghislaine, then being introduced to Jeffrey. She was the acceptable face of a rather mysterious billionaire.”

To New York society, Maxwell legitimised Epstein. As the New Yorker writer Ariel Levy put it in Broken, her podcast about the Epstein case, if you’re a teenage girl and a man approaches you in a car “you know to keep on walking. But if it’s another woman, and she sounds all fancy and well-educated, you’re probably going to get in the car.”

“Ghislaine was key in making me feel safe,” Farmer says. “I trusted her because she is a woman. She would make us trust her, she would make us really care about her. My sister even said that she would feel so special if Ghislaine paid attention to her because she had that way about her, you know, the popular girl in school, she was one of those. She knew everybody.” Her voice cracks. “She was so dangerous.” Farmer says Maxwell would do anything to get what she wants, “and all of it for her is about power and money”.

She was charming initially, says Farmer. “Everyone [was] like: ‘This woman is so intelligent and interesting.’ She had a really great personality when you first met her.” But it didn’t take long for her to become verbally abusive towards the staff, she says. “I was one of the staff. I would have to go to Jeffrey and say: ‘Ghislaine’s verbally abusing me again.’ Then he would scream at her. It was all like ‘good cop, bad cop’, and they loved playing that game with everybody.”

Once, she says, Ivana Trump visited. “Quite often, with people like Ivana – powerful [people] – Ghislaine would say ‘Hop in the car, you can go on a ride with us’ and it was supposed to be my special little treat.” Then, as soon as they were back at the mansion, Maxwell would switch and shout at her, she says. She also says she could be threatening. “They had video cameras everywhere [in the house], and Ghislaine liked to intimidate by talking about the cameras. She’d say: ‘They’re watching you.’”

Farmer alleges that Maxwell would bring in a steady stream of young girls to the mansion, often saying she was casting for Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie company owned by Leslie Wexner, a close friend of Epstein. “It was really weird to me. I’m like [the] ‘models are so young’, and she said: ‘Yeah, but they need these models for Victoria’s Secret. They go as young as 13 now in modelling.’” Farmer alleges Maxwell would recruit teenagers from schools on the Upper East Side and in Central Park.

“Ghislaine controlled the girls,” said Sarah Ransome, who claims she was abused by Epstein, in a recent Panorama interview. “She would be the one getting all the girls in check. She knew what Jeffrey liked … this was very much a joint effort.” In the same documentary, Giuffre recalls travelling back to Maxwell’s house in London after a night at a club with Prince Andrew: “In the car, Ghislaine tells me that I have to do for Andrew what I do for Jeffrey.”

It is alleged that Maxwell was not only an enabler for Epstein’s abuse, but took part in it. In her Panorama interview, Giuffre, then known as Virginia Roberts, recounted how Maxwell and Epstein abused her at his Palm Beach house after Maxwell had recruited her from her job working as a spa attendant at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. In 1996, Farmer says Maxwell and Epstein sexually assaulted her. She went to the police as well as more than one FBI agent, none of whom took action. She also spoke to Ward in 2002 for a Vanity Fair profile – Ward has since said that the then-editor Graydon Carter cut out the entire part about Farmer and her sister after being pressured by Epstein. A spokeswoman for the magazine has said: “Epstein denied the charges at the time and since the claims were unsubstantiated and no criminal investigation had been initiated, we decided not to include them in what was a financial story.”

Maxwell (in green dress) at Royal Ascot in 2000, with Prince Andrew (second from left) and Jeffrey Epstein (far right). Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Maxwell and Epstein’s relationship seems to have been complex. Sarnoff says Maxwell once told her she wanted very much to marry Epstein. “Maxwell is very clever,” Sarnoff says. “In spite of her personal insecurities, as a result of her father’s death and financial challenges, I believe she nevertheless knew exactly what she was doing when she agreed to solicit girls on his behalf. However, I don’t think that phase of their relationship began until she understood Epstein would not marry her.”

Farmer says Maxwell told her they were married. In another interview, this time with the Miami Herald, which has doggedly investigated Epstein, Giuffre alleges Maxwell had asked her to have a child with Epstein and hand the baby over for Maxwell and Epstein to raise; she would be paid an allowance of $200,000 a month.

Ransome, who says she was kept for six months on Epstein’s private island and claims she was raped several times a day, said: “They were never like a couple. Jeffrey and Ghislaine were best friends, or like brother and sister. Never holding hands or kissing. And she wasn’t his employee.”

When Maxwell found that Farmer had spoken out, she made threatening calls – Farmer says she has been in hiding “for many years”. “Ghislaine kept threatening my life. She found out where I was living, and she would send messages to me or I would get a call and I would have to move again. Most of her threats were veiled, like: ‘You better look over your shoulder because there’s someone coming for you.’ She told me she was going to burn all my paintings, my career was burned.”

In 2015, Giuffre sued Maxwell for defamation, after Maxwell said she was lying about the allegations she had made. The case was settled out of court and Maxwell began retreating from public view.

She was no longer seen in public with Epstein after his 2008 conviction for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution. For this, he was given an 18-month prison sentence, in a sweetheart plea deal that saw an investigation into his abuse of more than 30 underage girls (for which he could have been given a life sentence) shut down. He served just 13 months, much of it on day release.

Four years after this Paola Tholstrup, a model who had been friendly with Maxwell in the 90s met her at a funeral. “She hadn’t changed exactly, but she was hyper, and talking very fast,” says Tholstrup. “All she seemed to want to talk about was the ocean and the charity she was involved in.” Those who knew Maxwell say the charity helped her rebrand herself after allegations against her were being reported.

In August, Maxwell was photographed in a burger restaurant in Los Angeles. She has not been seen since, although there have been press reports suggesting that she is preparing to do her own TV interview.

Kaiser says he has not been able to serve Maxwell with legal papers “because she’s off hiding somewhere”. Does he have any idea where she is?

“No, I wish I did. We’ve looked various places so far to no avail. We thought we had a lead in some compound in Colorado, a very good friend of hers, a wealthy family – we thought she might be there, but we’re not sure. I expect the FBI knows exactly where she is. They may be building a case. I don’t believe they’ve given up on pursuing some of [Epstein’s] enablers and I have to believe that would include Maxwell.”

Sarnoff thinks Maxwell is in a country that does not have an extradition treaty with the US.

There have been attempts to portray Maxwell as another of Epstein’s victims – someone who was in thrall to this rich, powerful man, just as she was to her father. The journalist Mark Edmonds, who has been writing about Maxwell, said recently she was “possibly a victim, too … It was a tricky relationship.”

“She is not a victim,” says Farmer, appalled. “She is a victimiser.”

Additional reporting by Lucy Osborne