The Cost Of Sex Trafficking And My Days Inside Jeffrey Epstein’s Mansion
I never met multimillionaire money manager and registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, but I practically lived in his mansion for years.
When you think about the sex trafficking of minors you don’t exactly picture it happening inside a limestone Beaux-Arts palace off of Fifth Avenue, as it’s recently been alleged. But when I saw FBI agents storm those familiar, stately oak wood doors last Saturday, I truly felt like I lost a friend.
I walked through that very same arched doorway at 9 E. 71st St. between Madison and Fifth Avenues for 12 years when it used to be the threshold of The Birch Wathen School. The townhouse is considered one of the largest private residences in New York City, and my memories carpet every square inch of it.
I was a member of the “12-Year-Club” attending Birch from first through 12th grade, and that seven-story, 21,000 square foot building, nestled in the tony Upper East Side (UES) enclave of Manhattan was my playground. It’s incomprehensible that other young girls may have passed through that very same doorway, and instead of feeling safe, sheltered and secure like I did, may have fallen prey to a purported “professor” of child pornography. If allegations prove true, they were forced to learn some very tragic lessons at that exalted address.
“Trafficking can happen anywhere and a trafficker can be anybody,” said Sheri Lochridge, a former sex trafficking victim who’s now the senior human trafficking case manager at Covenant House in New Orleans that provides programs and services for more than 800 at-risk and homeless youth annually. “When you’re talking about a trafficker and hear about a millionaire being one, you’re like, wait, because we have a certain image of who a trafficker is in our head, but the reality is that it can be anybody coming from any background and any ethnicity.”
Financier Epstein, 66, was arrested on Saturday, July 6. According to the unsealed two-count indictment, he “enticed and recruited, and caused to be enticed and recruited, minor girls to visit his mansion in Manhattan, New York and his estate in Palm Beach, Florida to engage in sex acts with him, after which he would give the victims hundreds of dollars in cash. Moreover, and in order to maintain and increase his supply of victims, Epstein also paid certain of his victims to recruit additional girls to be similarly abused…”
The alleged sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to engage in the sex trafficking of minors occurred from 2002 through 2005 and involved illegal contact with dozens of girls, some as young as 14-years-old. The indictment also contends Epstein ran a trafficking enterprise where he “created a vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit,” with the help of employees and associates to lure young, vulnerable victims to his opulent homes.
Not long ago this unlikely crime scene on the UES housed hundreds of uniformed children who attended one of the most prestigious, private co-educational schools in New York City. But last Saturday, with a search warrant in hand, the Feds pried open my old school’s doors with a crowbar, a vivid image splashed across TV screens and news media outlets throughout the world. According to a bail memorandum, the frenetic raid unearthed a “vast trove” of nude photos of possibly underage girls.
“I think what’s really important about this case is that it reminds us that anyone can be a trafficker,” said Leanne McCallum, task force coordinator of The Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force. “It’s not just the foreign national criminal gangs that we see in movies like ‘Taken.’ It’s the people next door. It’s people who are well-respected. It’s political leaders. It’s people that you know. It’s really an horrific reminder that anyone can be a trafficker and that the mold is broader than the narrative suggests in media coverage and in Hollywood.”
The Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force is a coalition of state, civil society and citizen organizers committed to the prevention of human trafficking in the Greater New Orleans area through education, outreach and collaboration. McCallum said her task force has served more than 330 victims and survivors of human trafficking.
The International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor and human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide. There are more than 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, of which 75 percent are women and girls and 25 percent of them are children.
According to the Department of Children and Family Services’ (DCFS) 2019 “Human Trafficking, Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes and Commercial Sexual Exploitation” annual report, DCFS developed a list of 58 human trafficking providers in Louisiana and they reported a total of 744 confirmed and high-risk victims last year, a nine percent increase over the previous year.
DCFS reports 710 (95.4 percent) were sexual trafficking victims; 7 (.9 percent) were labor trafficking victims; 18 (2.4 percent) were victims of both sexual and labor trafficking; and there were nine additional trafficking victims for whom the type of trafficking was not reported.
Of all reported victims, 428 (57.5 percent) were identified as juveniles aged 17 and under, a 20 percent increase over the previous year.
DCFS found New Orleans had the second highest juvenile victim origin of all the state’s parishes, behind Caddo, last year, and ranked third highest for adult victims, behind East Baton Rouge and Caddo.
“There’s a myth that’s been perpetuated about human trafficking that trafficking is when people are kidnapped and taken across state lines or taken across borders,” said McCallum. “The vast majority of the clients The Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force serves did not experience kidnapping, and physical violence is not the only way they were being controlled. For a lot of the clients that we service, it’s really about the psychological control the traffickers use so adeptly to control victims of trafficking. They use fear and threats and different tools to mentally manipulate people. Victims can sometimes turn into victim perpetrators or what is sometimes called a ‘Bottom’ in sex trafficking. A ‘Bottom’ is a person who is victimized and may become a middleman between the trafficker and folks that are the next level below them in the hierarchy. And so it’s a really complicated situation where someone is simultaneously both the victim and the perpetrator… I’m glad that the recent news stories are shining a light on this component of human trafficking and how complicated this issue really is on the ground.”
Epstein pled not guilty to all charges last Monday and remains in custody pending his bail hearing set for next Monday, July 15. If convicted, Epstein could face 45 years in prison. He may also lose his UES mansion.
According to the unsealed indictment, the Southern District of New York is demanding Epstein forfeit any property “real and personal that was used or intended to be used to commit or to facilitate the commission of the offense alleged in Count Two… The lot or parcel of and, together with its buildings, appurtenances, improvements, fixtures, attachments and easements, located at 9 East 71 Street, New York, New York…”
Authorities have estimated the value of the property to be up to $77 million.
Known as the Herbert N. Straus Mansion, the 40-room Ancien-Régime French style abode was built in 1933 by architect Horace Trumbauer for Herbert Nathan Straus. He was the son of Macy’s founders Isidor and Ida Straus who became tragic victims aboard the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. The Straus Mansion was and still is considered one of the most valuable properties in Manhattan, but, for tax purposes, the Straus family donated it to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York in 1944. To put the burdensome tax liabilities into modern-day perspective, The New York Times recently reported the 2019 property taxes for this residence was an estimated $347,000.
The Church turned the building into a convalescent home called St. Clare’s Hospital, and in 1962 Miss Louise Birch and Mrs. Edith Wathen moved their Birch Wathen School from West 93rd Street to the Straus Mansion, where it was filled with the innocent laughter of minors for nearly three decades.
In 1989 Birch sold out to billionaire businessman Leslie H. Wexner, the chairman and CEO of the L Brands corporation (formerly Limited Brands), the parent company of Bath & Body Works, Express, The Limited, Victoria’s Secret and other giant retail brands. At the time, the $13.2 closing price was considered to be one of the biggest real estate deals for a townhouse in New York City.
I was in the last class to graduate from Birch at the Straus Mansion before the school merged with The Lenox School and moved into The New Lincoln School building not too far away at 210 E. 77th St. My alma mater is now called The Birch Wathen Lenox School.
According to multiple reports, retail emperor, philanthropist and avid political campaign contributor Wexner spent tens of millions of dollars to return the Straus Mansion back to its former glory as a private estate. Rumor among us Birchies was that he converted our upper school library, complete with ornate marble friezes, into his master bathroom.
Enter Epstein, chairman and CEO of New York investment firm Financial Trust Co. Considered by some to be Wexner’s protégé, Epstein reportedly worked with Wexner as a financial advisor. It was Epstein who declared to the press in 1996 that Wexner only lived in the renovated palace for just two months, and that he, himself, was the new owner. A 2011 deed of sale shows an ownership transfer from an Epstein and Wexner connected trust to a Virgin Islands-based entity controlled by Epstein. The price tag was $10.
Epstein slapped a gold “J” and “E” on the left side of the arched doorway, but other than that Birch looks exactly the same on the outside as it did when I attended school there. Except now, snow no longer accumulates at the stoop because Epstein installed a heated sidewalk in front of his home.
If you ever walk by 9 E. 71st St., look across the street at the steps of the Frick Art Reference Library, located on the side of the Frick Collection museum. Undoubtedly, you’ll see a Birchie like me standing there, gazing at the building that will forever remain a big part of our lives. Coincidentally, two weeks ago, before our school’s facade became front-page news, one of my Birch besties texted me a photo of her young son standing in front of Epstein’s oak doors. Whenever I take a trip back home to New York, it’s never without a Birch pilgrimage and a photo stop.
The Straus Mansion stands as a beacon of grandeur in the middle of a quiet, but scandalous block. What secrets lurked behind the street’s tree-lined perimeter? Comedian Bill Cosby, who is currently incarcerated for aggravated indecent assault, used to live across the street at 18 E. 71st St.; a former Miss America, Bess Myerson, who was acquitted of bribery and conspiracy charges in a high-profile trial involving a married lover in the mid-1980s, lived in the apartment building next door; and actress Pia Zadora who lived in the corner building on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park caused an incestual maelstrom with her 1982 movie “Butterfly.”
Movie director and accused child molester Woody Allen reportedly owns a townhouse a block away and has been seen walking with both his wife, Soon-Yi Previn (that’s another story), and Epstein down Madison Avenue.
All this within Epstein’s mansion’s two-block radius awash with the upscale storefronts of Asprey, Balenciaga, Lanvin, the Ralph Lauren flagship (where my high school friends and I used to flirt with the cute salesmen), Monique Lhuillier, Prada, Emilio Pucci and Ellie Saab.
“The charges against millionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein… clearly and starkly illustrate the dynamics of how sex trafficking really works,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline. “As this case shows, and contrary to what many believe, traffickers do not fit a single stereotype. This case should open people’s eyes to see how wide-ranging the crime of trafficking really is. What unites traffickers is the understanding that this is a crime that is fundamentally about the abuse of power over those who are more vulnerable. Traffickers use money, glamour and/ or the promise of a better life, to lure, manipulate, exploit and control. The dynamics of the crime are the same regardless of the socioeconomic status of the trafficker and whether it takes place in a mansion or on a street corner.”
Hedge fund manager Epstein danced around similar sex allegations in 2008, pled guilty to two state prostitution charges, registered as a sex offender, paid restitution to victims and cut a deal that landed him in a Palm Beach County jail for 13 months, albeit with a generous work release program.
“One of the many tragedies here is that the criminal justice system utterly failed to hold a sexual predator accountable the first time around,” said Polaris’ CEO Myles. “In the Epstein case, until now, the dynamic that favors those with more wealth and power both made the trafficking possible and also ensured that the accused trafficker got off with a slap on the wrist.”
When the news broke Saturday that Epstein was arrested aboard his private airplane at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, and I watched the Feds break through the doors of his UES mansion on TV, I saw agents in bulletproof vests climbing up the same marble steps I used to sit on, schoolbooks on my lap, when waiting for my mom to pick me up after school.
At Birch, each grade only had about 20 kids in it so everyone knew everybody, and everyone knew everything about our school building. From bottom to top, I took woodshop class in the sub-basement where I carved a unicorn head out of a block of wood. The basement is where we had our cafeteria and held our bake sales. It’s also where we had our computer lab and congregated for gym class before leaving the building towards Central Park through a black-barred door that you can still see to the left of Epstein’s front door.
It was on the first floor where the headmaster and principal hobnobbed with parents in their offices; where we had the Bi-Wize school supply store underneath a sweeping marble staircase; and where in the main assembly room I starred as Mammy Yokum in our school’s production of “Li’l Abner” in fourth grade, won the lower school science fair in fifth grade and performed as the lead (with three costume changes) in Federico García Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba” my senior year.
Up the grand staircase on the second floor is where you’d find the kindergarten and first grade classrooms across the hall from the lower school library and our music room. Second, third and fourth grade classrooms were located on the third floor, where outside the upper school library I shared my first kiss with my fourth grade “boyfriend.” It was at that same library I returned to in 11th grade to grab an atlas to see where in the heck New Orleans was because I just got accepted into Tulane.
Fifth and sixth grade classrooms were located on the fourth floor, and middle and upper schoolers shared classrooms and homerooms on the fifth, sixth and seventh floors.
Also on the sixth floor, our upper school headmaster’s office was occupied by Mrs. Eileen Powers who recently retired as Headmistress from the Louise S. McGehee School in Uptown New Orleans after 20 years there. Sometimes Mrs. Powers let us hang out on her little balcony that had an enviable view of Central Park.
Birch had three sets of staircases, the white, the blue and the brown, that created a kind of exoskeleton around the 50-foot wide, 102-foot deep dwelling. There was one elevator for upper school students (which often broke down due to overcrowding) and one teacher’s elevator that you needed a key to operate (of which I still have a purloined copy).
Senior year, when I was voted “best dressed” and “most eccentric,” we got permission to snap a class photo on the roof of the building. It was the first time any of us were ever allowed to go up there and literally stand atop the crown of the crown jewel of the UES.
I shared good times in those hallowed hallways years ago with the kids of notable artists, doctors, fashion designers, financiers, lawyers, movie stars (one of my sister’s classmates was actor Michael Douglas’s son Cameron), nightclub owners and restaurateurs. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Jr., author Judith Krantz and journalist Barbara Walters are among the literati of fellow alumni.
While kids in my class collectively strived to make names for themselves, our building, after its sale to Wexner, did the opposite. It did its best to stay anonymous. I believe it was only professionally photographed once and featured on the cover of the December 1995 issue of Architectural Digest.
It seems with sex trafficking anonymity is a trusted ally as it makes the crime harder to see in broad daylight.
“There’s no way to look at a building and say this is where trafficking takes place, and there’s no way to look at a person and say this is a trafficker or this is a victim of human trafficking,” said The Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force’s McCallum. “I think that’s what’s so unsettling about the crime of human trafficking is that it’s a hidden crime that can happen in plain sight.”
“There’s probably a hundred thousand cases of human trafficking every year in our country,” said Jim Kelly, executive director of Covenant House that he founded in New Orleans in 1987. “It’s a conservative number but I think it’s probably right on target. I think in our country, people do have this naive idea that trafficking involves young people that are being sold from country to country. That’s a very small percentage of the trafficking that takes place here in the United States. Most trafficking is within one city within one state… and the majority, more than 50 percent of trafficking, is men trafficking young women.
“Over the course of the last few years we’ve provided intensive crisis care and counseling to 275 young people right here in New Orleans,” said Kelly. “We work closely with the FBI, Homeland Security, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, the NOPD, the U.S. Attorney’s office, all in an effort to curtail trafficking.”
Kelly said Covenant House is currently taking care of more than 20 different trafficking victims including a drug addicted 19-year-old who walked through their door about the same time Epstein got busted. As a minor, she was involved in sex trafficking and danced at strip clubs.
“The Johns are never held accountable,” said Kelly about those who solicit prostitution, exchanging money for sex. “The Johns don’t go to jail. The people who are being trafficked are going to jail. But our country is slowly waking up and starting to protect and advocate for the real victims. The perpetrator is the John.”
Covenant House’s Lochridge didn’t walk into the facility decades ago seeking help. She was homeless and was found in a parking lot on Rampart Street. More than 20 years later, she works 70 hours a week on the streets of New Orleans trying to provide rehabilitation and social services to young people who are sex trafficking victims.
“New Orleans has a lot of vulnerabilities when it comes to abusing these victims,” she said. “There are a lot of vulnerabilities regarding lack of resources and poverty, but we’re also known as a party city where you can come and do whatever you want.”
Lochridge said more sex traffickers need to get convicted and more resources need to be provided for victims including housing, mental health and substance abuse programs. She said it’s the allure of making “easy money” that attracts people to the trafficking trade.
“These pimps set quotas between $700 or $1,000 a day and that’s for each girl they are trafficking,” she said. “The girls see very little of the money. That’s part of the trafficking dynamic. When they are being groomed to be trafficked, they’re getting treated to all these special things like hair, nails and clothing. But when trafficking begins, the money goes directly to the pimp. I’ve had clients that weren’t even afforded a meal a day because they fell short of their quota or they upset their trafficker. The trafficker is the one profiting. Not the women. Not the victims.”
“No one is calling this rape,” said executive director Kelly. “In any father’s mind, if their 14-year-old girl is sexually assaulted, it’s rape. When you buy and/ or sell young people under the age of 18, you’re a trafficker. If you’re the John, you’re also the trafficker. And I think sometimes people miss that. Anyone who is engaged with underage young people involved in the buying and selling of sex is a trafficker and that’s what Jeffrey Epstein is. He’s a trafficker. That’s the way I look at it.
“We dance around what happens to women when they’re trafficked with a millionaire,” Kelly said. “Unless we call trafficking what it is, the Jeffrey Epsteins and Robert Krafts of the world are going to go free. They are going to continue to walk.”
According to the 2017 State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, there were only 14,894 prosecutions and 9,071 convictions for trafficking globally in 2016.
Covenant House’s Lochridge said the one thing that is working in New Orleans to combat human trafficking is the efforts of The Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force. “It’s a network of service providers,” she said. “It does take more than one resource to be able to provide the services these victims need, and we’re the lead service provider of that task force.
“It’s a long road after you get out of trafficking,” said Lochridge, speaking from experience. “There’s a lot of trauma, there’s a lot of healing and there’s a lot of navigating through PTSD, other mental health issues and anxiety. These victims are being raped on a daily basis and it takes years to recover from that, and it takes a really strong support system.”
At Birch, we had a strong support system. In lower school, on Fridays, our male headmaster and male lower school principal would stand at our main entrance and shake our hands as we left the building. They were tall and imposing men who spent their days in sumptuous offices behind the large glass windows flanking Epstein’s now damaged front door.
My little hand would sink deep into theirs, and when they shook it, my whole arm went with it. But when they shook my hand every Friday they created a healthy bond of trust. They passed along genuine, honorable and nurturing faith in us to become exceptional young men and women who could attain any goal we could possibly dream.
What dreams could Epstein’s alleged victims have now after passing through that very same doorway at 9 E. 71st St. as I did as a girl attending Birch Wathen?