Charge that Maxwell ‘groomed’ girls for Epstein is central to case

By Nicole Hong and Benjamin Weiser

Annie Farmer was 16 when she arrived at Jeffrey Epstein’s ranch in New Mexico in 1996 to attend a program for high school students, only to learn that she was the sole participant.

There she met Epstein’s companion, Ghislaine Maxwell, who seemed friendly and asked about her classmates and her family. Maxwell and Epstein took her shopping and lavished her with gifts, like beauty products and new cowboy boots, according to a lawsuit Farmer filed last year.

The seemingly innocuous behavior was in fact part of a process to “groom” Farmer for sexual activity, authorities now say. Maxwell began pressuring Farmer to give Epstein a foot massage, according to the lawsuit, and the encounters escalated — until Farmer said she eventually woke up one day to find Epstein entering her room, climbing into her bed and pressing his body against hers.

Now, with Maxwell facing allegations that she helped Epstein recruit and ultimately abuse girls as young as 14, the concept of grooming is at the heart of the criminal case against her. References to grooming appear nine times in the 18-page indictment against Maxwell.

Grooming has long been part of cases involving underage victims, but the concept has become increasingly important in the #MeToo era, as prosecutors have become more willing to file sex-crime charges in cases where people are coerced into sexual relationships without physical force.

“It’s not like a legal term; you’re not going to find it in the statute,” said Anne Milgram, a former Justice Department sex-trafficking prosecutor. “Grooming is what predators do when they find a young person and try to break down the barriers that someone may have in their head to going along with the conduct.”

The psychological manipulation often begins with normal interactions, such as giving gifts or paying special attention to a child, psychologists say.

Gradually, the predator will expose the victim to sexual behaviors, like light touching, to desensitize them to sex. The process is aimed at breaking down resistance, making it less likely victims will recognize the abuse or report it.

“If you can get the person to believe that they are responsible for their own behaviors, that they are complicit, then they don’t feel that they can complain,” said Chitra Raghavan, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has testified as an expert witness in federal trafficking cases.

Maxwell, who was arrested in July, has pleaded not guilty to the six-count indictment, which includes charges of conspiracy and of transporting minors to engage in criminal sexual activity. Lawyers for Maxwell did not respond to a request for comment.

She has always denied any wrongdoing in the lawsuits that have been filed against her over the past decade, which accused her of enabling Epstein’s abuse.

A spokesman for the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

Maxwell’s arrest came a year after Epstein, 66, was charged in July 2019 with sexually exploiting dozens of girls and women in New York City, Florida and other locations. About a month later, he hanged himself in a jail cell while awaiting trial.

Prosecutors have said Maxwell, 58, recruited teenage girls for Epstein, knowing that he was a predator who would abuse them, often during naked massages.

The indictment described three unnamed minors who the government said were victims of Maxwell. She is accused of directly participating in the sexual abuse of two of them from 1994 to 1997.

One of the unnamed teenagers is Farmer, according to her lawyers. Farmer spoke at Maxwell’s bail hearing in July, using her real name.

The indictment charged that Maxwell gave Farmer an unsolicited massage while Farmer was topless, and also involved another unidentified victim in “group sexualized massages of Epstein.”

Prosecutors also accused Maxwell of encouraging a third girl to provide massages to Epstein in London from 1994 to 1995. Maxwell knew the massages would turn sexual, the indictment charged.

A major hurdle for prosecutors is the fact that the sexual abuse allegations against Maxwell are from more than two decades ago.

Federal laws allow prosecutors to charge sex abuse of minors at any point in the victim’s lifetime. Still, the timeline creates an opening for Maxwell’s lawyers to challenge the memories of the women who testify at trial.

Prosecutors have said they will use diary entries, flight records and business records to corroborate their testimony.

Legal experts said that evidence of grooming is sometimes used by prosecutors to rebut a defendant who argues that the sexual activity was voluntary.

In Maxwell’s case, it might also be used to attempt to show she intended to commit a crime — that is, that she knew the minors would be sexually abused.

She is charged in one count, for instance, under a statute that makes it a crime to “entice” a minor to travel across state lines to engage in illegal sexual activity.

“The grooming is very important to prove intent, to prove the specific intent that she had them travel for the purpose of sex,” said Taryn Merkl, a former federal prosecutor in New York City who supervised human-trafficking cases.