It was early in the morning on 2 July 2020 when, after months of keeping a low profile following the death of paedophile Jeffrey Epstein in prison, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested during an FBI raid on a secluded property in Bradford, New Hampshire.
The story made headlines around the world. Charged with helping to procure four underage girls – one as young as 14 – to be sexually abused by the disgraced financier, her former boyfriend and friend, she is now imprisoned in Brooklyn, New York, awaiting what will be a hugely high-profile trial that could see her jailed for up to 80 years, if convicted.
The daughter of the late newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell – who was found dead in the Atlantic Ocean in 1991, close to the yacht he had named after her, the Lady Ghislaine – Maxwell, 59, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and denies all allegations against her.
For a high-flyer with connections to some of the world’s richest, most famous and powerful people, whatever the outcome of her trial she has already suffered a huge fall from grace; she is the woman who allegedly aided a monster. Now, a new three-part documentary, Epstein’s Shadow, aims to tell the story of who she is.
The series features former friends and associates and those who knew her father, as well as women who have made allegations about Maxwell and Epstein and have waived their right to anonymity to appear on camera. One accuser, Maria Farmer, claims that Maxwell was instrumental to Epstein’s crimes. “Without Ghislaine, I don’t think any of us would have been there,” she alleges.
“We wanted to tell the story of Ghislaine’s life in the most comprehensive way that we could, which meant talking to people from her school, her later life, people who knew her father, people who worked with her father, people who knew her on the scene in New York, to get a really comprehensive picture of who she is,” Emma Cooper, an executive producer on the series, tells Sky News.
A thread that runs through the show is Maxwell’s relationship with her father, and the effect he had on her life. A notorious bully and an imposing man, it emerged after his death that he had stolen pension funds to shore up his business empire.
The story of “this man who had all of this wealth and played the system and was openly a bully and proud of the way he navigated his way through business situations, was clearly going to be really critical to who she is, and to who the kind of men that she would then be close to through her life”, says Cooper.
“It felt like it was really important to try and understand who she was and who she became and the kind of people that she was drawn to – and also being drawn to extreme wealth, like you would be if you were from an extremely wealthy family who had come from absolutely nothing.”
Epstein died in prison in August 2019 as he was awaiting trial for sex trafficking, accused of abusing dozens of underage girls in New York and Florida – charges he denied. He was found to have killed himself, although some dispute the official ruling of suicide and believe he was murdered.
He had previously served 13 months in jail and registered as a sex offender after pleading guilty to prostitution-related charges involving underage girls in 2008, in exchange for the Justice Department’s agreement not to prosecute him for similar offences.
Epstein made his fortune as a financier who associated with high-profile figures including Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Prince Andrew – who was famously questioned about their connections, as well as allegations made by Virginia Giuffre, who also appears in the Maxwell documentary, in a BBC Newsnight interview in November 2019.
Maxwell is said to have introduced him to Clinton and the prince, and the documentary features numerous photos of the socialite hobnobbing with high-profile figures.
One former acquaintance who features in the series is writer Anna Pasternak, who studied at Oxford University at the same time as Maxwell. The pair moved in the same social circles; not friends, exactly, but contemporaries who knew each other well enough to exchange pleasantries and air kisses at parties.
Pasternak says her background meant she was able to explain the “gilded existence” that Ghislaine was born into.
“Here was someone who – because of who her father was and how powerful he was – moved in the upper echelons of society and seemed to have it all,” she says. “She seemed to be the adored daddy’s girl, who after Oxford was very kind of high society and impeccably connected.
“I think part of the reason that we’re so appalled and fascinated by the story in equal measure is this dramatic fall from grace, somebody who had this international life of private jets and princes, she’s now sitting in a Brooklyn prison.”
Pasternak agrees that Maxwell’s background and relationship with her father is crucial to her story. “It really informs and explains why a woman like Ghislaine would have become embroiled with a man like Epstein. That it was really her relationship with her father, being used to placating a kind of despotic daddy figure who she adored, that paved the way for her to then know how to handle a man as abhorrent as Jeffrey Epstein.
“Robert Maxwell was a completely corrupt man, devoid of a moral compass. That life of corruption for power and financial gain was normal to her, she grew up with that.”
Like many others who knew Maxwell who are featured in the series, Pasternak says she was “completely shocked” by the charges. That Maxwell allegedly “would have engaged in something so tawdry is deeply shocking”, she says, “absolutely incomprehensible”.
But to “understand Ghislaine is to understand a kind of disassociation, an emotional disassociation, a brutal survival instinct,” Pasternak continues. “And I feel sure that she feels a victim in this, a victim of Epstein’s power and control.”
Maxwell denies all charges against her and has not been convicted of any crimes. She does not appear in the series, but as her brother, Ian Maxwell, reminds filmmakers following their request for comment, she is innocent until proven guilty.
Cooper says the team worked hard to sift fact from fiction and that the series simply seeks to present “an idea of who she is, because honestly, before we started this, I genuinely knew nothing about her. I knew nothing of the human being… who was tied in so many ways to Jeffrey Epstein”.
Pasternak believes the amount of alleged victims who have come forward to accuse Maxwell as well as Epstein can not be ignored. “I think it’s the sheer volume of women who all pointed the finger at Ghislaine and said, well, actually, she was the enabler of this,” she says.
“I’m actually convinced that she saw these girls as kind of non-people.”
Of the alleged victims, survivors, who feature in the series, Cooper says: “We have a great duty of care to anybody who wants to share their story with us and our commitment to them is huge and it’s important all the way through. It was quite a big moment for us that Maria shared her story with us. We’ve been very careful to be respectful of women that decided to share their story with us.
“We’re a very supportive environment and we’re majority women on the team as well. So, you know, it’s a nurturing environment as we kind of try to unpack the story and tell the truths of these women.”
Maxwell is reportedly having a difficult time in prison, with guards checking on her with torches every 15 minutes even through the night, according to her legal team.
Lawyer Bobbi Sternheim said in a court filing on Tuesday that the socialite was forced to change cells after raw sewage got into her cell the previous week. She also said guards are still able to read her confidential legal papers and monitor meetings, and that neither Maxwell nor her lawyers were allowed water during a four-hour meeting on Sunday.
Pasternak says Maxwell is “clearly a survivor” and “good at reinventing herself”.
She continues: “I think she will expect to get out of prison because I think that part of the problem and another reason this story needs highlighting is the rich live by a code that the rules are different for them. There’s one rule for the super wealthy who have the means to escape so much that less wealthy people have to undergo.”
In the third episode and final episode of the series, the documentary revisits claims that Epstein was filming many who visited him, and that incriminating tapes of some high-profile people could emerge during Maxwell’s trial.
“I think there are bound to be a lot of very influential and high-profile people who are extremely anxious about the way this is going to go and what Ghislaine knows,” says Pasternak.
“I think there’s so much more to come out of this story – and she is the key to unlocking it.”
Watch Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell on Sky Documentaries and NOW from 27 June