It was December 2016 in Palm Beach, Florida.
I was having lunch with my family at an upscale restaurant tucked away in one of the many alleys off the famed Worth Avenue when Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell were shown a table that was far away from the usual Palm Beach A-listers.
Epstein did not want to be noticed nor did he acknowledge the rich and powerful in the room.
I had no idea that I was sitting next to the alleged Bonnie and Clyde of child abuse – it was nearly three years before Epstein’s death and eight years after he quietly pleaded guilty to Florida state charges (one of two) of procuring minors for the purposes of prostitution.
Surprisingly, most convicted sex offenders in Florida are sent to state prison, yet Epstein negotiated a brief 18-month sentence, housed in a private wing of the Palm Beach County Stockade.
He was a billionaire with a circle of high wattage friends and yet his admission of guilt to detestable crimes, including unlawful sex with minors and sex abuse, received very little media attention and were largely unknown to the general public.
A few tables away at the popular Italian restaurant – a well known ‘see-and-be-seen’ eatery called Bice Ristorante – I was immediately intrigued by Epstein.
Perhaps it’s the documentarian in me, I needed to know who he was. My wife kept telling me not to stare. The waiters knew what to bring him without him ordering and his conversation was hushed in an intimate way as he kept his head down.
He was deeply tanned, casually dressed and avoided the perquisite Palm Dress code of jungle chic or garish green or salmon colored pants.
On the way out of the restaurant, I pressed a $20 bill in Francesco’s hand, the white jacketed Maître D, to get some information.
His response was a little ominous in his thick Italian accent: ‘That’s Mr. Epstein and his girlfriend, I wouldn’t bother saying hello.’
The minute I returned back to the hotel I dug into the mysterious world of Jeffrey Epstein.
I was astounded by what I uncovered and even more shocked on how he used his political connections and vast wealth to essentially get a slap on the wrist for rape and the sexual abuse of minors.
I reached out to Vanity Fair writer Vicky Ward who had previously interviewed Epstein and she helped fill in the blanks for me on Epstein’s notorious yet shielded reputation.
If indeed it was Maxwell that Epstein was lunching with, as I believe it was, that would prove to be quite revelatory.
Her lawyers claimed in court that she had not been in contact with the disgraced financier in over 10 years.
That was later disproved as unsealed documents exposed a continuing long email thread between them.
And in my experience researching partners in crime, their perversity and determination rarely dissipates.
But what would happen next would shake me to the core.
I had my wife drive me to Epstein’s house on 358 El Brillo Way in Palm Beach in the hopes of getting a closer look.
The house was carefully set back behind enormous shrubbery and a huge steel fence that prevented any way to look in.
We sat outside for a while and contemplated the lurid crimes and wondered if he was still up to his old tricks.
The next day, I walked back to the house and I was beyond shocked.
Two young teenage girls were exiting the house.
They had girl-next-door looks and were simply dressed in shorts and tank tops.
I absolutely had no proof these girls were abused or were part of Epstein’s documented seduction of girls from low income neighborhoods who took his money in exchange for depravity.
But I did notice they had vacant and sad expressions.
I also had a look at the flight manifest of his jet the media called ‘Lolita Express’ that he used to transport his inner circle and alleged victims to his private Caribbean island and his wealthy party guests. The names were staggering.
I decided then and there that I would make a documentary and try to catch him in the act.
After consulting with a criminal lawyer, I devised a plan that would include sending in legally aged women into Epstein’s house but have them appear much younger.
I would wire them with sound and hidden cameras and hopefully film him confessing his depraved preferences and potentially soliciting them to find other underage girls.
This was something he and his partner in crime Ghislaine Maxwell allegedly tended to do.
I was genuinely concerned about the safety of these women, so I reached out to a retired police detective and a security firm to partner with, in case things escalated or became violent.
While I was planning my film, the book Filthy Rich was published exposing Epstein’s expedited and lenient journey through the justice system.
The same book would be the basis of the Netflix series that was recently launched.
At that time, although salacious and filled with a who’s who of alleged co-conspirators, the book did nothing to spook Epstein or cause any real interest in the scandal.
I decided I needed to turn up the heat on the film and I leaked my plans to make a documentary to The New York Post’s Page Six – what happened next was extraordinary.
I was flooded with calls and emails from Epstein’s victims and anti-sex trafficking groups and others actually offering to fund the film.
A few of the victims that reached out to me remained Jane Does, fearing Epstein, but described disgusting behavior that ran the gamut from gang rapes to pathetic pleading for sexual gratification and to forced abuse. They were minors.
One of them told me that Maxwell was present and that she offered cash bonuses if they could procure other girls.
Another Jane Doe claimed Epstein threatened to harm her and her family if she ever disclosed what happened.
She went back numerous times and was abused each time.
The groups that represented victims were delirious that someone was finally going to take Epstein down.
They recounted frustrating stories of how his well-oiled sex abuse machine was protected and yet not unknown by both journalists and the police.
This was beginning to sound like A Clock Work Orange meets Eyes Wide Shut double bill.
A day after the item ran in the Post, I received a haunting call from a retired Palm Beach police officer.
He warned me that I was playing with fire and that Epstein had the resources and connections to hurt me both physically and financially.
He told me that Epstein used private security firms that played dirty. He scared me sufficiently but in the coming months, I never heard from Epstein.
I continued my research and was uncovering beyond disgusting details about lurid abuse and the gang rapes of so many children.
I was horrified that Epstein put on a tuxedo and attended galas with Maxwell and then went home to one of his many houses of horrors and abused children.
Nothing satiated Epstein and I was beginning to wonder who the audience was for this film.
Regardless of the offers to finance the film through various sources, I wanted a premium studio or streamer to partner with.
I would soon find out that Hollywood at that time, only four years ago, had very little appetite for this film.
As I would make the rounds to the usual suspects, the general response was that the infamous Jeffrey Epstein was not in fact famous enough and so without a real hook despite his famous friends and enablers, they passed.
One powerful agent recommended that I partner with a producer who had just been nominated for an Oscar for 13th, a 2016 documentary by director Ava DuVernay.
The day I met him, he was in a surly mood. The Academy allowed ‘O.J: Made In America’ to compete despite its television window and it beat his film. Perfect timing.
I pitched the project and he quickly told me he was not going to sully his reputation and follow an Oscar nominated film with a film about a pedophile.
My Uber was longer than this meeting. And this was how the story played out all over town. There was no appetite for a film. One streamer actually said to me: ‘If the guy kills himself, you have yourself a feature, but not now.’ How prophetic.
Not having a pre-sale has never stopped me before, but what was now giving me pause was a combination of the faces that belonged to the disgusting stories of grotesque abuse and the innocence and lives this man destroyed and the complete disappearance of Ghislaine Maxwell.
From what we understood even then, Maxwell was Epstein’s well documented partner in crime and as we know she was eventually charged with four counts related to procuring and transporting minors for illegal sex acts.
When I finally got her cell phone number from a source, she told me to ‘screw off’ and hung up.
Ultimately, what made me decide to abort this project was that I found it difficult to keep reading the horror stories and look in the eyes of my 12-year-old daughter.
I decided to drop the project and make ‘Prosecuting Evil’, a more noble film about a legendary prosecutor who successfully prosecuted Nazis.
In reflection, it became obvious that making this film or series on Epstein would involve having to do the almost inconceivable task of untangling the devious web of conflict of interests that kept Epstein virtually untouchable for decades.
This included his powerful and rich friends, politicians like a circuit court judge who continues to refuse to unseal grand jury records related to Epstein’s charges in Florida almost 15 years ago and people like Alex Acosta, who served in Donald Trump’s Cabinet with William Barr. Acosta was the U.S. Attorney in Miami where Epstein received his shameful plea deal.
Barr’s father was the headmaster of an elite New York City school that hired college dropout Epstein to teach math.
On the day Epstein killed himself, I was not surprised. And I do not subscribe to any theory that he was murdered, in fact, I was told by well-placed sources that the jail guards were paid off through his associates to look the other way while he killed himself.
Since the Filthy Rich series has premiered, so many people have asked me if I feel I missed the opportunity or made a mistake not pursuing the film.
My response is simple: I am happy with how the story ends.