Jeffrey Epstein probe in Palm Beach County wasn’t corrupt, Florida investigation finds

The state’s probe was two-fold: focusing on the state attorney’s initial decision not to prosecute Epstein; and on the Palm Beach Sheriff’s role, if any, in Epstein’s unusual accommodations while he was in custody in the Palm Beach county jail.
Jeffrey Epstein appears in court in West Palm Beach in 2008.
Jeffrey Epstein appears in court in West Palm Beach in 2008.
Published May 11, 2021|Updated May 11, 2021

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has cleared Palm Beach state prosecutors and the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office of any wrongdoing in connection with the lenient criminal prosecution and liberal jail privileges received by sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

State investigators found no evidence that Barry Krischer, who was the Palm Beach state attorney when the case was investigated in 2005-2006, or his assistant state attorney on the case, Lanna Belohlavek, committed any crimes, accepted any bribes or gifts, or did anything improper in their handling of the case, according to a 24-page summary of the state probe into their actions obtained by the Miami Herald.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s criminal investigation was ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis following a series of stories in the Miami Herald, beginning in 2018. The series detailed how Epstein received unprecedented federal immunity and served a short jail sentence in 2008. After the series, Epstein was indicted in New York in 2019 on new sex trafficking charges, but died a month later behind bars while awaiting trial. His death was ruled a suicide by hanging.

The state’s probe was two-fold: focusing on Krischer’s initial decision not to prosecute Epstein, a wealthy New York financier accused of molesting and raping more than a dozen middle and high school girls at his Palm Beach mansion; and on Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s role, if any, in Epstein’s unusual accommodations while he was in custody in the Palm Beach county jail.

Former State Attorney Barry Krischer and Assistant State Attorney Lanna Belohlavek were the first prosecutors on the Jeffrey Epstein case.
Former State Attorney Barry Krischer and Assistant State Attorney Lanna Belohlavek were the first prosecutors on the Jeffrey Epstein case. [ 2004 POST FILE PHOTO | Palm Beach Post ]

In 2007, Epstein’s criminal case was taken over by the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office, which compiled enough evidence to charge him in a 53-page sex crime indictment. However, Miami’s U.S. attorney at the time, Alexander Acosta, approved a non-prosecution agreement giving Epstein and an untold number of other conspirators immunity in exchange for Epstein agreeing to plead guilty to relatively minor state charges and serve what turned out to be a 13-month sentence in the Palm Beach county jail.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement released three summaries of its investigation Monday — an examination of the state attorney’s office’s handling of the case; a look at allegations that Epstein sexually abused two women while he was on work release in Palm Beach; and an inquiry into whether anyone in the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office committed any crimes or received any benefits for giving Epstein special privileges while he was incarcerated.

Dozens of deputies worked off-duty shifts providing security for Epstein.

While conceding that it “appears that Epstein received differential treatment” while in the custody of the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office (PBSO), state investigators nevertheless concluded that Epstein met all the criteria for work release that were set by the county sheriff.

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Notably, Bradshaw’s name is not mentioned in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s summary report, even though he had oversight of the program that allowed Epstein to leave his jail cell almost daily and go to and from his office and his home up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw [ Miami Herald ]

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said the two women who claimed they were coerced into having sex with Epstein when he was in custody would not cooperate with its investigation, leaving the agency to conclude that there was insufficient evidence that Epstein abused them while he was on work release.

Investigators also noted that under Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office’s work release program, off-duty sheriff’s deputies were mainly hired for Epstein’s personal protection, not to monitor him. They did not check on him when he was behind closed doors, nor did they monitor his computer or his email account, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said without further elaboration.

“No evidence was developed to substantiate that any identified (Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office) member engaged in criminal activity during the performance of their duties associated with (the sheriff’s) housing and supervision of Jeffrey Epstein,’' the report concluded.

When he was in jail, Epstein was housed in a special management area of the Palm Beach stockade, and later he had his own private cell in the jail’s infirmary. Sheriff’s officials told the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that they gave Epstein his own separate housing because they believed Epstein “was at risk of being extorted by other inmates and/or extorting other inmates himself.” They also worried that he would come to harm in the general population “because (the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office) personnel could not identify boyfriends or associates of his victims who were incarcerated with Epstein who might want to harm him.”

There’s no indication in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s report that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office gave these kinds of special considerations to other inmates who might also be extorted or harmed by their victims’ boyfriends. Nor did they find out how and why Epstein purchased two pairs of women’s size 5 panties from the jail’s store, as the Herald reported after reviewing his purchase log.

Epstein was also given access to a television that was installed in the special management area solely for his use.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said this was permitted because, under the terms of Epstein’s federal plea agreement he was to receive “benefits, privileges and rights of all other inmates,’' which meant that he was in a cell that was unlocked at all times, affording him the ability to walk around the management area.

While there was also no proof of “undue financial influence” by Epstein, investigators noted that Epstein’s attorney paid the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office $128,136 for the private security details, which were performed by 91 different sheriff’s deputies. The deputies, who were required to wear suits, were then paid for their work by the sheriff’s office.

Deputies were required to register all visitors to Epstein’s office, the Florida Science Foundation, which Epstein set up for research and philanthropy. He hired several employees, including women, but there’s no indication whether any of those employees were questioned by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The log book of visitors to his office was destroyed by deputies in accordance with Florida’s records retention laws, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.

The deputies assigned to Epstein told the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that their high-profile client followed all guidelines and was a model inmate. Toward the end of his incarceration, he was allowed to visit his Palm Beach home for several hours a day. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement noted that the deputies did not enter Epstein’s home or office, as this was not required under the sheriff’s policies.

“The public needs to know how it was possible that a ‘work release’ program and official oversight permitted Epstein to create multiple trafficking victims on the Government’s watch,’' said lawyer Marci Hamilton, a national expert on child sex abuse and CEO of a group called Child USA.

Under state law, Florida’s county sheriffs are given the sole authority over work release programs for county inmates.

The investigation “leaves far too many questions unanswered and an open question in my mind how the departments and offices intend to reform their practices to ensure this never happens again,” Hamilton said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in its analysis of the state prosecution of Epstein, said that state prosecutors considered Epstein’s victims prostitutes under state statute at the time the case was investigated. (In 2016, Florida amended its laws so that minors coerced into prostitution can no longer be charged; those who take advantage of them can be charged.) The state’s case was further hampered by victims who were reluctant or too traumatized to testify, and the fact that they gave conflicting information.

As an example of the “conflicting” accounts, prosecutors noted that one victim said that Epstein used a purple vibrator on her, while other victims said the vibrator was white.

But the report also said that neither Belohlavek nor Assistant State Attorney Daliah Weiss interviewed the victims themselves; they only reviewed audio and video interviews conducted by the lead detective, Joe Recarey.

Recarey, who died in 2018, said in earlier interviews with the Miami Herald that, initially, some of the girls were too frightened to admit what happened, or they minimized the abuse out of embarrassment.

The veteran detective with the Town of Palm Beach Police Department re-interviewed several of the girls and was able to build what he believed to be a solid case supported by physical evidence, such as phone records and message pads found in Epstein’s home that listed the girls’ names and phone numbers. He also had more than a dozen witnesses who supported the fact that young girls were coming and going from Epstein’s house at all hours of the day and night.

Recarey, after gathering all the evidence, wanted to charge Epstein with more serious crimes, while Krischer and Belohlavek “did not believe the charges were ‘viable’ to get conviction beyond a reasonable doubt at a jury trial,” the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.

The state attorney’s office would not accept Recarey’s arrest warrants charging Epstein with two second-degree felonies. Instead, they elected to present the case to a state grand jury to review, an unusual step for a sex crimes case. At the same time, state prosecutors were in close communication with Epstein’s attorneys discussing a possible plea deal, which Epstein ultimately rejected.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that Recarey identified three victims and seven witnesses to testify before the grand jury. The first grand jury date was canceled after Epstein’s attorneys dug up derogatory information about several victims, and state prosecutors were forced to regroup.

Recarey told the Miami Herald that Belohlavek wanted the case to “go away” and felt that the victims weren’t “victims” because they had accepted payment from Epstein. Under state law, then and now, it is a crime to have sex with anyone under the age of 18.

State prosecutors didn’t want to prosecute Epstein for sexually abusing or molesting any victims over the age of 15, believing that they would be considered by the jury to be prostitutes. This meant the victims who were raped by Epstein were not part of the prosecution’s case because those girls were 16 and 17.

It was unclear whether the Florida Department of Law Enforcement interviewed any victims or witnesses in connection with its probe.

Krischer told the Florida Department of Law Enforcement he could recall only one victim testifying for the grand jury because the other two were not able or willing. Belohlavek couldn’t recall many details of the grand jury proceeding, not even how many witnesses or victims she called. Grand jury files are secret in Florida, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was unsuccessful in its quest to obtain the records. Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Court Judge Krista Marx denied the agency’s effort to access the grand jury records.

The grand jury indicted Epstein on one count of solicitation of prostitution, a third-degree felony. At the time, Belohlavek said she didn’t realize that the charge made it possible for Epstein to be released under a pretrial intervention program, which would have meant he wouldn’t serve any time in jail.

Meanwhile, by that time, even more victims were coming forward. Recarey reached out to the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office in an effort to see that Epstein was sent to prison. Epstein hired a prominent legal team, including Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, criminal lawyer Roy Black and former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

He also hired another attorney, Palm Beach criminal defense lawyer Jack Goldberger.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement noted in its report that by hiring Goldberger, Epstein was able to push Weiss off the case, since Weiss’ husband was Goldberger’s law partner. Weiss voluntarily removed herself from the case, but not before she signed Epstein’s search warrant.

When police arrived on Oct. 20, 2005, to serve the search warrant at Epstein’s mansion, it appeared that he had apparently been tipped off because all the computers had been removed, leaving dangling wires as if it had happened hastily, Recarey testified in a 2010 deposition.

But the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that Epstein had known about the Palm Beach police investigation since Oct. 4, so he could have had the computers removed long before the search warrant was executed.

Weiss told the agency that she supported Palm Beach police’s charges, but she was “overruled” by Krischer and Belohlavek. Recarey felt that Epstein orchestrated Weiss’ removal from the case because she was in favor of tougher charges.

“No information was identified to indicate that Weiss’ removal from Epstein’s prosecution resulted in a more favorable outcome for Epstein,’' the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.

The state investigation, first undertaken nearly two years ago, was overseen by Bruce Colton, the former state attorney for the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit, which serves Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties. Colton retired earlier this year.

Democratic state Sen. Lauren Book, a child abuse survivor from Broward County who called for the probe, said that just because the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded that no laws were broken, doesn’t mean that wrongs weren’t committed.

“Floridians should be upset by this — and the state of Florida needs to put bumpers on this system to make sure this kind of thing isn’t allowed to happen again. Deep pockets shouldn’t mean better treatment.”