• U.S.
  • People

The Mystery Around Jeffrey Epstein’s Fortune and How He Made It

6 minute read

In a neighborhood of millionaires and billionaires, close to New York’s famous Museum Mile, two initials discreetly adorn the entrance of one of the city’s most opulent mansions: J.E.

The letters stand for Jeffrey Epstein, the self-described “collector’’ of rich and powerful men, who has been accused of sexually assaulting girls inside the luxurious Manhattan home.

On Monday, as federal prosecutors unsealed new charges claiming Epstein ran a sex-trafficking ring that lured dozens of young women to the house, its heavy wood doors bore crowbar marks — evidence of how authorities forced their way in over the sultry Fourth of July weekend. Prosecutors say they discovered hundreds, possibly thousands of suggestive photographs, including those of what appeared to be underage girls.

The latest turn in the long, lurid saga of Jeff Epstein comes more than a decade after a secretive plea deal enabled him to avoid similar charges in Florida. Now, familiar questions are swirling again about his possible links to a Who’s Who of prominent political and business figures.

For all his infamy, there are scant details of how he made his money. While he’s frequently been called a billionaire, his net worth is hard to ascertain. He ran a money management firm catering to the ultra-rich, primarily for Victoria’s Secret founder Les Wexner, but its assets were never made public and few on Wall Street have dealt with him as a financier or money manager.

According to his lawyers more than a decade ago, he had a net worth in excess of nine figures. Today, so little is known about Epstein’s current business or clients that the only things that can be valued with any certainty are his properties. The Manhattan mansion is estimated to be worth at least $77 million, according to a federal document submitted in advance of Epstein’s bail hearing.

He also has properties in New Mexico, Paris and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he has a private island, and a Palm Beach estate with an assessed value of more than $12 million. He shuttles between them by private jet and has at least 15 cars, including seven Chevrolet Suburbans, according to federal authorities.

Epstein’s early career is better documented. Born in 1953 and raised in Brooklyn, Epstein dropped out of Cooper Union and NYU’s Courant Institute. He landed a gig teaching calculus and physics at Manhattan’s exclusive Dalton School between 1973 and 1975, according to a 2002 New York magazine profile, where his students included the son of Bear Stearns Chairman Alan Greenberg.

He joined Bear Stearns in 1976 as a lowly junior assistant to a floor trader. In a swift rise, trading options, he made partner four years later, with former Chief Executive Officer Jimmy Cayne praising his skills. He left in 1981 to set up J. Epstein & Co., but one bank executive said he remained close to Cayne and Greenberg and was a client until Bear Stearns’ demise.

Epstein’s money management business had an exclusive focus: It would serve only billionaires. Epstein reportedly made all the investment calls.

Since the 1990s, the company has been incorporated in the U.S. Virgin Islands and is now called Financial Trust Co. A person answering the phone at the Saint Thomas-based company hung up after a request for comment was made.

The main client was Wexner, the founder of underwear maker L Brands. Epstein started managing his money in the 1980s and a 2003 Vanity Fair profile noted the pair had a close relationship, close enough for Epstein to acquire the Manhattan mansion from Wexner.

It’s unclear how much Epstein paid and when he actually took ownership.

Wexner had purchased the property from the Birch Wathen School, a Manhattan prep school in 1989, according to city records. He sold it in 1998 to a Virgin Islands entity called NES LLC, according to a person familiar with the matter. Epstein is affiliated with NES, public records show.

There are no New York property records documenting a transfer until 2011, when the company that Wexner used to purchase the townhouse transferred it to Epstein’s Virgin Islands-based Maple Inc. for $0. Epstein signed for both sides of the transaction.

“People have said it’s like we have one brain between two of us: each has a side,” Epstein said in the 2003 profile.

Wexner, who has a $6.7 billion fortune on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, declined to comment. He cut ties with Epstein more than a decade ago as suspicions about Epstein swirled, with alleged victims saying Epstein used his employees to bring local teen girls to his Florida mansion for sex and paid them to recruit new victims. The girls were as young as 13-years-old.

None of Epstein’s other clients have been identified. But while his money management firm remains a black box, the same can’t be said of Epstein himself.

Even before the weekend, the non-prosecution deal he cut in 2008 has come under growing criticism in recent months, with critics calling for Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who was the lead prosecutor in the case, to resign since the Miami Herald revisited the case and the plea deal in a November report.

Today, lurid details were splashed across the media as prosecutors detailed the alleged crimes that occurred at Epstein’s homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, from 2002 to 2005 involving minors as young as 14 and accused Epstein of “creating a vast network of victims.”

Epstein paid victims hundreds of dollars in cash after sex acts, prosecutors said. They were initially recruited to give Epstein massages, which became increasingly sexual in nature. At least three of Epstein’s employees were involved in recruiting and scheduling minors for sexual encounters with him, as well as other unspecified “associates,” the U.S. said. One was based in New York, while two other assistants based at his mansion in Palm Beach were responsible for scheduling the encounters there and escorting victims to a room in the house, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors are attempting to seize the Manhattan townhouse through forfeiture proceedings, on the grounds that his spacious property was used for the sex trafficking. The townhouse was built in 1932 for Herbert Straus, whose parents owned R.H. Macy & Co. and is said to be one of the largest in Manhattan.

Epstein’s future address could be far less comfortable. The charges he faces carry a maximum 45 year prison term.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com