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Audrey Strauss, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, points to a photo of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell during a news conference in New York on July 2, 2020. Maxwell’s federal sex-trafficking trial begins Monday.John Minchillo/The Associated Press

Ghislaine Maxwell spent the first half of her life with her father, a rags-to-riches billionaire who looted his companies’ pension funds before dying a mysterious death. She spent the second with another tycoon, Jeffrey Epstein, who died while charged with sexually abusing teenage girls.

Now, after a life of both scandal and luxury, Ms. Maxwell’s next act will be decided by a U.S. trial.

Starting Monday, prosecutors in New York will argue that even as she was sipping cocktails with the likes of Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Ms. Maxwell, 59, was secretly abetting Mr. Epstein’s crimes with girls as young as 14.

A key question for jurors: Was Ms. Maxwell an unwitting pawn of Mr. Epstein’s manipulations or an opportunist who knew all about his sex crimes?

Ian Maxwell says his sister is being railroaded by a U.S. criminal justice system intent on holding someone responsible for Mr. Epstein’s crimes.

“And she is paying a heavy price, a blood price for that,” he told the Associated Press.

Ghislaine Maxwell grew up at Headington Hill Hall, a 51-room English country mansion where politicians, business leaders and newspaper editors attended lavish parties punctuated by trumpeters and fireworks. BBC images from the time show Ghislaine as a child with a kid-size plate of food, circling in a party dress, learning how to be a master networker.

Her father, born Jan Ludvik Hoch, was one of nine children of Yiddish-speaking parents in a village in what is now southwestern Ukraine. Escaping the Holocaust, he ultimately joined the British Army, rising to the rank of captain and transforming himself into Robert Maxwell.

After the war, Mr. Maxwell built on his military connections to buy the rights to German scientific journals, the beginnings of a publishing empire that ultimately included the Daily Mirror, one of Britain’s biggest tabloid newspapers, as well as the New York Daily News and the book publisher Macmillan.

Along the way he married, fathered nine children and was twice elected to Parliament. He also earned a reputation for boorish behaviour and bullying subordinates.

Ghislaine was Mr. Maxwell’s youngest child, born on Christmas Day, 1961. Her brother Michael was severely brain damaged in a car accident just days later at age 15, although he lived for another seven years.

Her mother, Elisabeth Maxwell, wrote in her memoir that she and Robert were so focused on their injured son that their baby daughter was overlooked. So neglected was Ghislaine that at the age of three she stood in front of her mother and said, “Mummy, I exist!”

“I was devastated,” Elisabeth Maxwell wrote in A Mind of My Own: My Life with Robert Maxwell. “And from that day on, we all made a great effort with her, fussing over her so much that she became spoiled, the only one of my children I can truly say that about.”

While studying history at the University of Oxford in the early 1980s, Ghislaine Maxwell began building contacts of her own, including Prince Andrew, who would later invite her and Mr. Epstein to Windsor Castle and Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth’s country estate.

After graduating, she worked for her father in a variety of roles. In 1991, at age 29, she became his U.S. emissary after he bought the Daily News amid efforts to compete with fellow media tycoon – and New York Post owner – Rupert Murdoch.

Later that year, Robert Maxwell fell off his yacht – the Lady Ghislaine – in the Canary Islands and died in what some saw as an accident and others a suicide. Investors would discover his wealth was an illusion: He had diverted hundreds of millions of pounds from his companies’ pension funds to prop up his empire.

Soon after her father’s death, Ghislaine Maxwell was photographed sitting next to Mr. Epstein during a memorial at the Plaza Hotel.

John Sweeney, a long-time U.K. journalist and creator of the podcast Hunting Ghislaine, told AP he believes that “after the monster her father died, she found a second monster.”

“Robert Maxwell stole hundreds of millions of pounds from people who were dependent upon his good word; Jeffrey Epstein turned out to be a darker figure, a worse human being,” Mr. Sweeney said.

Ian Maxwell said his sister’s relationship with Mr. Epstein developed after the family advised her to remain in the U.S. because the Maxwell name was “in the dirt” at home. Amid the family’s reputational and financial woes, she had to make her own way in New York and forge new friendships, he said.

One of those was with Mr. Epstein, a one-time teacher who built his own fortune on the back of contacts like the former CEO of the parent company of lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret.

“My father was a powerful man – you know, an alpha male, really. And when you have that kind of experience, all of us, all of the brothers and sisters have had to somehow deal with that,” Ian Maxwell said. “Ghislaine was no exception. But clearly to then say, ‘Well, you know, he dies, then she moves along to the next rich man.’ I just don’t buy that.”

In sworn testimony for an earlier civil case, Ghislaine Maxwell acknowledged that she had a romantic relationship with Epstein but said she later became his employee, tasked with things like hiring staff for his six homes.

“I hired assistants, architects, decorators, cooks, cleaners, gardeners, pool people, pilots. I hired all sorts of people,” Ms. Maxwell said during a deposition in April, 2016. “A very small part of my job was to find adult professional massage therapists for Jeffrey. As far as I’m concerned, everyone who came to his house was an adult professional person.”

But in 2005, Mr. Epstein was arrested in Palm Beach, Fla., and accused of hiring multiple underage girls – many students at a local high school – to perform sex acts. He pleaded guilty to a charge of procuring a person under 18 for prostitution and served 13 months in jail.

Years of civil litigation followed, in which women accused Mr. Epstein and Ms. Maxwell of sexual abuse. Prosecutors in New York revived the case and charged Mr. Epstein with sex trafficking in 2019, but he killed himself in jail before he could face trial.

The indictment against Ms. Maxwell is based on accusations from four women who say she recruited them to give Mr. Epstein massages that progressed into sexual abuse. One was just 14 at the time. Ms. Maxwell sometimes participated in the sexual encounters and was involved in paying at least one accuser, prosecutors allege.

Annie Farmer alleges she was 16 when she was tricked into visiting Mr. Epstein’s New Mexico ranch under the guise of attending an event for college-bound students. But when she arrived, there were no other students. She said Maxwell tried to groom her by taking her to the movies and shopping, and giving her an unsolicited massage while the teenager was topless.

The Associated Press does not identify people who say they were victims of sexual abuse unless they come forward publicly. Although she is not identified by name in court documents, Ms. Farmer has described her experiences in interviews with ABC and The New York Times. When Ms. Maxwell – a citizen of the U.S., U.K. and France – sought bail, Ms. Farmer asked the judge to deny it, calling her a “psychopath.”

“I do not believe that … any of the women she exploited will see justice if she is released on bail,” Ms. Farmer wrote in a letter to the court. “She has lived a life of privilege, abusing her position of power to live beyond the rules. Fleeing the country in order to escape once more would fit with her long history of anti-social behaviour.”

Virginia Giuffre, who has filed a related civil lawsuit against Britain’s Prince Andrew but isn’t part of the criminal case, has described Ms. Maxwell as a “Mary Poppins” figure who made young girls feel comfortable as they were being lured into Mr. Epstein’s web.

Ms. Giuffre alleges she was 17 when she was flown to London to have sex with Prince Andrew at Ms. Maxwell’s house. Other encounters with Andrew occurred at Mr. Epstein’s homes in Manhattan and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to her lawsuit. Andrew denies the allegations.

Prosecutors say Ms. Maxwell went into hiding after Mr. Epstein’s suicide, moving into a gated New Hampshire home she bought for US$1-million – with a husband her lawyers have declined to publicly identify – and wrapping her cellphone in foil to ward off hacking.

Ms. Maxwell was just protecting herself from the press, her lawyers said in court papers – a notion U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan rejected.

Judge Nathan repeatedly denied Ms. Maxwell bail, deeming the risk of her fleeing too great. The judge’s decision has left Ms. Maxwell isolated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, confined to a small cell equipped with a toilet and a concrete bed. Ian Maxwell said imprisonment is preventing his sister from receiving a fair trial.

Ghislaine Maxwell has remained mostly silent about the Epstein allegations over nearly two decades, but in a 2016 deposition in a civil case, she said she learned about the allegations against him “like everybody else, like the rest of the world, when it was announced in the papers.”

She said she never saw Mr. Epstein getting massages from anyone under 18 and that no one ever complained to her that Mr. Epstein demanded sex.

“Never,” she declared.

With Mr. Epstein gone and no apparent recordings of alleged incidents that occurred two decades ago, the trial will likely hinge on the women’s allegations and Ms. Maxwell’s denial.

A jury will soon decide who it believes.

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