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It was not until she heard the clunk, clunk, clunk of Ghislaine Maxwell’s shackles as she entered the New York courthouse that Sarah Ransome knew it was finally over.
Up until that moment at the sentencing hearing, Ransome had been convinced that the British heiress, in some Houdini-like move, would magically evade justice. Maybe she would be granted a last-minute clemency deal with the help of high-powered old friends. Perhaps she would kill herself in prison, like Jeffrey Epstein, or indeed be killed, as Maxwell herself had alluded to in her plea for leniency.
“I never thought this day would happen,” Ransome tells me. “That noise will stay with me forever. It was chilling.”
Ransome, born in Johannesburg to British parents, spent the best part of 2006 held as a virtual sex slave by Epstein and his onetime girlfriend, Maxwell.
Aged 22 when she first met the couple, the wannabe fashion student was flown between Epstein’s homes in the US Virgin Islands and New York. There she was drugged, starved and raped up to three times a day by Epstein and other men. But, she said, it was Maxwell – the “friendly-seeming posh woman” – who had made her take her guard down and normalised the abuse.
Ransome had fled back to England in May 2007, but remained so afraid of Epstein, Maxwell and the powerful friends they boasted of that she moved nearly 50 times and frequently changed her appearance. In 2017 she sued Maxwell and settled out of court, and has now written a memoir about her experience with Epstein – and how his behaviour was facilitated by Maxwell.
“All this talk of Maxwell being a scapegoat, none of this would have been possible if not for her,” Ransome tells me. “She forced me into a room to be raped. I came out from that room with Epstein bleeding and Ghislaine just smiled.”
I meet Ransome in the 30-minute recess on Tuesday in the canteen of the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York City. She hugs me and says that she was so glad that this day had come. She was sitting with her lawyer and a fellow victim, Elizabeth Stein, preparing her statement for the court. She has deep blue eyes that draw you in. While the braces she wears on her teeth give her a childlike quality. Hours later she returns my call while out at a restaurant. “I’m so tired, it’s been so full on,” she tells me. “Now we’re just celebrating.”
When Maxwell made her surprise address to the court on Tuesday, Ransome sobbed from her place next to the other victims on the fourth row of the public gallery. “It was hearing that voice again, it took me back,” she tells me hours after Maxwell was sentenced by the Manhattan court to 20 years in prison.
“I am sorry for the pain you experienced,” Maxwell told the women, after shifting the blame onto Epstein.
“When she says ‘I’m sorry’, well those are just words, words that had been carefully crafted by her lawyers,” says Ransome. “She’s not sorry, she doesn’t have an ounce of remorse. This is a woman who has no soul.”
Even during Maxwell’s four-week sex-trafficking trial it was hard for her victims to think of Maxwell as a prisoner. In her own neatly pressed clothes and freshly coiffed hair, laughing as she drank from her lawyers’ Starbucks coffee, the 60-year-old had an impossibly easy manner for someone facing the possibility of life behind bars.
Ransome, one to speak her mind, calls the trial a “circus”. She and the other women had spent years trying to convince US authorities to listen to them. She even filed a lawsuit against Epstein, Maxwell and three alleged assistants in 2017. It was not until 2019 that Epstein was criminally charged and a year after his death that Maxwell was too.
When the FBI eventually investigated, what they discovered was one of the largest and widest-reaching sex-trafficking rings in US history. Princes, former presidents and celebrities had all moved in Epstein’s orbit. Hundreds of women began coming forward with near-identical accounts of grooming and abuse.
“This trial was a facelift to make the government look better. It was nonsense,” Ransome told me. “Twenty years for the sexual abuse of all these women, over decades? That’s not justice. [Ghislaine] should spend the rest of her life in jail.”
And as far as Ransome is concerned, it was not just Maxwell, however, that should be on trial. She wonders why the others alleged to have facilitated the abuse had not been charged. In summation, the Manhattan court’s Judge Alison Nathan ruled that Maxwell had led a “criminally responsible participant”, naming another assistant of Epstein’s, Sarah Kellen.
Kellen, 43, has been described in legal filings as Epstein’s “lieutenant” for allegedly sourcing and booking underage girls for “massages”. She was one of four women granted immunity from prosecution over Epstein's abuse through a 2008 so-called sweetheart deal with the government. Kellen has denied involvement.
“I can’t believe she named Kellen. Something surely has to happen now,” says Ransome. “A lot of people need to be held accountable. People saw me on that island – drugged and in tears.”
For Ransome, Tuesday was about being able to face Maxwell and tell her “I’m not scared of you any more”. In a particularly raw victim impact statement, she told Maxwell of the harm she had caused. Since her time on the island, Ransome says she has suffered from crippling anxiety, PTSD and depression.
“I frequently experience flashbacks and wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares, reliving the awful experience,” she told the court. “I am hypervigilant, experience dramatic mood changes, and avoid certain places, situations and people. I will sometimes start crying uncontrollably and without apparent reason.” She calls herself a survivor of Maxwell and Epstein, not a victim. After all, she tried to take her own life, twice, “both near fatal”.
In her address, Maxwell told the victims in court that she hoped they could move on and that her imprisonment would bring them “some measure of peace and finality”. But Ransome, now 38, said the trauma had robbed her of a normal life. “I never married, or had children as I had always dreamed I would,” she says, a tissue scrunched to her nose.
Maxwell briefly turned to look at Ransome during her statement – the only woman of the five she did so for. The socialite glanced down at Ransome through her glasses – more a look of disdain than compassion. “She hasn’t forgotten me,” says Ransome of the moment. “And I want to make sure she never forgets me.”
She travelled from her home in England for the four-week trial in December, as she did for Tuesday’s sentencing hearing. For most of it she sat largely alone.
“I’ve done this journey on my own,” she tells me. “I lost everyone. You don’t understand, I have nobody. Not even my own family. Years ago my father turned around to me and he was like ‘you were 22, you made your own choices’. My family is based on perceptions, what we look like to the world.”
“Today, I have been vindicated. And to Ghislaine: you broke me in unfathomable ways, but what you didn’t break is my spirit.”