BPR Interviews: Julie K. Brown on Exposing Epstein

Julie K Brown is an award-winning Investigative Journalist at the Miami Herald. She is best known for her work uncovering Jeffery Epstein’s underage sex ring. When the story lost public attention after a 2007 plea deal was signed off by the former Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, Brown uncovered thousands of court documents and identified 80 victims detailed in her spread, “Perversion of Justice,” exposing Epstein’s true crimes. 

Neha: How do you know whether or not a story is worth pursuing? 

Julie: I just think a story is worth pursuing if it is about things that I hear about that makes me mad or sad or angry. If I feel passionate about finding out why, I write the story. For example, I did a story about Philadelphia firefighters who had a  high rate of Hepatitis C and how the city of Philadelphia was not paying their medical benefits because they claimed that they didn’t have to and I thought that was an injustice towards firefighters. I tend to gravitate towards stories where I feel people are being served a terrible injustice.  

Neha: Is that how you landed on the Epstein story? 

Julie: I knew about that case for a while. Well, many journalists knew of the Epstein case. I felt like nothing I had read over the many many years had fully explained how or why something like that had happened so that’s when I decided to take a deeper look. I am the kind of person who thinks it is my job to get to the bottom of things when no one else has. 

Neha: Once you knew you wanted to focus on Epstein, what was your first step to begin finding answers?

Julie: I compare it to what a cold case detective does when he has a case that has been dropped for 10 years. The lawsuit that the women had brought against the government had been sitting idle for 10 years. Coming into it like a cold case detective you start from scratch. I got all of the records, all on my own. I got all of the documents that I could get my hands on — police reports, state files, lawsuits from over the years, depositions. There had to be at least 10,000 pages of documents that I had to review from scratch. I had to look at every single report and see what went wrong. 

Neha: Did you face any privacy concerns or other challenges in getting all of the information? 

Julie: Because the case was so old, some of the agencies claimed that no longer had some of the public documents. Florida has pretty good public record laws, but there are limitations. One of those limitations is that after so many years they are allowed to dispose of some of these documents. There were some documents that they said they no longer had. I got around that a little by going to the court files, because some of those documents were copied in the court files. So if the Palm Beach Sheriff’s office no longer had the document I wanted, I could by reading all of the files, I could find the document that the sheriff’s office said they no longer had because it was filed as a lawsuit. It was a big puzzle. You had to read everything because you might find something in one file that refers to something else that was key to the story, but that something else may not have been in the file so you had to find that new critical information.  It was a giant, very complicated puzzle that you could only put together after you read absolutely everything. 

Neha: How did you go about piecing together the identities of the victims when court documents had them all listed as Jane Doe?

Julie: When you were getting the files in court they were all redacted. They didn’t have any names, they were all blacked out. But there were some cases where they would forget to blackout a name, so you would get her name. Or you would get a date of birth or maybe her first name or you would find a letter that was written to her lawyer that made some reference to her. It was a lot of detective work to put together a spreadsheet with all of these victims. One girl would lead me to another girl. Most of them knew each other because they went to the same high school in Palm Beach. If you went on her facebook page you could look through her friends and find some of the other girls. Some of the lawyers eventually cooperated with me even though they didn’t want to because so many reporters had contacted them in the past and then they said, “ok well if you want to talk to us go read the case file.” Nobody called them back because the reporters did not have the time to go through and read as I did. The reading took me a month. The fact that I read all of the files helped them to understand that I was serious about doing a good dive into a story about Epstein.

Neha: So you were able to get the lawyers to trust you by demonstrating your interest. How did you get detectives and then victims to trust you in interviews? 

Julie: The police detectives and the Chief did not want to talk to me for similar reasons. They had been contacted by reporters over the years and they had never spoken to anyone on the record but they had told the reporters what they needed to look at. They said that those reporters never did their homework, so they didn’t believe that I was going to do it. They believed that perhaps the other reporters had been pressured not to do the story since it involved powerful people and very litigious people. So they believed that the media had not done its job, and they assumed that I would not be any different. I had to have my editors speak with them and assure them that we would not be pressured by powerful people and we would move forward with this story no matter what. As time went on they could see based on the questions that I was asking them that I was focusing on an angle that they wanted the story to focus on. 

And quite frankly, the victims had never been pursued aggressively about the breakdown of the criminal justice system. They felt the media had focused too much on the sex and the celebrity aspects of the case and not enough on the criminal justice system and how it had failed them. They too realized that I was focusing on that important piece and then they were more willing to talk to me. I wasn’t going to ask them for example, “tell me all the celebrities you saw. Tell me about all of the men.” I focused on what happened, why they thought it happened, and what should be done differently. I asked about their experiences with prosecutors, FBI, and state attorneys. I asked them what had happened to them and how things went wrong for them. Just the fact that a reporter was asking them these questions instead of who they slept with, allowed them to realize I was coming at it from a different perspective. 

Neha: I can imagine some of the conversations were very emotional and difficult to have. What was your interview process when talking to victims?

Julie: I did a decent amount of research before I interviewed them. I interviewed a number of experts on children who have been sexually abused. I wanted to make it so that I would not retraumatize them. I spoke with psychologists and people who have spent their entire career working with sexual assault cases. I also sent them a letter ahead of time and did not cold call them. I didn’t just cold call them and say “Hi, I’m Julie from the Miami Herald, tell me about your sexual experience with Jeffery Epstein.” I told them upfront what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. I did get a number of responses. A large part of the project was trying to track down these victims. A lot of them are married and I had to find where they lived now. They were all scattered. 

Neha: In your writing you say that you were able to locate 80 victims, getting eight to talk to you with four going on the record. How did you strike a balance between maintaining their privacy and also getting the information that you needed for your story?

Julie: Well the first time you interview them was the hardest. It was different for every victim. For some of them once they started talking about it they couldn’t stop. They felt like a big burden had been lifted off of their shoulders. For others, it was the first time they had really spoken about it. It was extremely emotional with a lot of crying. With some of the women, we didn’t spend a lot of time in the first meeting talking. We interviewed them a few more times until they got more comfortable. We didn’t make them talk about anything they didn’t want to. We did it gently and in stages for those women who were just coming to grips with what had happened to them. 

There were four. One had never spoken about it before. One had not talked about it much, but once we interviewed her she couldn’t stop talking. She called us after saying she felt better than she ever had. The third woman said there were some questions she couldn’t answer. The fourth one was in prison and since the project had taken so long we interviewed her after she had gotten out of prison. Each person handles trauma differently and you have to be prepared. One woman who I interviewed off the record initially cried the entire first meeting. We then planned to meet again and we had rented a hotel room and we were all waiting and she never came. I called her but she did not pick up. So she had backed out. There were lots of situations.

Neha: How long were you working on the story? Did you cover other subjects at the same time or were you able to just focus on this one?

Julie: I was pretty obsessed once I got into the story. There were times that I would get up in the middle of the night and I would start reading case files I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Or I would get a question in my head and I would be obsessed with finding an answer to it. It was not like I was working a 9-5 day. I worked from my home where it was nice and quiet. I made my own time, but it was a crazy schedule. 

I started in early 2017, when Acosta was nominated by Trump as Labor Secretary. That is when I thought we better do something about this because I wondered where the women were and what they thought of this prosecutor who had given Epstein a sweetheart deal had been able to ascend to one of the highest cabinet posts in the nation, working for the President of the United States. I started in early 2017 and we printed it in late 2018. I then continued to work on it after it was published. I have been working on it all year. I have now really been doing layers of stories involving all of the people who were involved as accomplices. 

Neha: Can you walk me through your writing process? After you had put together all of the pieces and completed your interviews, how did you sit down and write the Epstein story?

Julie: Well, that’s the hardest part. When you do a project like this you have your good days and bad days. You write and write and then you go to bed and wake up the next morning and you might throw everything out. Or you may look at it and think “oh wow this is not as good as I thought it was going to be.” There is no real method. 

I guess I just think in terms of how I tell a story. If I had never met you before and you were sitting in front of me how would I tell you the story of Jeffrey Epstein. I often tell young reporters to just look at someone and verbally tell them the story. When you just talk to somebody in front of you it gets you to the point where you understand the mess of research a little better. I have a couple people who I often get together with to have brunch. One works for The New York Times, one for USAToday, and the other for Politico. We would meet and all bounce our story ideas off of one another.  Having that support with other journalists helped me to understand the stories better.

Neha: You wrote about some of the detectives feeling like they were being followed or that they were in danger. Did you ever feel like this?

Julie: I tried not to think about the threatening part of it. I am from Philly so I am pretty street smart and I was very careful paying attention to my surroundings. I probably stayed home a lot more than I did before the project just feeling like I needed to feel safe and secure and did not want to be out that much. I took precautions, but I never felt like I was threatened. I was more worried that I would make a stupid mistake. I would wake up in the middle of the night and think “Oh did I spell his name right.” I was worried that somewhere along the line there would be a stupid error in the story. My feeling was that if I bulletproof the story, or make it so that it was solid and everything in the story would be backed up by an interview or a court document, then I would not have to worry that much because it is true and accurate. So I spent time making sure I had everything backed up or from an interview with a police chief or one of the victims. 

Neha: Is there any other advice you would give to a beginning reporter or anything that you want students to know about your work? 

Julie: People should just know that it is really hard work. It looks so glamorous when you don’t do it day in and day out. You have to really love it. I love what I do. You have to have a passion for what you do. That is the most important thing. There are plenty of great journalists that do not like to do investigative reporting because it is a lot of burying your head in paper and really getting into the records and lots of journalists find that tedious. It is not all glamour when you have to bury yourself in documents all day long. It is important to find the niche that you really love to do and then you will do well. 


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