explainer

"The greatest disappearing act known to man": The hunt for Ghislaine Maxwell.

It’s the photograph that’s crippling a prince. A smiling Andrew, Duke of York, with his arm slung around the waist of Virginia Giuffre, a young sex-trafficking victim and Jeffrey Epstein accuser whom he claims to have “no recollection” of meeting.

To the right of the picture is a third person, allegedly a major player in what is proving to be a once-in-a-generation scandal for the British royals and (potentially) dozens of America’s wealthy elite.

That person’s name is Ghislaine Maxwell and, right now, she’s missing.

Watch: Prince Andrew denies any sexual encounter with Virginia. Post continues after video.

Video by BBC

Who is Ghislaine Maxwell?

Ghislaine Maxwell, 57, is a British socialite and daughter of newspaper tycoon and fraudster, Robert Maxwell.

Maxwell moved to the U.S. in 1991, where she became a close friend and confidant of late convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein — a former high-flying financier who, on August 10, 2019, took his own life in a New York prison cell while awaiting trial on allegations he trafficked girls for sex.

Prosecutors were preparing to argue that the 66-year-old billionaire had brought “dozens” of women, including some who were underage, to his mansions in New York and Florida for sexual encounters with himself and a host of his wealthy friends. But following Epstein’s death, U.S. authorities have turned their attention to his alleged accomplices.

That’s where Maxwell reportedly comes in.

She has been named by a number of Epstein’s alleged victims as a primary co-conspirator; a “madam” whom Epstein had tasked with recruiting young women into his circle by offering them what seemed to be legitimate employment.

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Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. Image: Getty.
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Giuffre, the woman in the now-infamous Prince Andrew photograph, for example, claimed she first met Maxwell when she was just 16 and working as a locker-room attendant at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort.

“I get approached by this beautiful, well-spoken, well-mannered woman with an English accent," Giuffre, now 35, said during an interview with U.S. network NBC in September.

"She told me her name was Ghislaine Maxwell, and she said, ‘I know this older gentleman who’s looking for a travelling masseuse. He’s super rich, he flies around everywhere. If you want, you can come by for an interview.’”

In court documents unsealed in August, Giuffre's lawyers alleged that she was then converted into a "sex slave" for Epstein between 1999 and 2002.

Speaking to The Miami Herald, Giuffre said the training started almost immediately.

"It was everything down to how to give a blowjob, how to be quiet, be subservient, give Jeffrey what he wants," she said.

"A lot of this training came from Ghislaine herself."

Giuffre said that, at the time, her dealings with Epstein seemed like a “necessary evil” to escape what had already been a life of abuse, as he'd promised to help her achieve her masseuse certification — her ticket to stability, normalcy.

In a statement released in 2015, Maxwell "strongly" denied Giuffre's claims and any involvement in Epstein's alleged crimes.

What is Ghislaine Maxwell's connection with Prince Andrew?

Giuffre also alleged in court documents that it was Maxwell, acting as a madam for Epstein, who forced her to have "sexual relations" with their friend Prince Andrew on three occasions.

The first encounter, Giuffre claimed, occurred in 2001 at Maxwell's London apartment. Giuffre was just 17 at the time.

"Ghislaine woke me up in the morning excited. And she said, ‘You’re going to meet a prince today,'" Giuffre told NBC.

She said she first met the Duke at a nightclub before being told by Maxwell to “do for him what you do for Epstein”.

Virginia Giuffre. Image: NBC.
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In a disastrous BBC Newsnight interview in which he attempted to clear his name, the Duke of York said he'd never met Giuffre and suggested the photograph of the two of them with Maxwell must have been doctored.

Though the royal admitted to having a friendship with Maxwell since the 1990s, he said he hadn't spoken with her for months.

Their last contact, he claimed, was earlier in 2019 when she was in London “doing some rally”.

UK media reported Maxwell took part in a four-day charity car rally from London to Monte Carlo in June, which is after prosecutors announced they were reopening the investigation into Epstein.

However, Prince Andrew denied the financier was a topic of his chat with Maxwell: "There wasn't anything to discuss about him because he wasn't in the news, you know, it was just … we had moved on," he said. "If there are questions that Ghislaine has to answer, that's her problem, I'm afraid."

So, where is Ghislaine Maxwell?

It's unclear. It's been widely reported that Ghislaine Maxwell hasn't been seen in public since Epstein's death.

While U.S. authorities say their investigation into the Epstein case is ongoing, they have not commented specifically on Maxwell, nor has she been charged with any criminal offence.

Yet there are persistent calls for her to come forward.

"No one knows where she is," a lawyer for one of Epstein's alleged victims said recently.

"She's done the greatest disappearing act known to man — or woman."

The Sun newspaper is even offering a reward of £10,000 (AU$19,000) for information that leads to them successfully making contact with Maxwell in person.

But fellow socialite, Lady Victoria Hervey, (who knew Maxwell) has suggested the search may be futile.

"Ghislaine is like a James Bond character — she is quite a unique person," Lady Hervey told Britain's ITV last week.

"I just don't believe anyone is going to find her."

If you have experienced sexual abuse, support is available via 1800 RESPECT. Please call 1800 737 732.

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