By Dánica Coto in San Juan
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The U.S. Virgin Islands announced Wednesday that it reached a settlement of more than $105 million in a sex trafficking case against the estate of financier Jeffrey Epstein.
The settlement ends a nearly three-year legal saga for officials in the U.S. territory, which sought to hold Epstein accountable after he was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls and of causing environmental damage on the two tiny islands he owned in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The islands will be sold as part of the agreement.
“This settlement restores the faith of the people of the Virgin Islands that its laws will be enforced, without fear or favor, against those who break them,” Attorney General Denise George said.
Epstein’s estate agreed to pay the territorial government $105 million in cash and half of the proceeds from the sale of Little St. James island where Epstein owned a home and authorities allege many of his crimes took place.
The estate also will pay $450,000 to repair environmental damage on Great St. James, another island Epstein owned where authorities say he removed the ruins of colonial-era historical structures of slaves.
The money from the sale of Little St. James island will be placed in a government trust to finance projects, organizations, counseling and other activities to help residents who have been sexually abused, officials said.
“We owe it to those who were so profoundly hurt to make changes that will help avoid the next set of victims,” said George, who added that she met with three alleged victims who were trafficked and sexually exploited on Little St. James island.
A real estate company is listing the island for $55 million, noting that its features include three beaches, a helipad, a gas station and more than 70 acres (28 hectares) of land that offer “an array of subdivision possibilities” and “a comprehensive, discreetly located, infrastructure support system.”
The company also is offering Great St. James for $55 million, an island of more than 160 acres (65 hectares) with three beaches.
In addition, the estate will return more than $80 million in economic tax benefits that U.S. Virgin Islands officials say Epstein and his co-defendants “fraudulently obtained to fuel his criminal enterprise.”
The government previously accused an Epstein-owned business known as Southern Trust Co. of making fraudulent misrepresentations to qualify for the benefits.
Daniel Weiner, an Epstein estate attorney, sent a statement to The Associated Press saying that the settlement does not include any admission or concession of liability or fault by the estate or anyone else.
“The co-executors deny any allegations of wrongdoing on their part,” he wrote. “The co-executors ultimately concluded that the settlement is in the best interest of the estate.”
Weiner also noted that the estate has paid more than $121 million to 136 individuals via a victims’ compensation fund.
Epstein killed himself at a federal jail in New York in August 2019 while awaiting trial. He had pleaded not guilty to charges of sexually abusing dozens of girls, some as young as 14 years old.
Several had sued Epstein and accused him and his longtime companion, Ghislaine Maxwell, of pressuring them into sexual trysts with powerful men.
Maxwell, who was convicted on sex trafficking and other charges, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June.
Video of Tyre Nichols beating leaves unanswered questions
By Adrian Sainz in Memphis
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The nation and the city of Memphis struggled to come to grips Saturday with video showing police pummeling Tyre Nichols — footage that left many unanswered questions about the traffic stop involving the Black motorist and about other law enforcement officers who stood by as he lay motionless on the pavement.
The five disgraced Memphis Police Department officers, who are also Black, have been fired and charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in Nichols’ death three days after the arrest. The video released Friday renewed questions about how fatal encounters with law enforcement continue even after repeated calls for change.
The recording shows police savagely beating Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx worker, for three minutes while screaming profanities at him in an assault that the Nichols family legal team has likened to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King. Nichols calls out for his mother before his limp body is propped against a squad car and the officers exchange fist-bumps.
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis has said that other officers are under investigation, and Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said two deputies have been relieved of duty without pay while their conduct is investigated.
Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, said the family would “continue to seek justice,” noting that several other officers failed to render aid, making them “just as culpable as the officers who threw the blows.”
A Memphis police spokeswoman declined to comment on the role played by other officers who showed up at the scene.
Cities nationwide had braced for demonstrations, with some downtown Memphis businesses boarding up windows and schools canceling after-school activities. But the protests were scattered and nonviolent.
Several dozen demonstrators in Memphis blocked the Interstate 55 bridge that carries traffic over the Mississippi River toward Arkansas. Semitrucks were backed up for a distance.
“I cried,” said protestor Christopher Taylor, a Memphis native who said the officers appeared to be laughing as they stood around after the beating.
Demonstrators at times blocked traffic while chanting slogans and marching through the streets of New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. In Washington, protesters gathered across the street from the White House and near Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Blake Ballin, the lawyer for fired officer Desmond Mills, told The Associated Press in a statement Saturday that while the videos “have produced as many questions as they have answers,” the question of whether the city would stay peaceful “has been answered.”
Some of the other questions will focus on what Mills “knew and what he was able to see when he arrived late to the scene” and whether his actions “crossed the lines that were crossed by other officers during this incident,” Ballin said.
The arrest was made by the so-called Scorpion unit, which has three teams of about 30 street officers who target violent offenders in areas beset by high crime, Davis said.
In an AP interview Friday, she said she would not shut down a unit if a few officers commit “some egregious act” and because she needs that unit to continue to work.
A few hours later, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the unit has been inactive since the Jan. 7 arrest.
The city was “initiating an outside, independent review of the training, policies and operations of our specialized units,” Strickland said in a statement.
Davis acknowledged that the police department has a supervisor shortage and said the lack of a supervisor in the arrest was a “major problem.” City officials have pledged to provide more of them.
Questions swirled around what led to the traffic stop in the first place. One officer can be heard saying that Nichols wouldn’t stop and then swerved as though he intended to hit the officer’s car. The officer said that when Nichols pulled up to a red light, the officers jumped out of the car.
“We tried to get him to stop,” the officer sad. “He didn’t stop.”
But Davis said the department cannot substantiate the reason for the stop.
“We don’t know what happened,” she said, adding, “All we know is the amount of force that was applied in this situation was over the top.”
After the first officer roughly pulls Nichols out of a car, Nichols can be heard saying, “I didn’t do anything,” as a group of officers begins to wrestle him to the ground.
One officer is heard yelling, “Tase him! Tase him!”
Nichols calmly says, “OK, I’m on the ground.”
“You guys are really doing a lot right now,” Nichols says. “I’m just trying to go home.”
“Stop, I’m not doing anything!” he yells moments later.
Nichols can then be seen running as an officer fires a Taser at him. His mother’s home, where he lived, was only a few houses away from the scene of the beating, and his family said he was trying to get there. The officers then start chasing Nichols.
Other officers are called, and a search ensues before Nichols is caught at another intersection. The officers beat him with a baton, and kick and punch him.
Security camera footage shows three officers surrounding Nichols as he lies in the street cornered between police cars, with a fourth officer nearby.
Two officers hold Nichols to the ground as he moves about, and then the third appears to kick him in the head. Nichols slumps more fully onto the pavement with all three officers surrounding him. The same officer kicks him again.
The fourth officer then walks over, draws a baton and holds it up at shoulder level as two officers hold Nichols upright, as if he were sitting.
“I’m going to baton the f— out you,” one officer can be heard saying. His body camera shows him raise his baton while at least one other officer holds Nichols. The officer strikes Nichols on the back with the baton three times in a row.
The other officers then appear to hoist Nichols to his feet, with him flopping like a doll, barely able to stay upright.
An officer then punches him in the face, as the officer with the baton continues to menace him. Nichols stumbles and turns, still held up by two officers. The officer who punched him then walks around to Nichols’ front and punches him four more times. Then Nichols collapses.
Two officers can then be seen atop Nichols on the ground, with a third nearby, for about 40 seconds. Three more officers then run up, and one can be seen kicking Nichols on the ground.
As Nichols is slumped against a car, not one of the officers renders aid. The body camera footage shows one of them reaching down and tying his shoe.
It takes more than 20 minutes after Nichols is beaten and on the pavement before any sort of medical attention is provided, even though two fire department officers arrived on the scene with medical equipment within 10 minutes.
During the wait for an ambulance, officers joked and aired grievances. They complained that a handheld radio was ruined, that someone lost a flashlight and that multiple officers had been caught in the crossfire of the pepper spray used against Nichols.
Throughout the videos, officers make claims about Nichols’ behavior that are not supported by the footage or that the district attorney and other officials have said did not happen. In one of the videos, an officer claims that during the initial traffic stop Nichols reached for the officer’s gun before fleeing and almost had his hand on the handle, which is not shown in the video.
After Nichols is in handcuffs and leaning against a police car, several officers say that he must have been high. Later an officer says no drugs were found in his car, and another officer immediately counters that Nichols must have ditched something while he was running away.
During a speech Saturday in Harlem, the Rev. Al Sharpton said the beating was particularly egregious because the officers were Black, too.
“Your Blackness will not stop us from fighting you. These five cops not only disgraced their names, they disgraced our race,” Sharpton said.
Court records showed that all five former officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith — were taken into custody.
Second-degree murder is punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison under Tennessee law.
Associated Press reporters Aaron Morrison in New York, Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, and Rebecca Reynolds in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried, DOJ tussle over his communications
By Michael Liedtke
Federal prosecutors are trying to prohibit FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried from privately contacting current and former employees of the bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange to prevent potential witness tampering in a criminal case accusing him of bilking investors and customers.
The request, made in a letter filed late Friday by U.S. Justice Department lawyers, prompted an indignant response from Bankman-Fried’s lawyer, who accused prosecutors of twisting the facts to cast the FTX founder in a sinister light ahead of his trial scheduled later this year.
The testy exchange prompted U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in New York to issue a Saturday order that included admonishment for the opposing lawyers in the case to refrain from “pejorative characterizations” of each other’s actions and motives.
Bankman-Fried, 30, has been under confinement at his parents’ home in Palo Alto, California, since pleading not guilty earlier this month to charges against him. He is accused of diverting massive sums of FTX customer funds to buy property, donate to politicians and finance risky trades at Alameda Research, his cryptocurrency hedge fund trading firm.
Federal prosecutors raised their concerns about Bankman-Fried’s attempts to connect with potential witnesses in the case after discovering he sent an encrypted message over the Signal texting app on Jan. 15 to the general counsel of FTX US, according to their letter to Kaplan.
“I would really love to reconnect and see if there’s a way for us to have a constructive relationship, use each other as resources when possible, or at least vet things with each other,” Bankman-Fried wrote to the FTX general counsel, dubbed “Witness 1,” in the prosecutors’ letter.
Federal prosecutors told Kaplan that Bankman-Fried’s communications are a sign that he may be trying in influence a witness with incriminating evidence against him. As a safeguard, the prosecutors want Kaplan to revise the conditions of Bankman-Fried’s bail so he can’t communicate with current or former employees of FTX and Alameda Research outside the presence of a lawyer without a waiver from the Justice Department.
But Bankman-Fried’s attorney, Mark Cohen, painted a much different picture in his fiery retort to the prosecutors. Cohen described Bankman-Fried’s effort to reach the FTX general counsel as “an innocuous attempt to offer assistance in FTX’s bankruptcy process.”
In his Saturday order, Kaplan demanded complete copies of Bankman-Fried’s electronic communications to be provided by Monday.
Federal prosecutors also want Kaplan to change the conditions of Bankman-Fried’s bail to prevent him from communicating through Signal, which has an auto-delete option to make messages quickly disappear in addition encryption technology to help shield the contents from outsiders.
“Using Signal to contact potential witnesses increases the likelihood that detection of any attempt to obstruct justice by influencing a witness will itself be obstructed,” the prosecutors told Kaplan.
But Cohen wrote that the message sent to the FTX general counsel didn’t have an auto-delete feature. Cohen also assured the judge that Bankman-Fried has turned off the disappearing messages option in his Signal account.
“The government cannot justify a bail condition based on an unfounded concern about what Mr. Bankman-Fried might do, when there is no evidence that he is, in fact, doing it,” Cohen said.
Before prosecutors asked the judge to impose broad restrictions that would prevent Bankman-Fried from privately communicating with any current or former FTX employees, Cohen said the two sides had already been in negotiations to reach a “reasonable” compromise before prosecutors “sandbagged” the talks with their late Friday letter to Kaplan.
By Cohen’s estimate, FTX and Alameda Research have about 350 current and former employees who would be blocked off from Bankman-Fried by a blanket ban, including some that might have crucial information for his defense during a trial tentatively scheduled to begin in October.
Bankman-Fried was willing to voluntarily agree to a prohibition against him communicating with several top FTX executives in exchange for being allowed to remain in contact with others such as his father, his therapist still employed by the cryptocurrency exchange and a range of other unidentified workers who directly reach out to him.
Kaplan told federal prosecutors to respond to Cohen’s claims in his seven-page letter by Monday.
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