Epstein accuser holds Victoria's Secret billionaire responsible, as he keeps his distance
By SARAH ELLISON | The Washington Post' | Published: October 5, 2019
NEW ALBANY, Ohio — The first time the artist Maria Farmer says she heard the name of fashion billionaire Leslie Wexner, she recalled, was when her employer, financier Jeffrey Epstein, told her, "Les loves me. He'll let me do anything."
Farmer, then 26,had just been invited to create two large-scale paintings for the upcoming film "As Good As It Gets," starring Jack Nicholson. Epstein offered Farmer an unexpected location to do the work in the summer of 1996: an expansive country home in New Albany, Ohio, located amid 336 acres of land owned by Wexner and guarded in part by sheriff's deputies employed by the longtime chief executive of Victoria's Secret and The Limited.
It was there, Farmer said in an affidavit she submitted as part of an Epstein-related lawsuit, that she was molested by Epstein and his associate Ghislaine Maxwell.
In a series of interviews with The Washington Post, Farmer, 50, spoke publicly for the first time about Wexner and his wife, Abigail. She never met Leslie and says she spoke to Abigail only by phone while at the New Albany home. But she says she holds him "responsible for what happened to me" because the alleged assault happened at the hands of one of his closest advisers on property Farmer says was monitored by Abigail and the Wexner security team. She says that she was held against her will at the property by Wexner's security staff after her alleged assault, until her father came to pick her up.
Farmer's mother, father, sister and a friend all said in separate interviews that they heard similar accounts in 1996 from her.
While Farmer's allegations against Epstein have been widely documented, her experience in New Albany and the questions it raises about the Wexner family's relationship with Epstein have been little explored. Wexner was the only known clients of Epstein, who, authorities said, killed himself in a New York City jail this summer. The allegations have roiled Wexner's image and business, and the board of his company, L Brands, has hired an outside law firm to conduct a review of the relationship.
Wexner has said he was unaware of Epstein's alleged crimes and cut ties with him as soon as he found out about them. A Wexner family statement said neither the 82-year-old Leslie nor Abigail knew who Farmer was before she made her allegations. The Wexners declined to be interviewed.
"Mr. and Mrs. Wexner have condemned Jeffrey Epstein's abhorrent behavior in the strongest possible terms and severed all ties with him in 2007," Thomas Davies, a spokesman for the Wexners, wrote in a statement. "We don't know what Epstein told Ms. Farmer about the Wexners. And while we don't know with whom Ms. Farmer may have spoken, who may have claimed to be Mrs. Wexner, it was not Mrs. Wexner. Before the recent news coverage of Ms. Farmer, Mr. and Mrs. Wexner had no knowledge of her, never met her, never spoke with her, and never spoke with Mr. Epstein or anyone else about her."
Maxwell could not be located for comment. Her lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Farmer's interaction with Epstein dates back to the mid-1990s, when Epstein was active in the New York art scene and employed Farmer to answer the door at his Upper East Side townhouse. He presented the New Albany home as an alternative to her small walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village.
For two months in the summer of 1996, Farmer stayed in a country house that Wexner had deeded to Epstein four years earlier, according to property records. She had an Ohio driver's license, reviewed by The Washington Post, listing the address of the nearby Wexner mansion. Farmer says that she doesn't recall who drove her to get the license, but that she obtained a license to pick up Epstein and Maxwell from the airport the several times they visited that summer. The two homes sit in a town that Wexner had essentially built himself.
She says she was discouraged by Wexner's security staff from going outside without getting permission from Abigail Wexner, whom she says she spoke to by phone multiple times that summer. (She says she never met Abigail Wexner in person.) Farmer was a runner, but had to jog inside Epstein's 10,600 square-foot house.
"Where I stayed that summer, in that house and working in that garage, all of it was within view of the Wexner house," Farmer said in the interview.
The house, although owned by Epstein at the time, was "effectively the guesthouse" for the main Wexner estate, and it was guarded only by Wexner personnel, according to a security officer involved with Wexner family security at the time, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to discuss clients publicly. The two homes are a half-mile apart. The grounds were monitored closely by guard dogs and their armed minders, this officer said. It was surrounded by Wexner's land, according to property records.
"Anybody that was going to be coming on property had to be announced and allowed in by the Wexners," added the officer. "Nobody had carte blanche to go in and off the property."
Davies, the Wexners' spokesman, argued that the Epstein residence was just one of hundreds of homes within a community developed by Wexner.
"The Epstein house was not on land owned by the Wexners, and was nearly one half mile away from the Wexner home," he said. "The entrance to the Epstein residence was not through the Wexner gate."
Farmer says that the other entrance to the Epstein house, down a long driveway, was locked and gated and she was not able to use it during her time there.
Epstein has been accused by dozens of women of sexual predation in his other residences in Manhattan, the Virgin Islands and Palm Beach, Florida.
Earlier this year, when evidence emerged of Epstein's alleged misconduct, Wexner issued a statement accusing Epstein of having "misappropriated vast sums of money from me and my family." It was the first time he had made such accusations public. Epstein was never charged with any crime related to the alleged theft.
Epstein had enjoyed extraordinary access to Wexner, then well on his way to becoming the wealthiest man in Ohio, atop an empire that included The Limited, Victoria's Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch.
In the mid-1990s, Wexner so trusted Epstein that he arranged for homes for him in Ohio and New York, according to public records. He granted Epstein power of attorney, enabling him to sign checks, hire people and buy real estate on his behalf, court records show. He hired Epstein as president of his real estate development company and named him a trustee of his charitable foundation.
Wexner remains atop his $5 billion company, an employer of about 88,000 people worldwide and a man in high esteem as a prominent philanthropist and business leader in Ohio.
The family name is near-ubiquitous in the Columbus, Ohio, environs, displayed on Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital, thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars the couple have donated. Abigail Wexner additionally founded an anti-domestic-violence organization, the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence.
Wexner briefly addressed his relationship with Epstein - though not by name - when speaking with investors recently. Wexner, who has said he cut ties with Epstein more than a decade ago, said that "everyone has to feel enormous regret for the advantage that was taken of so many young women" and cast his break with Epstein in universal terms.
"At some point in your life we are all betrayed by friends. If we haven't, we are really fortunate to have led a perfectly sheltered life," Wexner said. "But at the end of the day, people that have secret lives, have secret lives. And they're secret because they're so good at hiding those secrets."
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In the late 1980s, a series of anonymous companies began acquiring large plots of farmland 20 miles northeast of Columbus. One by one the large plots were enclosed by miles of white post-and-beam fences, all of it surrounding the tiny village of New Albany, population 400.
When one of Les Wexner's partners disclosed that Wexner was behind the purchases, Columbus residents nicknamed the area Wexley. Wexner explained on the website for the New Albany Corp., the company he created to develop the property, that it had "started with a simple idea - I wanted to build a house in the country."
Wexner enlisted top development professionals in the planning and flew them to Brittany in France, the Cotswolds in England and the James River plantations to design his dream town.
"He's got this boyish energy and excitement for things and at the same time he's got this world-class mind," said landscape architect John Kirk, one of the project's designers.
Wexner announced plans for thousands of Georgian-style homes, pressing local officials for the needed approvals. Nearly all the buildings on the land Wexner plotted - starting with the country club designed in the manner of an 18th-century Virginia plantation - have been built according to the original vision.
During the same time period, Wexner developed a relationship with Epstein. "I first met Mr. Epstein in the mid-1980s, through friends who vouched for and recommended him as a knowledgeable financial professional," Wexner wrote in a letter in August to his family foundation.
"Mr. Epstein represented that he had various well-known and respected individuals both as his financial clients and in his inner circle," Wexner wrote. "Based on positive reports from several friends, and on my initial dealings with him, I believed I could trust him."
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In May 1996, Farmer and a friend set out for New Albany in a Penske truck full of her art supplies.
When she arrived at Wexner's white-painted gatehouse, she says she was greeted by a man who identified himself as a former Special Forces officer and Wexner's "right-hand man."
She says she still remembers the path to the guesthouse: through the gatehouse, to the right and past the stables where Abigail Wexner, a lawyer Wexner had married three years earlier, now kept her horses.
"[Abigail] called me when I first got there. She wanted to welcome me," Farmer recalled.
Over the course of the next two months, Farmer painted in the garage of the home, and said she was discouraged by Wexner's security staff from going outside without getting permission from Abigail Wexner. Owing to the size of the estate, and the limitations on her movements, Farmer says she never met Abigail Wexner in person.
Farmer said she was told by security staff there were armed guards watching the house.
"Whenever I wanted to exit the guesthouse, I'd have to call the main house and get Abigail on the phone to ask her permission to go outside," Farmer recalled.
The security officer said he remembered meeting Farmer but said he did not recall any incidents involving her that summer. The Wexner property was patrolled by dogs and armed security, he confirmed, adding that it is "very feasible" that someone like Farmer would have been told to get permission before going outside, "for her protection, absolutely."
Members of Farmer's family recall her recounting the close watch she was under. One day Farmer says she went outside to sun herself in the backyard and the Wexners' security guards came over to ask her to go back in the house. Farmer's mother, Janice Farmer, said in an interview that she spoke to her daughter during that summer and at the time found it "very odd" when Maria told her she had to get Abigail Wexner's permission to leave the house. Annie Farmer, Maria's sister, confirmed in an interview that Maria told her that she had needed Abigail Wexner's permission to leave the house.
About a month into her stay, Farmer says, she obtained an Ohio driver's license, registered to Wexner's address, so that she could pick up Epstein and Maxwell at the airport, not far from New Albany.
Davies, the Wexner spokesman, declined to comment on how Farmer may have obtained a driver's license with the Wexners' address without the couple knowing.
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Farmer said she had a friendly dynamic with Epstein and Maxwell that summer. Epstein had arranged for a trip for then-16-year-old Annie Farmer to Asia and was promising her help with college admissions.
In her affidavit, Maria Farmer described what she says happened to her during the last of several visits that Epstein and Maxwell made to see her that summer: "They asked me to come into a bedroom with them and then proceeded to sexually assault me against my will."
After the alleged assault, Farmer said she immediately locked herself in her room and called several people in New York, looking for assistance.
She eventually called her father, who agreed to come to Ohio. Frank Farmer confirmed to The Washington Post that he received a distressed call from his daughter and drove to pick her up.
Maria Farmer remembered calling 911, being put on hold, and then being hung up on. She also called the Franklin County sheriff's office, she said.
She didn't know Wexner had contracted with the sheriff's office to help protect his property. She recalled the person on the other end of the phone telling her, "We work for Wexner," and that an officer was at the gate.
In the affidavit, she says she "pleaded with" the security staff but was held against her wishes for 12 hours while waiting for her father to arrive. In the interview, she elaborated.
The morning of the day after the alleged assault, she said, Farmer spoke with Maxwell and Epstein. She told them she wanted to leave and hung up. Soon after, a Wexner security guard appeared at the house. "He said, 'You aren't leaving,' " Farmer recalled, " 'You're not going anywhere.' "
Later that morning, the security guard came over again, rang the doorbell, and asked her to go outside, she recalled. He took her by the arm and said she should come with him.
"I fought him," Farmer said, so much so that she had a bruise on her arm from the incident. Eventually, the altercation ended and Farmer says she walked to the security gate, where her father was waiting.
The security officer who declined to be named but was familiar with the guards at the property said he didn't believe something like this could have happened. "I don't even remember what happened, and I can tell you, if that had happened, I would have remembered it," he said.
Her father told The Post that after he arrived at the estate, there was an issue at the security gate. He did not recall other details, but he remembered that he was able to eventually retrieve her and take her to his home in Kentucky.
A spokesman for the Franklin County sheriff's office said that its officers were contracted to work as part of Wexner's 24-hour security detail at that time, but say they have no record of Farmer's 1996 call.
"The person who made that affidavit never contacted us," said Marc Gofstein, the public information officer at the Franklin County sheriff's office. "If we had a record and she contacted us then we'd go right into it looking at it. Doesn't matter who it is or who they are filing a complaint against, we open it up."
According to the records retention policy of the Franklin County sheriff's office, the department does not retain records of the type of call Farmer says she made for more than two years.
Farmer's mother and sister confirmed to The Post that Maria Farmer shared details of her experience with them not long after she left New Albany. She ran into a friend, artist Stuart Pivar, soon after her return to New York and told him that Epstein had done "awful things" to her that were "too terrible to repeat," Pivar said in an interview with The Post.
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Shortly after she left the New Albany property, Farmer learned from her younger sister that she also had been touched inappropriately by Epstein and Maxwell earlier that year, according to her affidavit. Annie Farmer had visited Epstein's New Mexico property in April 1996.
In an interview with The Post, Annie described having to give Epstein a foot massage at Maxwell's direction and also receiving, while topless, a massage from Maxwell, with the sense that Epstein may have been watching.
Annie said she didn't tell anyone about it at the time because she thought of Epstein as Maria's boss and didn't want to disrupt her employment.
When she returned to New York from Ohio, Maria Farmer says she filed a police report about her alleged assault, the contents of which were reviewed and later reported on by The New York Times. She said officers at that precinct encouraged her to speak to the FBI, which she says she did. No one appeared to act on her reports, she says, until the FBI knocked on her door in 2006 to interview her about Epstein. The FBI declined to comment.
She alleged in her affidavit and to The Post that Maxwell and Epstein warned her after she returned to New York to keep quiet about the incident, and that those threats were key to her eventual departure from the city. She says she has no plans to sue Wexner.
Farmer's allegations were publicly revealed as part of a lawsuit filed by another alleged Epstein victim. Farmer submitted her affidavit in April in support of a defamation suit by Virginia Giuffre against Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz, who has served as Epstein's lawyer. Giuffre filed an initial suit in 2015 implicating Dershowitz in a sex ring operated by Epstein.
Dershowitz has denied the allegations and accused Giuffre of perjury. Dershowitz alleged that Giuffre's allegations against him were made as part of an effort by Guiffre to secure a payment or settlement from Wexner.
David Boies, Giuffre's lawyer, said in an interview that no one involved in the Giuffre case ever attempted to extort money from Wexner, nor was any payment ever made. Both Giuffre and Farmer are represented by Boies.
Bill George, the former chief executive of Medtronic who says he is a friend of Wexner's, said he believes Wexner was hoodwinked by Epstein and that he's done nothing wrong.
He called Wexner an "extremely ethical person."
"I feel very confident that Les had no idea what this guy was doing in regard to young women," George said.
Yet analysts have begun questioning whether Wexner can survive at the helm of the company he created. Wexner's retail empire has fallen on hard times recently, with its stock losing more than 80% of its value in the past four years, dropping from nearly $100 a share to under $19.
"The Jeffrey Epstein thing should be a huge red flag," said Sucharita Kodali, a senior analyst at Forrester. "It is an extremely disturbing situation that should raise the question of a CEO's judgment."
Tammy Roberts, an L Brands spokeswoman, declined to comment, beyond a July statement that said: "While Mr. Epstein served as Mr. Wexner's personal money manager for a period that ended nearly 12 years ago, we do not believe he was ever employed by nor served as an authorized representative of the company."
The Washington Post's Alice Crites and Kathy Gray contributed to this report.