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In early December 2017, Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown hopped a flight to Nashville to conduct an on-camera interview with Michelle Licata, a young woman who had been sexually assaulted by financier Jeffrey Epstein when she was 14. Brown’s colleague, videographer Emily Michot, would follow a day later on a separate flight. Neither knew what to expect.
The interview would mark the first of four that accompanied Brown’s blockbuster print series dubbed “Perversion of Justice,” which identified about 80 victims, many of whom had been underage when allegedly sexually abused or assaulted by Epstein, a banker who hobnobbed in Hollywood and media circles with the likes of Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton, Kevin Spacey, Donald Trump and Bill Gates.
Individually, Brown’s and Michot’s work might have reached a smaller audience and had a lesser impact. But together, their collaboration became something of a force multiplier, creating a three-dimensional platform for Epstein’s teenage victims to tell their harrowing stories of abuse, with Brown’s series driving over 9.5 million uniques and Michot’s videos hitting 850,000 views on the paper’s website alone. “The videos went viral,” says Brown. “Emily’s videos are still the No. 1 videos that were being seen on all of the Miami Herald.” There’s little doubt that the multimedia package provided the tipping point in the demise of the financier, who was arrested on July 6, charged with sex trafficking of minors in Florida and New York and took his own life in August while incarcerated at New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.
“The whole piece would not have been the same without Emily,” says Brown. “Just the power of hearing these women’s voices and to see, all these years later, how their lives had been forever altered by what had happened to them.”
Brown, who now has a book in the works that will serve as the basis for an Adam McKay limited series at HBO, began working on the Epstein story in early 2017, tracking down a succession of minors identified as Jane Doe in court filings and whose names were redacted from police reports. After months of reporting, she turned to Michot, with whom she had collaborated on a series about rampant abuse at a women’s prison in Ocala, Florida. “I immediately said, ‘I want you to work on this with me,’ ” Brown recounts.
Neither woman was fully prepared for that first interview with Licata, who was still wearing braces when she became one of the dozens of known victims of Epstein. Licata’s mother remained by her side as she retold her experience. “With Michelle pouring out this awful story of abuse, it was really difficult to listen to because you could just see how she still carried so much pain,” says Michot, who has worked at the Herald for 25 years.
Adds Brown, a Herald employee for 14 years: “That’s when we knew we had a great story, because Michelle had only been to his home one time, and to think of all the anguish she went through, you could imagine how some of the other women who had been there more than once, what kind of lives they lived.”
During the ensuing months, the pair interviewed Courtney Wild at a Florida prison, where she was serving time for drug charges, and Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who was famously photographed with Prince Andrew in 2001 while at a party in London, as well as Jena-Lisa Jones, who was 14 when Epstein paid her $200 to give him an erotic massage. They’ve also spoken to two other Epstein victims on camera since the series first published in November 2018.
As a team, they took a yin-yang approach to one of the hardest assignments for a journalist — documenting underage sexual abuse. “I tend to be a pretty aggressive reporter, and she’s very much the opposite, so it’s kind of funny we balance each other out sometimes,” says Brown. Or as Michot offers diplomatically: “She’s focused, and I guess I’m a little bit more laid-back. She takes the lead and doesn’t give up on something until she gets the answers that she’s looking for.”
For Brown, 58, the women’s stories harkened back to a vulnerability she felt during her own troubled adolescence and offered an opportunity to stand by young women. “I come from a single-parent family. I left home when I was 16 and went to live with a bunch of friends,” she says. “I was falling into self-medicating kind of [behaviors]. Nothing like drugs, but I could just feel that it wasn’t a good environment for me. I’ve lived through some really hard times in my life, so I just sort of feel like you have to give back.”
Given that both Brown and Michot are mothers (Michot, 50, is married with two grown sons, and Brown is divorced with an adult daughter and son), they leaned on each other throughout the difficult process. “I would wake up in the middle of the night sometimes sweating, thinking about the story,” says Brown. “Having someone like Emily on your side who gets it was a comfort.”
Epstein victims continue to come forward. Ultimately, Brown and Michot’s work offers hope that other predators will be exposed. “I know justice will never really be served, but I’ve heard from sexual abuse victims from all over, and this, to them, was so meaningful because all of them have shared in this feeling of ‘nobody’s listening,’ ” Brown says. “Giving these victims a voice also gave other victims around the world a little bit of a voice.”
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