The Strange Saga of Jeffrey Epstein’s Link to a Child Star Turned Cryptocurrency Mogul

Brock Pierce- Getty - H 2019
Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images

How Brock Pierce ended up as an Epstein guest along with a NASA computer engineer, an MIT professor and a Nobel laureate in theoretical physics is a bizarre tale involving Steve Bannon and an international man of mystery who may or may not be dead.

Feb. 14, 3 pm PST Editor's Note: In this article, THR reports on allegations about Brock Pierce relating to a lawsuit that was filed in 2000. Many of the allegations regarding Pierce in this lawsuit were later recanted, and one of the plaintiffs was convicted of fraud. Two witnesses testified that two plaintiffs had offered them substantial sums to testify falsely in the suit against Pierce. A full statement from Pierce can be found here.

Even before Jeffrey Epstein’s mysterious death Aug. 10, many people who knew him were hoping the world would forget or, better yet, never learn that they had any association at all with the notorious predator.

One such person may be serially self-reinventing entrepreneur Brock Pierce, who as a teenager co-founded the eventually infamous Digital Entertainment Network and who, in the mid- to late ‘90s, was associated with an alleged sex-abuse ring — this one involving young men. Several later contended in court filings that Pierce and two associates had drugged and assaulted them at parties in their Encino mansion. Pierce was never charged with any crime and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. He settled with one plaintiff, and two others dismissed their cases against him.

In early 2011, about a decade after the Digital Entertainment Network imploded, Pierce visited the Virgin Islands to attend "Mindshift," a conference of top scientists hosted by Epstein. A representative for Pierce says he didn’t even know who Epstein was when he flew (commercial) to the event, which the financier had arranged as part of his elaborate effort to launder his lurid reputation. It was not even 18 months after Epstein had completed his slap-on-the-wrist solicitation sentence in Florida and registered as a sex offender.

The rep for Pierce says he saw Epstein after that meeting "a few times over the intervening years at industry events, where many other prominent people were present." He adds that "the few communications that Mr. Pierce had with Epstein related to cryptocurrency" — an area in which Pierce established himself as a crypto centimillionaire, or maybe a billionaire, in the years following the conference.

Nothing suggests that anything of a sexual nature or anything untoward at all occurred at Mindshift. Pierce is only one of dozens of figures in Epstein’s dizzyingly vast network, and the link between the two may be nothing but a curiosity. But it is a strange tale: how a former child actor who never went to college ended up as an Epstein guest — a seemingly unlikely addition to a group that included a NASA computer engineer, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and a Nobel laureate in theoretical physics. “I don’t know what he had to do with science [or] why he was there,” says one person who attended.

Cryptocurrency was very much in its nascent stages when Epstein invited Pierce to Mindshift. His bio on a list of attendees reads "entrepreneur, creator of virtual currencies and goods." His rep says he accepted the invitation for “the opportunity to interact with major scientific thinkers” and participated in a panel discussion on cryptocurrency with prominent scientists (none of whom appeared to have any expertise in the area, based on their bios from the same document).

It's unclear what, if anything, Epstein expected to get from Pierce, who was unlikely to add to the prestige of the conference. Epstein’s activities in the area of cryptocurrency remain mysterious. In 2017, he gave an interview to website The Next Web in which he expressed a vague interest in the area, and The Wall Street Journal has reported that Epstein claimed that he worked for the U.S. Treasury Department on cryptocurrency.

Another strand may connect Epstein to cryptocurrency and indirectly to Pierce: In 2015, Joi Ito  — then director of the MIT Media Lab — announced a Digital Currency Initiative. This came during a financially challenging time for the Bitcoin Foundation — the industry's first trade group, founded in September 2012 — and Ito hired cryptocurrency developers previously supported by the foundation. Just days after Ito’s announcement, Pierce was named the foundation’s chairman. (Ito recently resigned from MIT Media Lab following reports that he had accepted major donations from Epstein and attempted to conceal the relationship.)

Pierce was also in business starting in the mid-2000s with former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, who had his own ties to Epstein. Bannon did not respond to requests for comment but he apparently remains a fan of Pierce, who has popped up lately as an unlikely presence in Trump world. 

Pierce’s name is familiar to people in Hollywood who remember the short-lived DEN, an ahead-of-its-time attempt to create online programming around the turn of the millennium, and the scandal surrounding it. Pierce’s childhood career blossomed when he appeared in Disney’s 1992 film The Mighty Ducks. But by the time he was 17, he had given up acting. According to extensive media reports when DEN imploded, Pierce had been making $250,000 a year at the company. He shared a 12,600-square-foot house with two other DEN co-founders, the then-40-something entrepreneur Marc Collins-Rector and Chad Shackley, a Michigan man then in his mid-20s. 

Shackley had lived with Collins-Rector since dropping out of high school at 16. Pierce had also been 16 when he met Collins-Rector, and although Collins-Rector already was in a relationship with Shackley, Pierce later told Rolling Stone: “He was definitely in love with me. There’s no question about that.”

Pierce has said he gave Collins-Rector the idea of starting a company to create online entertainment. At the time, the technology wasn’t in place to efficiently deliver digital content to consumers, but the company attracted investors including David Geffen and former congressman Michael Huffington, as well as Microsoft and Dell. The Encino mansion where the DEN trio lived became known for parties that drew A-list guests, among them alleged predators Bryan Singer and producer Gary Goddard (though neither has faced legal charges and both have denied claims against them).

But before DEN's founders could cash in on a planned IPO, things fell apart. A young man sued, claiming Collins-Rector had started molesting him when he was 13. More litigation followed regarding alleged goings-on at the DEN mansion. One alleged victim, Alexander Burton, claimed that Collins-Rector, Pierce and Shackley had supplied him with alcohol and drugs even though he was under 21 and that all three men subsequently assaulted him. Another accuser was said to have written a suicide note reading in part: "I can't go on. I let them use me as a sex tool." (The note was discovered before a suicide attempt could be made.) There were also accusations that Collins-Rector would intimidate his victims by brandishing a gun.

Pierce later said in a statement, “The allegations against me are not true, and I have never had intimate or sexual contact with any of the people who made those allegations.” His rep says the allegations in the lawsuit were false.  

In August 2000, Collins-Rector was indicted for transporting minors across state lines for sex, and the DEN trio took off for Spain. The sojourn there ended in May 2002 when Interpol showed up, finding weapons and thousands of child-porn images in their house. (Pierce has said he was unaware of the images.) While Pierce and Shackley were quickly released, Collins-Rector was was held in a Spanish jail until October 2003 when he was extradited to the U.S. In June 2004 he pleaded guilty to five counts of transporting minors for sex. After serving out his sentence — which, after credit for time served, only amounted to a few months — he left the country and renounced his citizenship. (BuzzFeed tracked him down in Europe in 2014.)

While the DEN trio was still in Europe, the young men who had sued over alleged sexual assault at the Encino house were awarded $4.5 million by default because the defendants could not be located. Pierce later returned to the U.S. and settled the claims against him. The settlements do not address any payment to the accusers and Pierce’s rep says none was made.

Even before returning to the country, Pierce already had a new line of work: In 2001, while living with Collins-Rector in Spain, he had created Internet Gaming Entertainment, a company that enabled devotees of online role-playing games to use virtual currency to buy virtual goods (such as weapons). Eventually the business branched into a practice prohibited by many gaming platforms: “real-money trading,” in which players offered real cash for virtual goods. In an online bio, Collins-Rector declared himself to be a “shadow founder” of IGE, but a rep for Pierce says Collins-Rector “was never involved in any way” with IGE. 

What’s unclear is when Collins-Rector stopped being a part of Pierce’s life. In a lawsuit against Pierce, a former partner in IGE claimed that Pierce had told him in 2005 that Collins-Rector — then living overseas and, according to the feds, still consorting with teenage boys — had been blackmailing him, threatening to damage IGE in the eyes of investors. Pierce’s rep says Collins-Rector never threatened blackmail and denies that Pierce ever made such a statement.

Pierce’s rep suggests the split with Collins-Rector happened in stages: “Mr. Pierce separated any business relationship when DEN failed and the internet bubble burst in 2000.” Pierce's personal relationship with Collins-Rector lasted until 2003, the rep says — that’s after Collins-Rector’s indictment in 2000 and after Interpol showed up at the house in Spain in 2002. But Pierce’s rep says at the time of his arrest, Collins-Rector “asserted his innocence." It wasn't until Pierce "received additional information concerning Collins-Rector's improper actions" that he separated entirely.  

A couple years after Collins-Rector apparently left Pierce's world, Bannon entered it. IGE had started minting money in part through “gold-farming” operations in China, with low-wage shift workers accumulating in-game currency and virtual goods to sell by playing around the clock. In 2005 Bannon visited the company’s offices in Hong Kong and arranged for private-equity firms — including his former employer, Goldman Sachs — to invest $60 million. Bannon became vice chairman of the business with the idea that he would figure a way to make real-money trading legit. 

In 2017, The Washington Post published an exposé of IGE’s dubious practices — such as using the identities of unwitting U.S. residents to create gaming accounts — which were in place before Bannon came on board. It was unclear whether Bannon was aware of such activities when he joined the firm, but they continued after his arrival.

Pierce would later describe Bannon as “my right-hand man for, like, seven years,” but the math on that is hard to figure. Bannon failed in his mission of legitimizing the business, and just a couple of years after he joined the company, IGE was facing declining revenues, growing blowback from online gaming companies, an investigation by Florida authorities and a class-action lawsuit. In 2007 — not even two years after Bannon joined the company — he forced Pierce out as CEO and took the job himself, according to reports. Eventually the company got out of the virtual-goods business and Bannon sold his stake. (Pierce’s rep says he remained chairman of IGE “until 2015 or 2016,” but there’s no mention of that in the press release announcing Bannon’s appointment.)

At some point, Bannon developed his own connection to Epstein, although it’s unknown when or how the relationship began. In August 2018, he was spotted paying an early-morning visit to Epstein’s New York townhouse, and New York Times columnist James B. Stewart reported that Epstein invited him to a dinner with Bannon that month. (Stewart turned down the invitation and Bannon told the Times he did not attend.)

It was not long after Pierce’s ejection from IGE that he emerged as a player in the world of cryptocurrency. (Bannon also became involved in cryptocurrency.) Pierce founded a number of companies including Blockchain Capital, where his bio identified him as “a member of the Clinton Global Initiative.” (Bill Clinton, of course, also had a relationship with Epstein, though he has denied knowledge of Epstein’s wrongdoing.)

Pierce still seems to have been getting his footing in the still-new world of cryptocurrency when he turned up at Epstein’s 2011 conference. Al Seckel, the person who arranged the conference, was a gregarious and litigious poser who had convinced many people that he was a Cornell alum and a cognitive neuroscientist with ties to Cal Tech. (The Mindshift conference featured several scientists from Cal Tech.) 

In fact, like Epstein, Seckel never graduated from college, but that hardly held him back. For example, Seckel gave a 2007 TED talk on his particular passion: visual illusions. (His TED bio, since corrected, described him as a cognitive neuroscientist.) He also spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Session title: “Art and Illusion: Is Seeing Believing?”).

“He was definitely what they called a connector,” says producer Lawrence Bender, who recalls meeting Seckel at the TED talk. “He went out of his way to introduce me to different people.”

Seckel also threw splashy parties in Malibu, bringing together high-level people from various backgrounds. (Though Seckel has many detractors, none has ever suggested that he was involved in any kind of sexual predation.) 

Presumably Seckel met Epstein through his sort-of wife, Isabel Maxwell — the sister of alleged Epstein enabler Ghislaine Maxwell — whom he had married in 2007, while apparently still married to someone else. Whether Epstein was convinced by Seckel’s phony credentials is not known, but sources say he did turn to Seckel to set up the Mindshift conference. 

Pierce’s rep says he had met Seckel through “a networking gathering in Los Angeles” and saw him at a few other events after that, which led to the Mindshift invitation. Among the star talent there was physicist and Nobel-laureate Murray Gell-Mann and MIT professor Gerald Sussman. An online announcement of the event was vague about its purpose: "To try to push the frontiers of substantive topics.” 

By the time of the conference, Seckel and Isabel Maxwell had relocated to France. Bender, who after meeting Seckel at the TED Talk had gotten to know him well enough to be invited to his wedding party and to visit him and his wife at their new home, says he had also started hearing rumors about Seckel's sketchy business dealings. "It started to make me feel like, am I hanging out with the wrong person?” he says. “Then he disappeared. I thought, 'That's weird.'"

Indeed, in July 2015 Seckel’s body supposedly was found at the bottom of a cliff in France. He was 56. (The echoes of the fate of Isabel Maxwell’s father Robert, found floating in the sea near his yacht in 1991, are hard to miss.) Seckel died, it seems, just as Tablet magazine was preparing an article that alleged a litany of dubious business dealings as well as exposed Seckel’s phony academic credentials and double marriage.

Though the article appeared shortly after Seckel’s supposed death, it was never updated to reflect Seckel’s passing.  Asked why, author Mark Oppenheimer told THR in an email: "I was never able to establish to my satisfaction that Seckel had died.” Though he didn’t devote a lot of time to the question, he continued, “I always had my suspicions that maybe he faked his own death; it would have been in character.” Others who knew Seckel also have their doubts that he's dead and, in fact, it's difficult to verify; authorities in France did not respond to inquiries. And, after all, the man had a passion for illusions.

By February 2018, Pierce was listed ninth on Forbes’ first list of cryptocurrency’s richest with a net worth estimated at $1 billion. Neil Strauss, the reporter who spent 10 days with him for the Rolling Stone profile, described the then-married 37-year-old as a person who rarely ate a full meal or slept in a bed: “He crashed on random couches, in the back seats of cars, on tables at bars.” The article also noted that Pierce carried a satchel “filled with small containers of various plant medicines, such as the Peruvian psychedelic San Pedro and the Amazonian tobacco rapé, which he often snorts midmeeting.” Pierce was operating from and extolling the virtues of Puerto Rico, and pledging that he would use his wealth to “rebuild” the island.

But escaping the shadow of Collins-Rector and his notorious past still proved challenging. In March 2018, HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver aired a segment about the “speculative mania” around the cryptocurrency market and focused on a startup called Block.One. Oliver played tape of Pierce in a straw hat and jeans in what appears to be a promotional video, extolling a company that had already raised $1.5 billion. “Everything that exists is no longer going to exist in the way that it does today,” Pierce says in the video. “Everything in this world is about to be better.”

Calling Pierce “a sleepy, creepy cowboy from the future,” Oliver noted that Pierce had been “involved with some very unsavory figures” and urged viewers to google “Brock Pierce scandal.” Then he played another clip in which Pierce rambled about “intentionality” before showing photos of his “entirely unicorn wedding” at Burning Man the previous year. (The bridesmaids and groomsmen “wore the colors of the rainbow plus pink” while the best man “was a woman dressed in black, cracking a whip,” he said.)

In the immediate aftermath of Oliver’s takedown, Pierce was ejected from Block.One. “Anything I accomplish in my life,” Pierce told Rolling Stone, “ends up being discredited because of this [old] narrative.”

But Pierce is still mixing and mingling with the rich and powerful. In July, he attended a gala for the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton, New York, that also attracted high-profile Trump world denizens including Kimberly Guilfoyle and hedge-fund billionaire John Paulsen. More recently he was on the guestlist for Equinox and SoulCycle owner Stephen Ross’ recent, controversial Trump fundraiser, also held in the Hamptons. 

Despite their less than idyllic history at IGE, Bannon told The New York Times last year that he would have gotten involved with Pierce and cryptocurrencies in 2016 if the Trump campaign hadn’t intervened. 

Asked about the mockery that John Oliver had heaped on Pierce, Bannon shrugged, saying he had seen others triumph despite low expectations. “These guys," he said, "are visionaries.”