The former Miami-Dade homicide detective interviewed Epstein victim after Epstein victim, roughly 40 in all, for a civil lawsuit alleging that their rights had been violated in a 2008 plea deal that allowed the billionaire to skirt a lengthy prison sentence.
Fisten thought his 30 years in law enforcement had left him emotionally invulnerable to such stories, but he recalls one young teen victim in particular who'd been recruited to give Epstein massages in his Palm Beach mansion.
"She was 13 going on 14, but if you look at her picture, she looked like she was ten or 11," he tells New Times. "What he did to her and how scared she was and how vulnerable she was, that was a really bad story."
This could be my daughter, he thought. Fisten was working the case for Fort Lauderdale attorney Brad Edwards, who filed a lawsuit against Epstein in 2009 and worked on it for nearly a decade. Edwards faced down countersuits by both the billionaire financier and his most high-profile attorney, Alan Dershowitz, before finally winning a settlement for the Epstein survivors he represented. Fisten was a key member of his team.
"In 2009 through 2012, which to me were probably the most crucial parts of the investigation, he was the main person that was there with me," Edwards says of Fisten. "There wasn't an interview I did that he wasn't there."
The Herald series drew heavily on their work, and both Edwards and Fisten were key sources for the newspaper. And when the stories by veteran Herald reporter Julie K. Brown was published in November 2018, it seemed everyone was suddenly talking about Epstein.
Brown's work was masterful, and she was the first reporter to interview victims on the record, getting four of them to appear in a powerful 12-minute video. But almost all of the factual information in the series had been reported by other journalists several years earlier; entire books had already been published about the case. It was a story unearthed from the grave.
The big difference was timing. Brown's series came out at the height of the #MeToo movement and, perhaps more important, after President Donald Trump had appointed the U.S. Attorney who'd approved Epstein's plea deal, Alex Acosta, as Secretary of Labor. Between those two huge developments, the story, with Brown's expert telling, rode a tidal wave of energy.
"It was all old stuff," Edwards says of the Herald series. "But I thought the timing and the way it was put out there was brilliant. It made everybody finally watch what we were doing."
Fisten welcomed the tsunami, not only because it brought attention to the injustice he'd helped uncover but also because it lit a fire under his book project, which he was shopping with his agent. He says he was about to ink a deal in February 2019 when Brown invited him to lunch. It was at the Moonlight Diner in Hollywood that the Herald reporter made what would turn out to be a million-dollar proposal: Would he like to join forces with her on a book?
The plan was simple enough: Fisten would provide the inside details of the investigation, and Brown, who'd been busy making the rounds on cable news stations and winning journalism awards for the project, would write it. An added bonus: They wouldn't have to compete against each other for sales.
Fisten said yes, and they eventually struck a deal with HarperCollins that included an advance of $1 million. They split the first $300,000 paid out by the publisher, and the rest of the money was to be paid in two subsequent installments after the book was completed.
But now, months before the book is set to be released, Fisten and Brown are locked in litigation. In a letter to Fisten from her attorney, Brown alleged that Fisten didn't hold up his end of the bargain and informed him that she was refusing to pay him the remainder of the money. Fisten responded with a lawsuit against Brown, demanding not only the book money but also a share of the $450,000 Brown apparently received in a TV deal with HBO and Adam McKay, a producer who has worked on film and TV projects including Talladega Nights, Eastbound & Down, and Succession.
"It is insane that she's taking this stance," Fisten says. "I think it's straight-up greed. I think she decided, 'Well, shit, why do I have to share this with him for?'"
Brown, who won numerous journalism honors for the series, including the coveted George Polk Award, and last year was named as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, wouldn't go on the record for this article, citing the active lawsuit. Legal correspondence from her lawyers to Fisten has alleged that he failed to sufficiently contribute material to the project and that he violated the terms of their agreement by sharing proprietary information with the Netflix series Filthy Rich, based on a 2016 book about Epstein by best-selling author James Patterson.
Fisten counters that he provided Brown with hundreds of valuable documents and put in substantial work. He says Brown was well aware that he'd done the Netflix interview weeks prior to him signing the agreement.
Those issues will be hashed out in arbitration. Emails between the two, later obtained by New Times, reveal that the conflict had been simmering for months, as concerns about competition for the book and the direction of the narrative escalated. All the while, a kind of mythology was building about the Herald series, some of it blatantly false, that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. And it didn't help that one of the very things they were attempting to expose with their story — the corrupting influence of money — may have been infecting the book project itself.
"Hi Mike. Tried to call you this morning. I'm in NYC," Brown wrote on March 7, 2019. "Was trying to think whether there is any legwork I should do for the book. I thought if nothing else I could take a ride over to Epstein's house and the address where he kept the models. It would be good to have a visual of it. If you get this could you send me the addresses?"
Fisten sent them. Four months later, photos and video of Epstein's New York home were splashed all over the media when federal prosecutors in Manhattan arrested the billionaire on new sex-trafficking charges. It was a seismic event in the case and for the book project. Geoffrey Berman, then the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, gave a shout-out to Brown at a July 2019 press conference announcing the arrest, saying the investigation was assisted "by some excellent investigative journalism."
That, Fisten says, was the moment when the myth-making surrounding Brown's work kicked into a new gear.
"The media starts with this narrative about how she broke this case open — and she just ran with it," he says.
Edwards, the victims' lawyer, says he was aware of the New York investigation before Brown's series was published, but it didn't seem to be going anywhere. The Herald series, he says, got the full attention of federal prosecutors.
"I had met with them prior," Edwards tells New Times. "They claimed to be interested, and nothing happened. It wasn't until Julie's story aired that they then flew down to my office."
Edwards worked closely with the prosecutors on the criminal case, and his civil case proved extremely useful in that effort. And it might have never happened if not for Brown's work. But at the same time, her role in the Epstein case was being exaggerated in the public square. CNN, for instance, falsely dubbed Brown "the reporter who broke [the] Epstein plea deal story" in a headline. A podcast produced by McKay wrongly said that Brown was the journalist "who exposed Jeffrey Epstein's crimes to the world." Even the Miami Herald erroneously claimed on its YouTube channel that Brown had broken the plea-deal story.
The myth may have hit maturation on Tamron Hall's syndicated television show in October 2020.
"Our next guest spent years — years — seeking out Jeffrey Epstein survivors to expose his horrific crimes," Hall said in her introduction. "It still baffles me how people refer to it as a secret that everybody knew but didn't say anything about…. It was your dogged reporting that exposed this."
But Brown hadn't spent years searching for survivors. That was Edwards and Fisten. And numerous other reporters, chief among them former Palm Beach Daily News reporter Michele Dargan, had broken the stories about Epstein years earlier. Sex-trafficking-victims' advocate Conchita Sarnoff reported on the case for the Daily Beast beginning in 2010 and wrote a book about Epstein published in 2016 titled TrafficKing. James Patterson's book, out the same year, detailed not only the crimes and the plea deal but also pieced together in great detail the plight of victims, though not by name.
The Miami Herald's "Perversion of Justice" series itself made no mention of that past work, let alone give credit to it. And it's not surprising that newcomers to the case who read the series may have believed it was all original reporting, as it seems to have been written to create just that illusion. Take this defining paragraph — called a "nut graf" in the newspaper business — from the opening installment of the series:
Not only would Epstein serve just 13 months in the county jail, but the deal — called a non-prosecution agreement — essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe into whether there were more victims and other powerful people who took part in Epstein's sex crimes, according to a Miami Herald examination of thousands of emails, court documents and FBI records.
The bulky citation at the end could have just as easily read "according to previously published reports," because every fact in the paragraph had appeared in print numerous times before. Sarnoff, who inked her own Epstein deal with Sony Pictures in September 2019, says she considered suing Brown but decided against it after her agent told her it was a bad idea and would cause a "commotion in Hollywood."
But Brown did bring powerful original reporting to the project — namely, the videotaped interviews with victims. At the 2019 New Yorker Festival, she told humorist Andy Borowitz she was able to reach those victims by poring over Edwards' civil suit, where their names were redacted.
"I had to really just do a lot of digging," she told the audience. "Inevitably, you find where they forget to redact a name, or there's part of a name and a birth date. So it was like this big puzzle."
But Edwards says he set up three of the four interviews with victims featured in the Herald series at law offices affiliated with the case.
"She said, 'Do you have any that are willing to go on camera?'" he recalls. "I talked to 20 of my victims and my clients, and they didn't want to do it."
Edwards says the first woman to agree to the interview was Virginia Roberts Giuffre, whose story as an Epstein "sex slave" was already publicly known and whose name and photograph had been in the news. He says he was then able to convince Jena-Lisa Jones to join Giuffre and surprised Brown with that bonus interview. Edwards says he also set up an interview with victim Courtney Wild. The fourth Epstein survivor interviewed, Michelle Licata, was represented by another attorney, and Edwards says he believes Brown did indeed identify her from redaction errors made in the lawsuit.
"If reading 15 of my court filings is considered putting together a puzzle, then maybe," he says. "The puzzle was already put together."
Fisten welcomed all the media attention on Epstein — and Brown — at the time. It was upping the value of their book project. Not long after the Epstein arrest, Brown asked her agents at ICM in an email to scuttle the existing $420,000 book contract with Viking so they could chase a bigger deal.
"When I wrote this proposal, it was based on a story about the Jeffrey Epstein case. Period," she wrote in an email she forwarded to Fisten. "...Mike [Fisten] and I felt confident that we could accomplish this, given his contacts and research gathered over the ten years he has worked this case."
But the story now was one of triumph on behalf of Epstein's victims, she wrote, adding that she was getting tips on "Palm Beach sex parties" that "implicated Trump." She wrote that even though she wasn't awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she had "soldiered on" with the story because it wasn't about winning the Pulitzer but "about getting justice for these women."
"I don't like being part of the story, but the reality is I broke it open and I am part of the story and continue to fight for the truth, every single day," she wrote. "...You have no idea how many people have been dying to talk about what they know. They are emailing me, messaging me, sending notes to me on Facebook, reaching out to me through intermediaries and calling me. I've heard from two major producers with connections to studios in the past week; I've consulted with lawyers and spoke to other journalists who have had similar big stories. I will revise the proposal and you need to put it out to bid. It may harm your reputation with the publisher, and I apologize for that."
The agency responded three days later that it had decided to "step aside" and allow her to work with another agency. Brown did just that, and soon she called Fisten with big news: They'd landed a new book deal with HarperCollins and were getting a $1 million advance. Fisten was thrilled.
"She was telling me how excited she was to work with me, and I was telling her the same thing," Fisten says.
They signed an agreement to split all the proceeds, shared the first $300,000 installment of the million-dollar advance, and got back to work.
Fisten says Brown was upset because Edwards' book would rob their project of much of its promised exclusivity. He says Brown told him that HarperCollins wanted her to be the protagonist of the project, à la the journalists in the Academy Award-winning 2015 movie Spotlight. But he points out that in that case, Boston Globe reporters dug up the damning evidence on the Catholic Church themselves, while Brown simply covered the civil lawsuit and followed the investigation he'd helped lead.
"She starts telling me about this Spotlight thing," Fisten says. "And I said, 'That's not what happened — what are you talking about?' I think when she decided to write this Spotlight-type story, this fairy tale, that she didn't need me anymore."
It was in March 2020, the same month that Edwards' book was published, that Brown first suggested that Fisten exit the project. In a long email, she explained that she was writing late because she couldn't sleep.
"I am getting a bit concerned because I'm almost halfway to deadline and I have not really gotten much new," Brown wrote. "And I have to say I'm a bit disappointed by the fact that I feel that your attention is elsewhere. I asked you months ago whether you could do some new investigating and you agreed, saying that you were hiring other people with your agency so that you could devote all your time to the Epstein book."
In the same email, Brown indicated she wanted Fisten off the project.
"To be honest, almost everything that you've sent me so far is stuff that either I already had, already knew about or something that is irrelevant for the book. Even the tax returns don't really say anything about how Epstein got his money.… If you've lost your desire to continue with the project, because perhaps you are really into another case, I'm sure there is a way for me to release you from the contract. The fair thing for you to do is to bow out of the project if you can't devote your time to it right now. I understand, and have no hard feelings about it at all."
Brown followed up a month later to claim that the reason she was making the book about herself was Fisten's inattention.
"I'm trying my best to be patient and understanding, but I've really felt all alone on this project, which was not what we talked about," she wrote. "The whole point of collaborating with you was that you would be working on this full time with me. I rarely ever even hear from you. Because of this, I've had to recast the book to be less about you and Brad and more about my own experience looking into the case."
Fisten wasn't about to "bow out." He responded with an email in which he detailed the work he said he'd done, including "34 plus files I sent you containing approximately 375 documents, and approximately 300 photos, approximately 350 pages of investigative reports, the names of over 200 witnesses." He included every request for information she'd made during the past several months, as well as his responses.
The collaboration, heavily strained, continued at least in formal fashion for several more months, until Fisten received a letter in October 2020 from Brown's New York attorney, Jonathan Warner.
"It is a sad fact that, although assisting Ms. Brown with this book project was supposed to be a full-time project for you, you have done literally nothing since you signed the Collaboration Agreement to assist her or to further the project," Warner wrote. "Accordingly, you should consider the Collaboration Agreement terminated. In truth you terminated the relationship many months ago. Ms. Brown is simply confirming she is not going to pay you anything further."
Warner wrote that Brown had the right to demand the return of the $150,000 he'd already been paid but that she'd decided against that "for now."
Fisten responded with a lawsuit against Brown filed in arbitration court by his own attorney, Richard Wolfe, demanding not only the money from the book agreement but also a share in the HBO money.
"This is nothing more than a money grab," Wolfe tells New Times. "...That sucks, and she's going to pay the price for it."
That, of course, has yet to be determined.
Edwards, whom Wolfe might call on as a witness in the case, says he wonders whether the myth that built up around the Herald series has begun to overtake reality.
"By the time Julie came in, there was nothing more to do other than to highlight what we had done already," he says. "It’s not like the movie Spotlight, where the press is responsible for the crime being uncovered.... She didn't come into my office until 2017. Everything was done by then."
And he says there's no reason for it: In his view, Brown is one of the heroes of the case, and she deserves every accolade she has received.
"I think there is a way to color it where she is a hero in the story," Edwards says. "It was possible that it was going to peter out and nobody was going to bring real public awareness to his case, to this investigation, that we had put so much work into. She made people listen."