Former Trump Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who said “times have changed” since he helped convicted sex-predator Jeffrey Epstein skate, made himself ridiculous by choosing too recent a date. Things can’t have changed that much since 2008, basically the blink of an eye.
But some things may have changed in more like two blinks. All Acosta needed was to go back another decade or so in South Florida history, and he might have had a closer point. In the mid-1990s, teenage girls from middle-class, suburban families in Florida who sexually serviced wealthy men were considered whores, not victims of human trafficking. Public interest in their plight was more prurient than protective.
I had a personal exposure to this phenomenon. It is not a pleasant memory, but I find it’s still quite clear. In the mid-1990s I spent two years working on a book about a part of suburban South Florida that lies 40 miles due south of Palm Beach, where Jeffrey Epstein purchased a mansion in 1990, a hop and a skip from what is now President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. This story I am about to tell has no direct connection to Epstein or Trump, but I think it does help provide a useful context.
According to reporting by the Miami Herald’s Julie Brown, Epstein’s secluded Palm Beach compound, hidden by a wall of palm trees, is where young girls were lured to be sexually molested by Epstein. The original complaint that led Palm Beach police to begin investigating Epstein in 2005 stemmed from an incident there.
The piece of the Epstein story that struck my own ear had to do with the way prosecutors say girls were recruited. It was exactly the same pattern I found when I was doing reporting for my book, Bully, published in 1997 by HarperCollins. Many of the girls recruited each other and themselves.
Even to describe the events in my book today, I have to acknowledge some of the cultural changes invoked by Acosta: In today’s world, the girls involved would not be called prostitutes in media coverage. They would be described as victims of human trafficking. In order to accurately convey how the matter was treated legally and in the media at the time, however, I must revert to the term that was contemporary then.
My story involved a group of young people who carried out the 1993 torture-murder of one of their friends, a young man named Bobby Kent. A subtext was the exposure of a ring of teenage female prostitutes up and down the South Florida coast.
The pimp in charge of the ring was a handsome boat captain in his 40s named Tom Hildebrand. Through his boat work, Hildebrand knew many rich men who lived in the new expensive golf course subdivisions popping up all over South Florida at the time. Among those men, Hildebrand served a very specialized clientele.
Hildebrand’s clients were not looking for women. They were looking for girls. The upper age limit was 16 or 17, and some of his customers insisted on girls as young as 14. And the customers were even more discriminating: They didn’t want poor girls or slum girls. They wanted girls from nice families in good neighborhoods — girls who could have been their own daughters.
Hildebrand found girls at first by advertising in a newspaper. Later, many of his girls were recruited by their own classmates and friends. In 1993, Hildebrand was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The reasons the girls gave to reporters for working for Hildebrand tended to involve things they wanted to buy. Some of them had worked for meaner pimps before Hildebrand and considered Hildebrand a softer touch.
Because I had been a daily newspaper reporter for 20 years, I was especially struck by the media coverage of the Hildebrand ring when I looked back over it for my book a few years after it had happened. I knew a thing or two about how stories are presented in a newspaper.
When the story of the ring itself broke in ’93, the Florida media treated it as a breaking front-page crime story, but only that. There was no deeper, more probing coverage, nothing explanatory, no long Sunday magazine feature to answer the question, How could this happen?
The question seems obvious now. Why were rich men from exclusive neighborhoods seeking out and paying to have sex with young girls so close to their own social backgrounds that the girls could have been their own daughters? How and why were children recruiting each other for this? What did this story have to say about the basic underlying morality of the society?
None of that was asked. The story popped, and just as quickly it faded — at first. Then chapter two came along.
Hildebrand was arrested and his ring exposed by a sting operation carried out by police officers from a South Florida suburb called Oakland Park. Part of the evidence in the case was videotape made through a peephole in a motel room. Two girls, 16 and 17, were observed through the peephole.
Undercover vice officers were supposed to have just enough sex with the girls, in this case fellatio, to serve as evidence. But one of the arresting officers was investigated and later fired after a prosecutor discovered on the tape that he had achieved climax with one of the girls.
Earlier that year, Fort Lauderdale Vice-Mayor Doug Danziger had been videotaped by a surveillance team having sex with a prostitute. That very explicit tape was shown over and over again on South Florida television and became a major local sensation as a form of socially acceptable news porn.
In the period of months between the Hildebrand sting operation and the decision by authorities to pursue discipline against the arresting officer, the Hildebrand story disappeared from local media. But when the same media that had carried the earlier Danziger sex tape discovered that a new evidentiary sex tape existed — this one of teenage girls having sex with young cops — they immediately went to court to get it. All of a sudden the Hildebrand story was hot again, and there was daily breathless speculation about whether the new sex tape would be available for public viewing.
It never was. A judge ruled that only the boring nonsexual portions of the surveillance tape, mainly exchanges of money, could be released to the media. The story went cold again.
I’m sure there were individuals in South Florida who were incensed, troubled and frightened by the story, but in the media coverage no one asked what lay beneath it or what any of it meant. No one asked why it was the teenage girls being taped through peepholes and arrested and not the wealthy adult men who paid them. No one called it rape. No one called anyone a victim of human trafficking.
They were whores, in the eyes of law enforcement and the media. Hildebrand was a pimp. But the men who had sex with underage girls who looked like their own daughters got a sort of explicit pass — the boys-will-be-boys pass, especially for very rich and powerful boys. That was the culture of the time. Acosta may have been off by a decade or so in his timing, but he was not wrong in saying that times have changed, thank God.
A couple of the young women in my torture-murder story had worked for Hildebrand. They went on to take part in a murder in which the victim, a friend of theirs, was partially disemboweled alive, his throat slit and skull cracked with a baseball bat. Still alive, he was thrown into a swamp where he drowned, his body predated by crabs. He was the son of a middle-class, upwardly mobile immigrant family in a nice South Florida suburb.
My book was developed as a movie of the same title, Bully , directed by the quirky and talented art photographer, Larry Clark, who earlier had directed Kids. I thought Clark did a brilliant job capturing something that for me had been even more chilling than the murder itself: At the time of their trial and conviction (I have not kept up with them since), the middle-class, suburban young people who committed this ghastly murder were utterly without remorse.
They seemed not even to understand that they had done anything wrong. The young man they killed had been a bully. They thought they had achieved a righteous outcome, right down to the crabs.
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That was the last of half a dozen true-crime books I did before going back to newspapering. Bully sort of did me in. The other books I did all had exotic settings and were about people who didn’t remind me of my neighbors. Not Bully. The young people in Bully looked like every kid my own young son eventually would rub shoulders with in high school. To be a decent father, I needed to spend my days in a better place.
So I had put a lot of the Bully story out of my mind until I watched the Acosta news conference this week and read the stories. In going back to it, I was struck by something else that has changed dramatically since Bully. The world I covered and in which I operated and worked in the 1990s was way more male-dominated than today’s world. The cops were men; the reporters were either men or their editors and producers were. I would guess the clergy of the time were mostly men.
And here is a disturbing thought: Is that the world that a regime of men, left to their own untrammeled devices, must inevitably produce — a world where men become rich and powerful so they can rape children who look like their own daughters?
I hope this doesn’t come across as some kind of convoluted defense of Acosta. If anything, the press conference speech he gave defending his decision to let Epstein skate with a slap on the wrist frightened me because it reminded me so directly of Bully. I thought that was all yesterday’s news. Maybe not so much.