Annie Farmer was 16 years old when she arrived at Jeffrey Epstein’s ranch in New Mexico in 1996 to attend a program for high school students, only to learn that she was the sole participant.
There she met Mr. Epstein’s companion, Ghislaine Maxwell, who seemed friendly and asked about her classmates and her family. Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Epstein took her shopping and lavished her with gifts, like beauty products and new cowboy boots, according to a lawsuit Ms. Farmer filed last year.
The seemingly innocuous behavior was in fact part of a process to “groom” Ms. Farmer for sexual activity, the authorities now say. Ms. Maxwell began pressuring Ms. Farmer to give Mr. Epstein a foot massage, according to the lawsuit, and the encounters escalated — until Ms. Farmer says she eventually woke up one day to find Mr. Epstein entering her room, climbing into her bed and pressing his body against hers.
Now, with Ms. Maxwell facing allegations that she helped Mr. Epstein recruit and ultimately abuse girls as young as 14, the concept of grooming is at the heart of the criminal case against her. References to grooming appear nine times in the 18-page indictment against Ms. Maxwell.
Grooming has long been part of cases involving underage victims, but the concept has become increasingly important in the #MeToo era, as prosecutors have become more willing to file sex-crime charges in cases where people are coerced into sexual relationships without physical force.
The idea of grooming has arisen in the sex abuse convictions in recent years of high-profile defendants like the former film producer Harvey Weinstein and the former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
“It’s not like a legal term; you’re not going to find it in the statute,” said Anne Milgram, a former Justice Department sex-trafficking prosecutor. “Grooming is what predators do when they find a young person and try to break down the barriers that someone may have in their head to going along with the conduct.”
In a new case last week, federal authorities cited grooming when they unsealed charges against Robert A. Hadden, a former Manhattan gynecologist, related to the sexual abuse of six female patients, including one minor.
“A predator grooms their victims in order to earn their trust,” said William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the F.B.I.’s New York office, at a news conference on Wednesday. “He abused that trust completely.”
The psychological manipulation often begins with normal interactions, such as giving gifts or paying special attention to a child, psychologists say.
Gradually, the predator will expose the victim to sexual behaviors, like light touching, in order to desensitize them to sex. The process is aimed at breaking down resistance, making it less likely victims will recognize the abuse or report it.
“If you can get the person to believe that they are responsible for their own behaviors, that they are complicit, then they don’t feel that they can complain,” said Chitra Raghavan, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has testified as an expert witness in federal trafficking cases.
Ms. Maxwell, who was arrested in July, has pleaded not guilty to the six-count indictment, which includes charges of conspiracy and of transporting minors to engage in criminal sexual activity. Lawyers for Ms. Maxwell did not respond to a request for comment.
She has always denied any wrongdoing in the civil lawsuits that have been filed against her over the past decade, which accused her of enabling Mr. Epstein’s abuse.
A spokesman for the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.
Ms. Maxwell’s arrest came a year after Mr. Epstein, 66, was charged in July 2019 with sexually exploiting dozens of girls and women in Manhattan, Florida and other locations. About a month later, he hanged himself in a jail cell while awaiting trial.
Prosecutors have said Ms. Maxwell, now 58, recruited teenage girls for Mr. Epstein, knowing that he was a predator who would abuse them, often during naked massages.
Ms. Maxwell first befriended the teenagers by asking about their personal lives and their families, the indictment charged. She and Mr. Epstein would take them shopping or to the movies. Ms. Maxwell encouraged them to accept Mr. Epstein’s offers to pay for their travel or education.
Afterward, according to prosecutors, Ms. Maxwell would begin desensitizing the girls to sex by undressing or massaging Mr. Epstein in front of them.
The indictment suggests that Ms. Maxwell’s sexual behavior with Mr. Epstein in front of the minors, as well as her presence as an adult woman during Mr. Epstein’s sexual interactions with them, was critical to the grooming process.
“There’s something about having a woman as an intermediary that might make a young girl more comfortable,” said Ms. Milgram, the former sex-trafficking prosecutor, adding, “Maybe it made some of the younger women let down their guard.”
The indictment described three unnamed minors who the government said were victims of Ms. Maxwell. She is accused of directly participating in the sexual abuse of two of them between 1994 and 1997.
One of the unnamed teenagers is Ms. Farmer, according to her lawyers. Ms. Farmer spoke at Ms. Maxwell’s bail hearing in July, using her real name.
The indictment charged that Ms. Maxwell gave Ms. Farmer an unsolicited massage while Ms. Farmer was topless, and also involved another unidentified victim in “group sexualized massages of Epstein.”
“She is a sexual predator who groomed and abused me and countless other children and young women,” Ms. Farmer said at Ms. Maxwell’s bail hearing, where a judge ruled that Ms. Maxwell be held in jail while awaiting trial.
Prosecutors also accused Ms. Maxwell of encouraging a third girl to provide massages to Mr. Epstein in London from 1994 to 1995. Ms. Maxwell knew the massages would turn sexual, the indictment charged.
A major hurdle for prosecutors is the fact that the sexual abuse allegations against Ms. Maxwell are from more than two decades ago.
Federal laws allow prosecutors to charge sex abuse of minors at any point in the victim’s lifetime. Still, the timeline creates an opening for Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers to challenge the memories of the women who testify at trial.
Prosecutors have said they will use diary entries, flight records and business records to corroborate their testimony.
Legal experts said that evidence of grooming is sometimes used by prosecutors to rebut a defendant who argues that the sexual activity was voluntary.
In Ms. Maxwell’s case, it might also be used to attempt to show she intended to commit a crime — that is, that she knew the minors would be sexually abused.
She is charged in one count, for instance, under a statute that makes it a crime to “entice” a minor to travel across state lines to engage in illegal sexual activity.
“The grooming is very important to prove intent, to prove the specific intent that she had them travel for the purpose of sex,” said Taryn Merkl, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who supervised human-trafficking cases.
Before his suicide, Mr. Epstein’s lawyers signaled they might argue at his trial that Mr. Epstein had merely engaged in prostitution.
“There was no coercion,” one of the lawyers, Reid Weingarten, said in a hearing last year. “There were no threats. There was no violence.”
The judge pointed out women under 18 could not legally consent to sex under federal law and asked if what Mr. Epstein had done was statutory rape. Mr. Weingarten responded that it was not rape because “there is no penetration.”
The back-and-forth in the Epstein case might serve as a preview of how Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers may try to undermine the government’s accusations against her.
In any case, Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers are likely to shift blame to Mr. Epstein if her case goes to trial, legal experts said.
“She will, in many ways I’m sure, try to put all of their truly egregious conduct on Epstein, and he won’t be there to offer any sort of a counter-explanation,” said Berit Berger, a former federal prosecutor who runs a center on public integrity at Columbia Law School.
But such an approach could work to the government’s advantage, Ms. Berger noted.
“What’s hanging over the jury,” she said, “is one person already escaped justice in this case, and I think there will be a real feeling and a real need for Maxwell not to.”