What was the Duke of York thinking?
The Duke of York's friendship with a convicted child sex offender is causing growing embarrassment.
Back in London last week, even Buckingham Palace was admitting the Duke had got it wrong, displaying a terrible "lapse of judgment" in remaining friends with the financier.
"There is a question mark over his choice of friends and that is quite difficult for him," a senior royal aide told The Sunday Telegraph. "People may legitimately question the judgment of [him] seeing Epstein once after he emerged from his conviction.
"There is a question mark over his choice of friends and that is quite difficult for him.
"There is definitely some type of soul-searching going on. Certainly there is a recognition by the Prince that the December meeting was unwise. He genuinely views it as unwise."
It is not the first time questions have been asked over his friendships. His former home Sunninghill Park was sold for £15 million – £3 million more than the asking price – to Timur Kulibayev, a Kazakh billionaire who had a child with Goga Ashkenazi, a close friend of the Duke. Sunninghill remains empty more than three years after the sale. Epstein has remained seemingly unrepentant. In his only public comment since his release, he told the New York Post: "I'm not a sexual predator, I'm an offender. It's the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel." The Duke was not Epstein's only powerful friend. The 57 year-old, who owned an island in the Caribbean as well as the Manhattan and Palm Beach properties, counted former presidents, Nobel laureates and Hollywood stars among his close acquaintances. But events in 2005 changed all that. The case against Epstein began when, in March of that year, a woman contacted Palm Beach police concerned that her 14-year-old stepdaughter had been taken to Epstein's mansion and paid $300 (£185) to strip while he performed a sex act.
It would spark an investigation that resulted in at least 40 girls, aged between 13 and 17 (18 is the legal age of consent in Florida) coming forward with similar stories of sexual impropriety at the mansion.
This is the same Florida mansion where the walls were decorated with pictures of naked girls; where even the soap in bathrooms was shaped like male and female genitalia and where until 2006, when the allegations against Epstein began surfacing, the Duke was a regular guest. Indeed in 2000, Epstein and Miss Maxwell had been guests themselves at Sandringham, the Queen's estate in Norfolk.
Last night, the royal aide admitted for the first time that the Duke had also received massages at the Florida mansion, but said that they had no sexual overtones. The aide said: "He is not denying having a massage, but that in itself does not represent impropriety. If he is guilty of having a massage then he is guilty of having a massage." For Epstein the massages were certainly more than a mere rub down. Some court papers paint a sordid picture of the goings on in Palm Beach, where Miss Maxwell allegedly ran the household.
Witness statements in one civil action allege that Miss Maxwell recruited some of the young girls on Epstein's staff, and even kept albums of photographs she took of topless girls at the house. She is also alleged to have had regular massages herself and to have kept sex toys in her room.
A plea bargain deal eventually resulted in Epstein admitting one count of soliciting under-age prostitutes. He was jailed for 18 months, swapping his jet-set lifestyle for a more simple existence in the Palm Beach County Jail where his only luxuries were the "treats" he purchased from the guards. He spent $1,250 in three months on a wide variety of snacks including "Moon Pies, BBQ chips, cheddar cheese squeezers". According to a receipts released under Freedom of Information rules, Epstein also spent $7.50 on a single-serve pack of Spam. He completed the sentence under house arrest in Florida, but as part of the deal his alleged victims have been allowed to bring civil actions against him and Epstein has already agreed undisclosed out-of-court settlements with 17 of them.
Last week a photograph emerged of the Duke with his arm around 17-year-old Virginia Roberts, one of Epstein's alleged victims.
There is no suggestion that the Duke had any sexual contact with Miss Roberts or knew anything of Mr Epstein's illegal activities. Miss Roberts said she met the Duke during her four years as Epstein's personal masseuse. She said she had once been flown across the world by Epstein to be introduced to the Duke and that she was subsequently paid $15,000.
Giving evidence under the name "Jane Doe 102" in her civil case, Miss Roberts said that her duties included being "sexually exploited by Epstein's adult peers including royalty". There is no evidence the royalty she refers to means the Duke of York.
She told how she had joined Epstein's staff as a masseuse at the behest of Miss Maxwell and that massage sessions often developed into sexual encounters with Epstein and others. She said that she had felt "under immense pressure to please them".
Another witness who lodged court papers was Juan Alessi, Epstein's maintenance man. His deposition says the Duke spent "weeks" at the Florida house sleeping in the main guest bedroom and having "daily massages".
Last week he told The Sunday Telegraph that the Duke had visited the house "three or four times". Buckingham Palace denies the Duke was ever at the house for longer than a few days at a time, pointing out that an absence of weeks would have been noted by royal watchers.
Mr Alessi paints a picture of debauchery. There were regularly young women frolicking naked in the pool or even turning up topless in the kitchen while he and his wife Maria worked, he said.
"European girls particularly, they were always taking their clothes off. I'd have to tell them 'Look, go away, put something on, and then come back in here'," he recalled.
House guests were always offered a daily massage as a courtesy he said. "Was it innocent? What happened in those rooms was absolutely between the people in them, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Those corridors were sealed by three doors that were closed, closed, closed, so it's impossible to know what's going on."
The Duke, he insisted, was the kindest of guests. "There were some people I didn't care for but Prince Andrew was a gentleman … very ordinary, very easy-going. He was probably the best guest we ever had and we had thousands.
"He would get up and make his own bed, tidy things up. He didn't want nothing [sic] to be done for him. He was the only guy who left us a tip – and a key chain from the royal palace as a souvenir. I would be a liar if I said something bad about him.
"He was a gentleman, he treated us very well."