"Abuse happens every day. I hope I influence women to speak out," Epstein survivor Courtney Wild says
In 2000, Virginia Giuffre was a 16-year-old junior staffer at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida when her life changed forever.
That year, she was recruited by Ghislaine Maxwell to work for Jeffrey Epstein, a multimillionaire with many celebrity and political friends. Guiffre says the pair groomed her and forced her to have sex with Epstein and others as part of an elaborate sex ring, from which she escaped in 2002.
For years, Giuffre told her harrowing story to authorities, but justice remained elusive.
In 2017, however, Giuffre spoke with Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown and videographer Emily Michot and spoke out about the abuse. The journalists also interviewed fellow Epstein survivors Courtney Wild, Michelle Licata and Jena-Lisa Jones.
The result was a bombshell three-part investigation published last year that led to Epstein’s arrest and the resignation of several government officials. Epstein killed himself in prison last August while awaiting trial.
The five women — the three Epstein survivors and the two journalists — are honored in PEOPLE’s annual Women Changing the World edition.
In an interview with PEOPLE, Giuffre recalls the moment she learned of Epstein’s arrest.
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“I started screaming, ‘No way. He’s arrested,'” she says. “Tears of joy [were] streaming down my face.”
Licata says Epstein’s arrest showed women that “it doesn’t matter if a perpetrator is a big, grand, important rich person or somebody that’s living with you. Stand up for yourself no matter how hard it is.”
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Wild, who was 14 when she met Epstein, said she was motivated to come forward for all victims of sex abuse.
“Abuse happens every day. I hope I influence women to speak out,” she says.
Jones, for her part, has a message for other survivors: “We believe what you say.”
Brown says the Herald story was so powerful because it showed “the breakdown of the criminal justice system, and the people that were supposed to protect these girls who didn’t protect them.”
She adds, “The women are heroes for having the courage to speak out about it.”
Michot says the story of Epstein’s abuse is far from over.
“There’s still a lot more people to be held accountable,” she says. “We’ll just continue fighting this.”