(NEW YORK) — In the very last row of the 23rd floor of the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, where wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein was being arraigned on Monday, two young women sat side by side, flanked by men in dark suits – the bustling media chaos surrounding them at the high-profile criminal proceeding.
For Courtney Wild and Michelle Licata, watching Epstein dressed in blue prison garb, arraigned in federal court on sex trafficking charges, was a watershed moment.
In exclusive interviews with ABC News, both women say their pain is still fresh, their memories still vivid, even after years.
But sitting in the august federal courtroom, witnessing a moment they say they never thought they’d see, was worth the flashbacks to darker times in their younger lives.
The two had only met just moments earlier, each a member of an exclusive club no one wants to join.
Licata reflected back on that moment she met Wild: “I didn’t have to explain myself or think ‘oh God, I have this secret,’ like you’re probably not going to like me. It was really relieving that she was going through it with me.”
“We get to look him in the face today and see him in handcuffs,” Wild said at one point during a series of exclusive interviews with ABC News. “We get to see him in jail. Finally, that day has come. So it was just nice to be able to share it with somebody, you know, look at you [Licata] and say ‘OK, today’s our day.'”
On the way to court
In a car on the way to the courthouse, tears rolled down Wild’s face as she listened intently to Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman’s press conference on the radio.
“I started crying because, I just felt overwhelmed with so many emotions,” she said later. “I never felt like the U.S. Attorney was on my side,” she added, referring to U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida – who the women and others claims cut a sweetheart deal with Epstein that allowed him to serve a 13-month sentence in a private wing of the Palm Beach County jail, where he was allowed out for work release, 12 hours a day, six days a week.
“So today, when I heard that [Berman press conference], it was — for once — they were reaching out and saying, ‘It wasn’t your fault if you were sexually abused by him.'”
Licata, who was 16 at the time of her first and only alleged encounter with Epstein, told ABC News that when she saw the disgraced, shackled Epstein marched into the courtroom, she experienced a moment of panic.
“I immediately was thinking, ‘OK, I’m back in that massage room where that clear shower is. It’s almost the same feeling like — God, I wanna get outta here.”
Epstein, who is being held in Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan as he awaits a detention hearing scheduled for Monday, has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking.
His defense attorney, Reid Weingarten, has signaled that the “centerpiece of our defense” will be the contention that this new indictment violates the terms of the Florida plea deal Epstein negotiated with federal prosecutors in 2008.
That deal allowed him to avoid federal charges by pleading guilty to two lesser state charges and registering as a sex offender — despite investigators at the time uncovering, according to court documents, evidence of a broad pattern of sexual abuse of minor victims.
Epstein ultimately served 13 months of an 18-month sentence in a county jail. The deal also included a non-prosecution agreement that immunized Epstein and any alleged co-conspirators from federal charges in South Florida.
Concerned about what was happening in her case, Wild filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice in 2008, seeking to assert her rights as an alleged crime victim. It was only then that she learned that the government had secretly entered into a non-prosecution agreement with Epstein months earlier. Her lawsuit claimed that the deal violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004, which guarantees crime victims the right to be informed about developments in their cases.
In February, a federal judge ruled in Wild’s favor, determining that the government had failed to confer with the victims before reaching the deal.
Acosta under fire
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility has already launched an investigation into alleged impropriety surrounding the deal. And Acosta is currently facing public calls for his resignation, including from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.
Acosta released a statement via Twitter today, calling the “crimes” committed by Epstein “horrific” and added that with new evidence and testimony, he is hopeful that the New York prosecutor can bring Epstein to justice.
“Courtney started this fight and the reason that she’s here and the reason that she’s willing to put a face to it is because somebody has to have the courage to say, ‘It’s OK to stand up,’ and encourage others to come forward,” said Brad Edwards, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents Wild and several of Epstein’s other alleged victims.
For Wild, Epstein’s arrest and indictment has renewed her hopes for justice.
“I feel like the U.S. Attorneys that [are currently] handling [the Epstein case] today — they have the intention to do what’s right and to take a predator off the street.”
After Epstein’s arraignment
As a crush of reporters filed out of the courtroom at the conclusion of Epstein’s arraignment, Licata lingered behind, contemplating her past.
From a distance of just five rows of courtroom benches, she surveyed the man she claims abused her.
“I was just sitting there, staring at the back of his bald spot on the back of his head. I really wanted to be like, ‘hey, do you remember me?'”
Once Licata and Wild filed out of the courtroom and down to street level together, they were recognized – and a mob of reporters clamored around them, snapping their photos, filming them and shouting questions. Back in their waiting SUV, the two women, who had only just met hours earlier, collapsed in fits of laughter like old friends, and breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“I feel like this weight has been lifted off my shoulders today. We get to be on top,” Licata said emphatically, exhibiting a sense of self-confidence she says was forcibly stripped away from her by sexual exploitation and abuse. “Our stories are mattering.”
“If they are put in the right hands, the right people know about [them],” she said of hers and Wild’s stories, “something is actually gonna get done with it.”
Licata’s growing sense of hope, she said, may extend beyond her own case and transition her into advocating and speaking out for others. “We have something specific to serve others. We all have purpose.”
Wild, who at times was emotional throughout the day, had her own message to share: “If you are the victim of sexual abuse, your voice should be heard. Period.”
As their car crawled uptown in late afternoon traffic, the two women’s faces glowed in the light of their cell phones as they sat together in the backseat of the SUV and shared the photos they’d shot of each other and together that day.
One of their favorites is a photo of the pair standing in front of New York State’s Supreme Court building.
The words inscribed above the building’s entrance, now just above their smiling faces in the photo, reads “The True Administration of Justice Is the Firmest Pillar of Good Government.”
Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.