ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico’s attorney general urged officials Thursday to retake state trust land that had been leased to Jeffrey Epstein’s ranch, saying the financier’s bid for the scrubby, desert acreage meant for cattle grazing should not have been granted.
In a statement, Attorney General Hector Balderas accused Epstein of leasing the state land simply to build privacy around a multimillion-dollar estate on his own land – where distant peaks serve as a backdrop to an isolated hilltop mansion.
State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard, who announced last month she would pursue options for canceling Epstein’s leases, said she had already moved to have her office prepare cancellation notices. She said the attorney general’s assessment provided extra standing for her decision.
Epstein, 66, killed himself earlier this month in a New York jail cell while awaiting a sex trafficking trial. His New Mexico ranch, which records show is owned by his holding company Cypress Inc., is roughly 10,000 acres. A small portion of the ranch covers state trust land.
Balderas said it was not in the state’s interest to lease to Epstein, whose company ran few – if any – cattle on the trust land.
“The original leases to Epstein appear to have no beneficial use justification to the state,” Balderas said in an emailed statement. “This sweetheart deal must be canceled and reassigned to a New Mexico ranching family.”
A voicemail seeking comment at a number in leasing documents for Zorro Ranch, the name of Epstein’s New Mexico property, was not immediately returned.
The ranch was among several properties owned by Epstein, who also had homes in New York, Florida, Paris and the Virgin Islands.
One of Epstein’s accusers has said in a sworn affidavit that she was flown on Epstein’s private planes to his properties, including the one in New Mexico.
In a 2015 court filing in Florida, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Epstein said she had been abused at several locations, including the New Mexico property.
Garcia Richard said the allegations from women saying “they were trafficked to the Zorro Ranch” offered reason “to rip these leases in half and seize back this public land.”
Soon after Epstein’s arrest in New York in July, Balderas announced his office had opened its own investigation into the financier with plans to forward findings to federal authorities in New York. Epstein never faced criminal charges in New Mexico.
In a letter Thursday, Balderas outlined his recommendations to cancel Zorro Ranch’s leases to the public lands commissioner, who took office in January.
Balderas said his staff’s review of leasing documents provided by Garcia Richard led to his recommendations. Balderas faulted Garcia Richard’s predecessor Aubrey Dunn in his letter for renewing Epstein’s leases in October 2016.
Epstein began leasing the land in the early 1990s for about $2,000 per year, records show. The most recent leasing amount for the trust land wasn’t immediately known.
The documents Balderas reviewed included filings with State Public Lands Office on behalf of Epstein’s ranch that span decades. Multiple filings over the years, including one from 2016, said there were roughly 40 head of cattle at Zorro Ranch.
Epstein purchased Zorro Ranch outside the tiny town of Stanley from the family of former Gov. Bruce King, who died 10 years ago. The King family still owns land surrounding much of Epstein’s ranch near the tiny town of Stanley.
Aerial images of Epstein’s property show an airplane hangar and landing strip.
More than a decade ago, Zorro Ranch placed a vintage caboose on the trust land near a petroglyph site. That prompted a visit from state land officials who must approve changes to the publicly owned land.
State land officials wrote that a ranch hand was sent to escort them on and off the property for the visit, which seemed to raise concern.
“What is disconcerting is that a ranch escort is needed for personnel from this office to access cultural sites for general administrative fieldwork and/or educational uses,” the state officials wrote.
Earlier this week, Garcia Richard, the public lands commissioner, said she was blocked from reaching the state’s public trust land altogether, prompting her decision to advise attorneys to begin drafting the lease cancellation notices for the ranch.
This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Stephanie Garcia Richard’s last name from Richards.