Financier Jeffrey Epstein could face 45 years in prison after US federal prosecutors accused him of abusing dozens of teenage girls as young as 14.
- Mr Epstein was accused of recruiting underage girls to perform massages before molesting them
- He denied the charges against him, with his legal team arguing the matter was settled in a controversial plea deal
- The plea deal saw Mr Epstein registered as a sex offender and serve 13 months in prison, avoiding a possible life sentence
The 66-year-old former hedge fund manager, who once socialised with some of the world’s most powerful people, was charged in a newly unsealed indictment with sex trafficking and conspiracy.
Prosecutors said the evidence included a “vast trove” of possibly thousands of lewd photographs of young women or girls, discovered in a search of his New York mansion.
Mr Epstein, who was arrested over the weekend as he arrived in the US from Paris aboard his private jet, was brought into court Monday in a blue jail uniform, his hair dishevelled, and pleaded not guilty.
His lawyers argued that the matter had been settled in 2008 with a plea agreement in Florida involving similar allegations.
“This is ancient stuff,” Mr Epstein’s lawyer Reid Weingarten said in court, calling the case a “redo” by the Government.
Mr Epstein was ordered jailed for a bail hearing next Monday, when prosecutors plan to argue that as a regular traveller with vast wealth he might flee if released.
He was accused of paying underage girls hundreds of dollars in cash for massages and then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York from 2002 through 2005.
He “intentionally sought out minors and knew that many of his victims were in fact under the age of 18”, prosecutors said.
He also allegedly paid some of his victims to recruit other girls.
“In this way, Epstein created a vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit in locations including New York and Palm Beach,” prosecutors said.
Accusers ‘deserve their day in court’
US Attorney Geoffrey Berman of New York said that the non-prosecution agreement that spared Mr Epstein from a heavy prison sentence a decade ago was binding only on federal prosecutors in Florida, where the deal was made, not on authorities in New York.
“While the charged conduct is from a number of years ago, it is still profoundly important to the many alleged victims — now young women,” Mr Berman said.
“They deserve their day in court.
“We are proud to be standing up for them by bringing this indictment.”
Assistant US Attorney Alex Rossmiller said that while there was some overlap between the Florida and New York cases, one of the counts against Mr Epstein was based entirely on alleged New York victims.
Federal authorities said new accusers had come forward since Mr Epstein’s arrest, and they urged other possible victims to contact the FBI.
Some of Mr Epstein’s accusers welcomed the indictment.
“The news of my abuser’s arrest today is a step in the right direction to finally hold Mr Epstein accountable for his crimes and restore my faith that power and money can’t triumph over justice,” Sarah Ransome said through her lawyer.
Brad Edwards, a lawyer representing some of Epstein’s accusers, told Reuters on Sunday that he had taken many calls from “victims crying tears of joy” since news broke of Mr Epstein’s arrest.
“One just kept repeating that she was so happy he was finally off the streets,” he said.
Sex offender with ‘enormous wealth’
Prosecutors in New York are seeking the forfeiture of Mr Epstein’s mansion, a seven-story, 1,951-square-metre townhouse less than a block from Central Park.
The home, formerly a prep school, is across the street from a home owned by Bill Cosby and has been valued at about $110 million.
Mr Epstein, who is unmarried and whose friends have included President Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince Andrew, was arrested Saturday at an airport in New Jersey, just outside New York City.
Prosecutors said they would oppose his release on bail.
“He has enormous wealth,” Mr Berman said.
“The charges are very serious and carry with them a maximum sentence of 45 years, which to someone of Epstein’s age is basically a life sentence, so we think he has every incentive to try and flee the jurisdiction.”
Mr Epstein’s arrest came amid increased #MeToo-era scrutiny of the 2008 non-prosecution agreement that allowed Mr Epstein to maintain his jet-set lifestyle, which includes homes in France and the US Virgin Islands.
Secret plea deal slashed jail time
Under the once-secret deal — overseen by Alexander Acosta, who was the US lawyer in Miami at the time and is now Mr Trump’s Labor Secretary — Mr Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution.
He avoided a possible life sentence and served 13 months in jail, during which he was allowed out to go to his office during the day.
The deal also required that he reach financial settlements with dozens of his alleged victims and register as a sex offender.
Mr Acosta has defended the agreement as appropriate, though the White House said in February that it was looking into his handling of the case.
The new charges were brought by the public corruption unit within the US Attorney’s office in New York, which normally handles cases against politicians.
Mr Berman would not comment on why that was so and cautioned against reading anything into it.
Attorney-General William Barr declined to comment on Mr Epstein’s case and would not offer an opinion on whether federal prosecutors mishandled it initially, saying he had recused himself from the matter.
According to court records in Florida, authorities allege at least 40 underage girls were brought into Mr Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion for sexual encounters after being recruited around the world.
The non-prosecution agreement, examined in detail in a series of stories in The Miami Herald, is being challenged in federal court in Florida.
This agreement granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators” involved in the case without identifying them, The Miami Herald reported.
A federal judge ruled earlier this year that Mr Epstein’s victims should have been consulted under the law about the agreement, and he is now weighing whether to invalidate it.
Federal prosecutors recently filed court papers in the Florida case contending the deal must stand.
“The past cannot be undone; the Government committed itself to the NPA, and the parties have not disputed that Epstein complied with its provisions,” prosecutors wrote.
Powerful connections in the spotlight
Some of Mr Epstein’s alleged victims have accused Prince Andrew and former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz with taking part in Mr Epstein’s sex ring.
Buckingham Palace has vehemently denied any involvement by Prince Andrew, and Mr Dershowitz has accused the victims of lying about him.
News of Mr Epstein’s arrest prompted discussion of the registered sex offender’s relationships with powerful political figures on social media, particularly Mr Clinton and Mr Trump.
Mr Trump told New York Magazine in 2002 that Mr Epstein was a “terrific guy” who “likes beautiful women as much as I do”.
Old photos of the President with Mr Epstein were shared on Twitter, as was a video of Mr Trump having a man removed from one of his rallies in 2018 for holding up an image of the pair together.
Mr Clinton’s connections with Mr Epstein was also condemned, after Fox News reported that he travelled on the sex offender’s private jet, dubbed the “Lolita Express” by US media.
The former president, along with actors Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker, used Mr Epstein’s private jet to tour Africa for what Politico referred to as “AIDS-fighting and development work”.
Fox News reported that flight records confirmed Mr Clinton travelled with Mr Epstein on 26 trips.
Mr Clinton has since released a statement denying he knew of Mr Epstein’s “terrible crimes”, saying he had not spoken to the sex offender in “well over a decade”.