Federal prosecutors on Monday charged billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein with abusing dozens of underage girls as young as 14.
The hedge fund manager, 66, who once socialised with some of the world’s most powerful people, was charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy, and could get up to 45 years in prison if found guilty.
Prosecutors said the evidence included hundreds or even thousands of lewd photographs of young women or girls, which they said were found in a search of his New York mansion.
Epstein, who was arrested over the weekend as he arrived in the US from Paris aboard his private jet, was taken into court on 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,” Epstein’s lawyer, Reid Weingarten, said in court, calling the case a “redo” by the government.
The defendant was ordered to be jailed for a bail hearing next Monday, when prosecutors plan to argue that the rich world traveller might flee if released.
Epstein 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 between 2002 and 2005.
He “intentionally sought out minors and knew that many of his victims were in fact under the age of 18”, prosecutors said.
Epstein was also said to have paid some of his victims to recruit additional 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.
US Attorney Geoffrey Berman of New York said the non-prosecution agreement that spared Epstein from a heavy prison sentence a decade ago is binding only on federal prosecutors in Florida, where the deal was made, not 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 Epstein is based entirely on New York victims.
Federal authorities said new accusers have come forward since his arrest, and they urged other possible victims to contact the FBI.
Some of Epstein’s accusers welcomed the indictment.
Prosecutors in New York are seeking the forfeiture of his mansion, a seven-storey, 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 $77 million (Dh282.8m).
Epstein, who is not married 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.”
Epstein’s arrest came amid increased #MeToo-era scrutiny of the 2008 non-prosecution agreement, which allowed him to maintain his lifestyle, which included a Bentley and homes in Paris and the US Virgin Islands, where he owns an island.
Under the once-secret deal – overseen by Alexander Acosta, who was the US attorney in Miami at the time and is now the US Labour Secretary – 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 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 of 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 warned against reading anything into it.
Attorney General William Barr declined to comment on Epstein’s case and would not say whether federal prosecutors mishandled it initially, saying he has recused himself from the matter.
According to court records in Florida, authorities say at least 40 underage girls were taken into Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion for sexual encounters after being recruited around the world.
The non-prosecution agreement, examined in detail in stories by The Miami Herald, is being challenged in federal court in Florida.
A federal judge ruled this year that Epstein’s victims should have been consulted under the law about the agreement, and he is now considering whether to invalidate it.
Federal prosecutors recently filed court papers in the Florida case contending the deal must stand.
“The past cannot be undone,” prosecutors wrote. “The government committed itself to the NPA and the parties have not disputed that Epstein complied with its provisions.”