NEW YORK – In a startling reversal of fortune, billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein was charged Monday with sexually abusing dozens of underage girls in a case brought more than a decade after he secretly cut a deal with federal prosecutors to dispose of nearly identical allegations.
The 66-year-old hedge fund manager who once socialized with some of the world’s most powerful people was charged in a newly unsealed federal indictment with sex trafficking and conspiracy during the early 2000s. He could get up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
The case sets the stage for another #MeToo-era trial fraught with questions of wealth and influence. Epstein’s powerful friends over the years have included President Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince Andrew.
Prosecutors said the evidence against Epstein included a "vast trove" of hundreds or even thousands of lewd photographs of young women or girls, discovered in a weekend search of his New York City mansion. Authorities also found papers and phone records corroborating the alleged crimes, and a massage room still set up the way accusers said it appeared, prosecutors said.
Epstein, who was arrested Saturday as he arrived in the U.S. from Paris aboard his private jet, was brought into court Monday in a blue jail uniform, his hair disheveled, and pleaded not guilty. He was jailed for a bail hearing next Monday, when prosecutors plan to argue that the rich world traveler might flee if released.
His lawyers argued that the sex-crime allegations had been settled in 2008 with a plea agreement in Florida that was overseen by Alexander Acosta, who was the U.S. attorney in Miami at the time and is now Trump’s labor secretary.
"This is ancient stuff," Epstein attorney Reid Weingarten said in court, calling the case essentially a "redo" by the government.
But U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of New York said that the non-prosecution agreement that spared Epstein from a heavy prison sentence a decade ago is binding only on federal prosecutors in Florida, not on authorities in New York.
The alleged victims "deserve their day in court," Berman said. "We are proud to be standing up for them by bringing this indictment."
Epstein was accused in the indictment of paying underage girls hundreds of dollars in cash for massages and then molesting them at his homes in Palm Beach, 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 paid some of his victims to recruit additional girls, creating "a vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit," prosecutors said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Rossmiller said that while there is some overlap between the Florida and New York cases, one of the counts is based entirely on New York victims.
Federal authorities said new accusers have come forward since Epstein’s arrest, and they urged other possible victims to contact the FBI.
Some of Epstein’s accusers welcomed the indictment.
"The news of my abuser’s arrest today is a step in the right direction to finally hold Epstein accountable for his crimes and restore my faith that power and money can’t triumph over justice," Sarah Ransome said through her lawyer.
Prosecutors in New York are seeking the forfeiture of Epstein’s mansion, a seven-story, 21,000-square-foot 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 approximately $77 million.
Epstein’s arrest came amid increased #MeToo-era scrutiny of the 2008 non-prosecution agreement, which caused a furor in recent years as the details came to light, many of them exposed in a series of stories by The Miami Herald.
Under the deal, Epstein was allowed to plead 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.
"The last couple of years have helped build this environment where the public isn’t willing to see these cases swept under the rug anymore," said Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, the anti-sexual violence organization.
"I also think there was such outrage over the sentence that he got and what seemed like a very special deal that he got the first time. So I think similar to the first attempt to prosecute Cosby, I think there was a lot of public outrage at justice not being done. And so that helped lead the drive."
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 U.S. attorney’s office in New York, which normally handles cases against politicians. Berman would not say why that was done. Attorney General William Barr declined to comment on Epstein’s case, saying he has recused himself from the matter.
Former federal prosecutor David Weinstein agreed that the non-prosecution deal applies only to federal prosecutors in the Florida, not those in New York.
Authorities in Florida have said at least 40 underage girls were brought into Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion for sexual purposes after being recruited around the world.
Some of the alleged victims have accused Prince Andrew and former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz of taking part in Epstein’s sex ring. Buckingham Palace has vehemently denied any involvement by Andrew, and Dershowitz has accused the victims of lying about him.
The non-prosecution agreement is being challenged in court in Florida. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that Epstein’s victims should have been consulted under the law about the agreement, and he is now weighing whether to throw it out.
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.
Prosecutors said they would oppose Epstein’s release on bail. The defendant owns airplanes as well as homes in Paris and on a Caribbean island.
"He has enormous wealth. 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," Berman said, "so we think he has every incentive to try and flee the jurisdiction."