The billionaire financier, Jeffrey Epstein, on Monday pleaded not guilty after formally being accused of luring dozens of girls as young as 14 to his luxury homes in New York and Florida and paying them for sex acts.
The charges comes almost 15 years after Epstein was first investigated after police in Florida received reports he had sexually abused underage girls in his mansion.
Epstein, 66, who escaped serious punishment on federal prostitution charges in 2008, is known for socialising with politicians and royalty, and friends have included US president Donald Trump and ex-president Bill Clinton. He has also counted Prince Andrew among his associates.
What happened on Monday?
Prosecutors with the US Attorney’s Office in New York filed a 14-page grand jury indictment accusing Epstein of paying dozens of girls as young as 14 to engage in sex acts with him in his homes in New York and Florida between 2002 and 2005.
He “conspired with others” to sexually abuse and exploit the girls, and paid his victims to recruit others, court documents allege.
The hedge fund manager was charged with child sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking.
Prosecutors said the evidence included a “vast trove” of hundreds or even thousands of lewd photographs of young women or girls, discovered in a search of his New York home.
US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said at a press conference agents discovered the photos while executing a search warrant following Epstein’s arrest.
Epstein, who was arrested over the weekend as he arrived in the US from Paris aboard his private jet, pleaded not guilty.
He has said in earlier court filings that his encounters with alleged victims were consensual and that he believed they were 18 when they occurred.
The defendant will remain in jail until a bail hearing, when prosecutors planned to argue that the world traveller might flee, or try to intimidate witnesses, if released. He faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
Epstein’s links to the famous and powerful
Epstein’s arrest came amid increased #MeToo-era scrutiny of the 2008 non-prosecution agreement that allowed him to maintain his jet-set lifestyle that includes a Bentley and homes in Paris and the US Virgin Islands, where he owns an island.
As the saga moves back into public view, famous names in politics and business are likely to come under the spotlight.
Trump, a one-time member of Epstein’s social set, told New York magazine in 2002 he was a “terrific guy” he had known for 15 years.
“He’s a lot of fun to be with,” Trump said. “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Clinton often flew in Epstein’s private plane and visited his island. Neither are mentioned in the indictment.
Berman declined to discuss media speculation about people affiliated or associated with Epstein, telling reporters: “I urge you not to read into that one way or the other.”
The Miami Herald cast new light on Epstein’s abuses in a three-part expose in November and identified 80 women who said he abused them.
Its investigation revealed Epstein’s friendships, private meetings and other ties with famous people.
In court filings, the FBI identified more than 100 of his victims, according to the Herald.
Prosecutors in New York are seeking the forfeiture of Epstein’s mansion, a seven-storey, 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 US$77m.
In 2005, police in Palm Beach, Florida, received reports that Epstein had sexually abused underage girls in his home in the area.
Two years on, Epstein was facing a potential indictment for sexually abusing dozens of girls between 1999 and 2007, directing others to abuse them, and paying employees to bring victims to him, according to court filings.
However, Epstein struck a deal to plead guilty in 2008 to a lesser Florida state felony prostitution charge. He served 13 months in a county jail, but was allowed to leave during the day to go to his office, and agreed to register as a sex offender.
Prosecutors involved in that agreement, which has been criticised by Epstein’s accusers, included Alex Acosta, then the US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and now a member of Trump’s Cabinet.
In February, a federal judge in Florida called the deal illegal. Even so, the Department of Justice said in a June court filing that there was no reason to cancel it.
The indictment alleges Epstein engaged in a twisted ritual of abuse.
He would have girls escorted to one of his homes, according to the document, where they would be forced to perform massages on him and engage in sexual behavior. He would then allegedly pay them hundreds of dollars.
“Epstein incentivised his victims to become recruiters by paying these victim recruiters hundreds of dollars for each girl that they brought,” the indictment states.
“In so doing, Epstein maintained a steady supply of new victims to exploit.”
Prosecutors said the encounters would become increasingly sexual in nature, sometimes including groping and indirect contact with victims’ genitals, where Epstein would typically masturbate and ask victims to touch him while he did.
Three unnamed employees, one in Manhattan and two in Palm Beach, aided Epstein by arranging some of his sexual encounters, the indictment said.