(NEW YORK) -- Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy financier and registered sex offender with a circle of rich and powerful friends, has been charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy, according to a federal indictment unsealed on Monday following his sudden arrest over the weekend.
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York allege that from about 2002 to 2005, Epstein, now 66, "sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes in Manhattan, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida, among other locations," using cash payments to recruit a "vast network of underage victims," some of whom were as young as 14 years old.
At a press conference on Monday morning, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman said "combating sex trafficking and exploitation of children is a priority" both for his office and for the Department of Justice.
"My office will not rest until perpetrators of these types of crimes are brought to justice," Berman said. "Victims' voices, including the many voices of Epstein's alleged victims, must be heard."
For Courtney Wild, who said she was abused by Epstein when she was a young girl, the indictment was long overdue. Wild has been fighting for years, through a lawsuit against the Department of Justice filed in 2008 in which she is identified as Jane Doe #1, to make public the details of the plea deal with government prosecutors that many critics say allowed Epstein to evade justice.
"Just to hear that they’re standing up for the victims," Wild told ABC News, "is just so overwhelmingly past due."
Epstein appeared in court on Monday afternoon, wearing navy blue prison garb, and pleaded not guilty as Wild and Michelle Licata, another of Epstein's alleged victims, were seated in the courtroom watching the proceedings.
"I started crying because it put me back into that place where I didn't want to be," Licata told ABC News outside the courtroom following the hearing. "But it was actually great to see him in that seat being asked questions."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Rossmiller characterized the government’s evidence as "strong," adding that several additional alleged victims have come forward since Epstein’s arrest at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey on Saturday evening.
If convicted, Epstein could face up to 45 years imprisonment, which prosecutors say would likely amount to a life sentence.
Monday's indictment highlights alleged incidents involving three minor girls -- identified only as Minor Victim-1, Minor Victim-2 and Minor Victim-3 -- in which Epstein paid them hundreds of dollars to provide "massages" that ultimately escalated into sexual encounters, and then later "encouraged or enticed" them to recruit other girls to do the same, thus maintaining "a steady supply of new victims."
Epstein also "worked and conspired with others," the indictment said, "including employees and associates who facilitated his conduct by, among other things, contacting victims and scheduling their sexual encounters with Epstein."
And on Monday morning, U.S. Attorney Berman told reporters at a press conference that authorities seized "nude photographs of what appear to be underage girls" while executing a search warrant at Epstein’s New York residence.
A 2008 plea deal
Epstein is a former Wall Street insider turned private wealth manager who rose to prominence in the early 2000s as a result of his high-profile social connections with various rich and famous people, including former President Bill Clinton and then-real estate mogul Donald Trump. He has since amassed a fortune of unknown size and origin, seemingly affording him a lavish lifestyle with few equals even among his powerful peers.
Clinton, through his press secretary, released a statement saying the former president "knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has recently [been] charged in New York."
More than a decade ago, Epstein served just 13 months of an 18 month sentence in county jail after reaching a much-criticized plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, then led by Alexander Acosta, who is now President Donald Trump’s labor secretary. The deal, which is currently under review by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, not only allowed Epstein to plead guilty to two state charges and avoid federal charges for an allegedly broad pattern of similar conduct, but also provided him and any alleged co-conspirators with immunity from further federal prosecution in the Southern District of Florida.
In the indictment, however, prosecutors argued that the alleged trafficking of minor girls occurred outside that jurisdiction, with Epstein allegedly abusing "numerous minor victims" at his Manhattan mansion and Epstein’s associates placing calls from New York to Florida to set up appointments for Epstein at his Palm Beach mansion.
At Monday’s hearing, Epstein’s defense attorney Reid Weingarten argued that this new indictment violated the spirit of Epstein’s previous agreement with the government, which he described as "the center of the universe for everything."
"It is our belief that this is basically a re-do," Weingarten told the judge. "This is basically the feds today, not happy with what happened in the decision that led to the NPA, redoing the same conduct that was investigated 10 years ago and calling it, instead of prostitution, calling it sex trafficking. We think that is the heart of everything, and that will be the centerpiece of our defense."
The government countered that "the investigation was begun and conducted entirely separate from any other district" and made clear that, for that reason among others, prosecutors "don’t think the NPA applies to us."
An "extreme" flight risk
Prosecutors argued that Epstein should be detained pending trial, and the judge set a detention hearing for July 15. Until then, Epstein will continue to be held at Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, which also currently houses former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
In a bail memorandum submitted to the court ahead of the hearing, prosecutors argued that Epstein not only poses an "extreme" flight risk -- especially since he owns several private residences, including one on a private island, and two private jets -- but that he also represents a danger to both the case and the community.
"The defendant is extraordinarily wealthy and has access to vast financial resources to fund any attempt to flee," the memo states. "Indeed, his potential avenues of flight from justice are practically limitless."
Prosecutors also cited "credible allegations that the defendant engaged in witness tampering, harassment or other obstructive behaviors" in connection with the previous federal investigation of his alleged conduct in Florida and noted some of the "vast trove of lewd photographs of young-looking women or girls" they discovered in their search of his Manhattan mansion were found in a locked safe, on compact discs with handwritten labels such as "Misc nudes 1" and "Girl pics nude."
"The defendant, a registered sex offender, is not reformed, he is not chastened, he is not repentant," the memo states. "Rather, he is a continuing danger to the community and an individual who faces devastating evidence supporting deeply serious charges."
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