Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein pleads not guilty to sex-trafficking claims that 'shock the conscience'

Kevin McCoy, John Bacon and Jorge L. Ortiz

NEW YORK – Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire financier, philanthropist and registered sex offender who eluded lengthy prison time in the past, pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of sex-trafficking girls as young as 14.

A federal indictment unsealed Monday charged that Epstein "sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes" in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, along with other locations. Epstein paid some of his victims to recruit more underage girls, according to the indictment.

The charges – one count of sex trafficking and one count of sex-trafficking conspiracy – stem from accusations dating to 2002-2005. Epstein entered his plea in federal court in Manhattan, where he appeared Monday afternoon in a blue jail uniform.

"This conduct, as alleged, went on for years," Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a news conference. "The alleged behavior shocks the conscience."

Berman said convictions could result in up to 45 years in jail. His office asked Judge Henry Pitman to keep Epstein in custody until trial. Epstein will have to remain in jail at least until a bail hearing scheduled for next Monday.

“When you have two planes and spend much of the year abroad, we think that is a significant risk” of flight to avoid prosecution, Berman said.

Court documents raised the government's concern, based on what it called previous experience with Epstein, that if allowed to remain free on bail, he "could attempt to pressure and intimidate witnesses and potential witnesses in this case, including victims and their families, and otherwise attempt to obstruct justice.''

Prosecutors said Epstein has shown no remorse for his crimes.

Epstein, 66, rose to prominence almost two decades ago and at various times could list Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Kevin Spacey and Great Britain's Prince Andrew among friends and associates. He was arrested Saturday and jailed after his private jet arrived from France.

Learn more: Who is Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire charged with sex trafficking girls as young as 14?

The charges come 11 years after Epstein avoided what could have been a lengthy prison sentence when he pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting and procuring a person under 18 for prostitution.

Jeffrey Epstein faces charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy.

Under a non-prosecution agreement overseen by federal authorities in Florida, Epstein served a 13-month jail sentence but was allowed to spend much of it in work release at his Palm Beach office. He settled with dozens of victims and was required to register as a sex offender.

U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, the U.S. attorney in Miami at the time, defended his handling of the case. Berman said federal prosecutors in New York did not sign that agreement and are not bound by it.

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Epstein's lawyers argued that the matter had been settled a decade ago with the plea deal in Florida. “This is ancient stuff,” Epstein attorney Reid Weingarten said Monday in court, calling the case essentially a “redo” by the government.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Rossmiller said that although there is some overlap between the Florida and New York cases, one of the counts against Epstein is based entirely on New York victims. Authorities said new accusers have come forward since Epstein's arrest.

“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, one of Epstein's accusers, said through her lawyer.

The indictment claims Epstein "incentivized his victims" by paying them hundreds of dollars for each additional girl they recruited. Encounters with his victims would begin with a "massage" before Epstein would “escalate the nature and scope of physical contact with his victim,” the indictment says.

It says unnamed employees of Epstein aided in scheduling the girls.

Prosecutors said a search of Epstein's Manhattan mansion after his arrest turned up a ''vast trove'' of nude photos of what appeared to be underage girls. Officials said in court papers that the pictures included some on CDs with handwritten labels, including “Misc nudes 1,” “Girl pics nude” and the names of specific young women.

Prosecutors seek forfeiture of the mansion, which has been valued at $77 million.

Berman and William Sweeney, assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York office, urged victims unknown to prosecutors to come forward.

“You should know that, in the eyes of the FBI, you come first,” Sweeney said. "Those who have been victimized by child sexual predators are frequently haunted by memories of these crimes well into adulthood, often for the rest of their lives."

Last week, a federal appeals judge ruled that some sealed court records that accused Epstein and others of participating in an underage sex-trafficking ring must be made public.

A lawsuit filed by Virginia Giuffre, who identified herself as one of the victims, alleged that Epstein and a friend named Ghislaine Maxwell sexually trafficked her to Epstein's friends, including famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, who was a lawyer for the financier.

Maxwell and Dershowitz denied the allegations.

Epstein's case emerged in the public eye late last year after an investigation into the Epstein case published by the Miami Herald. The Herald and lead reporter Julie K. Brown have drawn accolades for their work, but Brown dismissed the buzz in a Twitter post Sunday.

"I know there is a lot of praise on here for the Herald and myself," she tweeted. "But I have to say the the REAL HEROES HERE were the courageous victims that faced their fears and told their stories."

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein pleads not guilty to sex-trafficking claims that 'shock the conscience'