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Financier Jeffrey Epstein charged with molesting dozens of girls

Eleven years after letting Jeffrey Epstein off lightly with a secret deal, federal prosecutors made another run at putting the billionaire financier behind bars on sex charges, accusing him Monday of abusing dozens of underage girls as young as 14.

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 indictment with sex trafficking and conspiracy and could get up to 45 years in prison.

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 mansion after his arrest.

Epstein, who was arrested over the weekend as he arrived in the U.S. from Paris aboard his private jet, was brought into court in the afternoon in a blue jail uniform, his hair disheveled, and pleaded not guilty. His lawyers argued that the matter had been settled a decade ago with a plea agreement in Florida involving similar allegations.

He was ordered jailed at least until a bail hearing Thursday, when prosecutors planned to argue that the world traveler might flee -- or try to intimidate witnesses -- 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 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 allegedly 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.

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, where the deal was made, not on authorities 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," Berman said. "They deserve their day in court. We are proud to be standing up for them by bringing this indictment."

The federal prosecutor urged other possible victims to contact the FBI.

It was not immediately clear whether the Florida case and the new charges involved the same victims, since nearly all have remained anonymous.

Prosecutors in the New York case 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, who is unmarried 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. He was being held at the federal lockup in Manhattan.

Berman said prosecutors would oppose his release on bail.

"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."

Epstein's arrest came amid increased #MeToo-era scrutiny of the 2008 non-prosecution agreement that allowed Epstein to maintain his jet-set lifestyle that includes a Bentley and homes in Paris and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he owns an island.

Under the once-secret deal -- overseen by Alexander Acosta, who was the U.S. attorney in Miami at the time and is now Trump's labor secretary -- Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting and procuring a person under 18 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.

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 comment on why that was so, and he cautioned against reading anything into it.

According to court records in Florida, authorities say at least 40 underage girls were brought into Epstein's Palm Beach mansion for sexual encounters after being recruited around the world.

Some of Epstein's alleged victims have accused Prince Andrew and former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz with taking part in Epstein's sex ring in London, New York and the Caribbean. Buckingham Palace has vehemently denied any involvement by Andrew, and Dershowitz has accused the victims of lying about him.

The non-prosecution agreement, examined in detail in a series of stories in The Miami Herald, is being challenged in federal 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 invalidate it.

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.

Epstein's guilty plea involved only state crimes, while the current case involves federal law. As a result, his constitutional protection against double jeopardy does not apply.

Associated Press writers Ali Swenson, Colleen Long, Curt Anderson and Tom Hays contributed to this report.