A decade ago, Jeffrey Epstein, a politically connected multimillionaire, pleaded guilty to Florida state charges of soliciting prostitution to resolve allegations he molested dozens of girls. But that arrangement has been widely criticized as too lenient. As part of the deal, he had to spend just more than a year in jail and was allowed to leave daily for work, and he never faced any federal exposure.

On Monday, federal prosecutors unsealed new sex trafficking charges against Epstein, alleging he abused dozens of female minors at his Manhattan and Palm Beach, Fla., homes and enlisted his victims to expand a network of possible targets.

The new charges, described in an explosive 14-page indictment brought by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, could lead to a much harsher penalty than his previous one. Epstein is charged in a two-count indictment with sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy, for crimes alleged to have occurred between 2002 and 2005. He was arrested over the weekend and is expected to appear in federal court in Manhattan.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said at a news conference that Epstein faces the possibility of 45 years in prison and that prosecutors will seek to have him detained pending trial. The Justice Department is also seeking to seize Epstein’s mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where some of the alleged crimes occurred. Berman said investigators searched Epstein’s home Saturday after he was arrested and found “nude photographs of what appear to be underage girls.”

“The alleged behavior shocks the conscience,” Berman said, adding that Epstein’s victims were “particularly vulnerable.”

‘An ever-expanding web of new victims’

The U.S. attorney’s office said in a news release that Epstein created “a network and operation enabling him to sexually exploit and abuse dozens of underage girls” and that he paid victims to recruit other underage girls. The indictment alleges his victims were as young as 14 years old.

Epstein, according to the indictment, recruited the girls to perform “massages,” which would become “increasingly sexual in nature.” He then paid the victims hundreds of dollars in cash for each encounter, according to the indictment.

The indictment also alleges that Epstein “actively encouraged certain of his victims to recruit additional girls to be similarly sexually abused” and that he “incentivized his victims to become recruiters by paying these victim-recruiters hundreds of dollars for each girl they brought to Epstein.”

“This allowed Epstein to create an ever-expanding web of new victims,” Berman said.

Prosecutors described in graphic detail Epstein’s alleged crimes, explaining in the indictment how girls as young as 14 would arrive to one of his homes, be escorted to a room with a massage table, and then be instructed to partially or fully undress. Epstein, the indictment alleges, would grope the girls and perform other sex acts.

Epstein sometimes scheduled meetings himself, but often he “directed employees and associates ... to arrange for these victims to return to the New York Residence for additional sexual encounters with Epstein,” according to the indictment, which says three employees, identified only as Employee-1, Employee-2 and Employee-3, helped arrange the encounters.

When Epstein flew from New York to Florida, an employee or associate would “ensure that minor victims were available for encounters upon his arrival,” the indictment alleges.

It was not immediately clear whether any of those employees will face criminal charges over their alleged conduct, because Epstein’s previous plea deal struck with federal prosecutors in Florida said his co-conspirators would not be charged in that case. The New York indictment references Epstein’s conduct in Florida that was the basis of that earlier plea, but the new indictment appears to hinge principally on his alleged victims in New York. Berman declined to comment on possible criminal exposure anyone connected to Epstein might face.

Epstein’s past with the law

Epstein, now 66, is a financier who once counted among his friends President Trump and former president Bill Clinton. His alleged victims have long claimed the criminal justice system treated him differently because of his wealth and political connections, and his treatment has come under significant media and legal scrutiny.

Epstein’s alleged victims have sued in civil court. The Washington Post and the Miami Herald, for example, have detailed in investigative reports how then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, now Trump’s labor secretary, shelved a 53-page federal indictment that could have put Epstein behind bars for life in favor of the deal that allowed him to plead guilty only to state charges. Acosta has defended the arrangement as guaranteeing that Epstein would go to jail.

The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility revealed earlier this year that it was probing whether the attorneys handling the case previously committed “professional misconduct.” At the news conference, law enforcement officials credited the work of investigative journalists with helping move the case forward.

In the new case, Epstein seems to be encountering a far more aggressive Justice Department.

He was taken into custody over the weekend at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, where his private jet had just landed from Paris, and jailed pending his court appearance Monday. Federal prison records show he was housed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. The federal detention center has a fearsome reputation; one inmate who spent time there and at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba said the military detention facility was “more pleasant.”

A ‘mission to put predators behind bars’

The case is being handled by public corruption prosecutors with Berman’s office, including Maurene Comey, the daughter of former FBI director James B. Comey.

Officials pleaded at the news conference for other victims to come forward to call the FBI’s tip line: 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324). They said that while sex trafficking was often ignored, in their jurisdiction, it would not be.

“Too often, adults in our society have turned a blind eye to this type of criminal behavior,” said William Sweeney, head of the FBI’s office in New York. “I have the privilege to represent and stand among many who make it our mission to put predators behind bars where they belong, regardless of the predators’ power, wealth, or perceived connections.”

He added: “Today I’m asking everyone to take a good look at this man. If you have been victimized in any way, or if you are someone who has any additional information about his alleged illegal behavior, we want to hear from you.”

Prosecutors could run into challenges if the new charges overlap with the conduct that was covered by Epstein’s guilty plea, though a person familiar with the case said officials were not particularly concerned about that. Berman said at the news conference that his office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, had not signed on to the previous agreement by prosecutors in Florida and thus was not bound by it.

While the indictment alleges that Epstein abused dozens of girls, it describes the specific ordeals of three women whom it says Epstein repeatedly abused over years.

Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), who confronted Acosta about his role in the plea deal during a congressional hearing, said: “For too long, Jeffrey Epstein has walked free and avoided the consequences of his crime. There are still many questions to be answered. With that said, this indictment is a positive step toward putting this sexual predator away and giving justice to the survivors.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Epstein “should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law — power and wealth be damned. This man is a monster and his victims deserve justice.”

Merle reported from New York. Kimberly Kindy contributed to this report.

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