(Reuters) - Ghislaine Maxwell, the former girlfriend and longtime associate of the late disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, was arrested on Thursday on U.S. charges of luring underage girls so that Epstein could sexually abuse them.
The FBI arrest of the British socialite is the latest twist in the mystery of Epstein, who went from a high school math teacher to high-flying lifestyle of private Caribbean islands and powerful connections that his victims say allowed him to abuse minors with impunity.
Maxwell, 58, was arrested in Bradford, New Hampshire, where she had been laying low since December, the FBI said.
Maxwell appeared briefly by video from jail at a hearing in New Hampshire federal court, where a judge ordered her to face the criminal charges in New York. She did not enter a plea, and bail was not determined.
She spoke briefly, answering "yes" when asked if she knew her rights. Her lawyer, Larry Vogelman, declined further comment on her behalf.
Prosecutors said she was a flight risk and asked that she be detained without bail. They said she faces up to 35 years in prison.
She is charged with four criminal counts related to procuring and transporting minors for illegal sex acts and two of perjury, according to the indictment by federal prosecutors in New York.
"Maxwell was among Epstein's closest associates and helped him exploit girls who were as young as 14 years old," said acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss. "Maxwell played a critical role in helping Epstein to identify, befriend and groom minor victims for abuse. In some cases, Maxwell participated in the abuse herself."
Epstein was awaiting trial on federal charges of trafficking minors between 2002 and 2005 when he was found hanged in an apparent suicide while in a New York City jail in August. He was 66.
Previously, he pleaded guilty in Florida to state charges of solicitation of prostitution from a minor in a 2008 deal with prosecutors that was widely criticized as too lenient.
The indictment accuses Maxwell of luring the girls beginning in 1994 through 1997 by asking them about their lives, schools and families and taking them shopping or to movies.
Strauss called Maxwell's alleged acts "the prequel" to Epstein's abuse.
After Maxwell won the girls' trust, the indictment alleges, she would try to "normalize sexual abuse" by discussing sexual topics or by undressing in front of them or being present when they were undressed.
Epstein's alleged abuse included touching their genitals, placing sex toys on their genitals and having the girls touch Epstein while he masturbated.
Strauss said the abuse took place at Epstein's homes in New York, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Palm Beach, Florida, as well as Maxwell's residence in London.
PROSECUTORS SEEK ANSWERS
Epstein has been linked socially to several powerful figures, from President Donald Trump to former President Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew.
In June, then-U.S. Attorney for Manhattan Geoffrey Berman said Prince Andrew was evading their efforts to question him about his contacts with Epstein. Berman was fired later the same month.
"We would welcome Prince Andrew coming in to talk with us," Strauss said.
A source close to Andrew said his team was "bewildered" by Strauss's comments because they have twice communicated with the Department of Justice in the past month without a response.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in June there were no plans to extradite Andrew.
Investigators identified more than 15 bank accounts associated with Maxwell since 2016 with balances during that period that topped $20 million, according to court documents.
"For years, I feared Epstein and his ring," Jennifer Araoz, who has accused Maxwell of trafficking her for Epstein, said in a statement. "Today, my fellow Epstein survivors and I are able to take a breath of relief, as Maxwell’s arrest means some justice for survivors can exist."
Maxwell, the daughter of late British media magnate Robert Maxwell, has kept a low profile since Epstein's death.
She was an Epstein ex-girlfriend who became a longtime member of his inner circle. In a 2003 Vanity Fair article, Epstein was quoted as saying Maxwell was his best friend.
Since Epstein's arrest and death last year, questions have arisen over how he built his vast wealth, which exceeded $600 million before the recent stock market slump and included two privately owned Caribbean islands, multiple homes and one of the largest mansions in Manhattan.
The case is being handled by prosecutors in the public corruption unit. A spokesman declined to comment on why that unit would handle the case.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel, Karen Freifeld and Gabriella Borter in New York; Mark Hosenball and Sarah Lynch in Washington; Michael Holden in London; Writing by Tom Hals; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)