Prominent French modelling agent Jean-Luc Brunel, a former close associate of disgraced American billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, has been detained in France on accusations of sex crimes, prosecutors said on Thursday.
Brunel was detained on Wednesday on accusations of rape, sexual assault of minors, human trafficking and being part of a criminal conspiracy, Paris prosecutors told AFP.
The news was welcomed by a lawyer for the alleged victims and a model who claimed she was raped by Brunel.
He was held at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport as he was about to take a plane to Senegal, a source close to the case added.
Epstein, who was arrested in New York in July on charges of trafficking underage girls for sex, was found hanged in his New York jail cell on August 10, 2019 while awaiting trial over abuses involving girls at his Palm Beach home and on his private island in the Caribbean.
His ownership of an apartment in an upmarket Paris district and allegations from women who say they were abused in France prompted French prosecutors to open an investigation of their own.
- 'Tears of joy' -
That probe has focused on Brunel, who was accused in American court documents of rape and of procuring young girls for his friend.
"The victims have long awaited the arrest of Jean-Luc Brunel. They welcome his detention with relief and with confidence in the legal process," said lawyer Anne-Claire Lejeune, who represents several victims.
Thysia Huisman, a former Dutch model who says she was drugged and raped by Brunel at the age of 18, hailed the arrest as "great news".
"I have tears of joy. Finally after all this time, justice is being done," she said.
Huisman said she was the first plaintiff to report Brunel to the authorities in 2019, and 11 other victims then came forwards. But these accusations risked never making it to court due to the statute of limitations.
"I hope the police has a new case with more recent victims. I am really happy with this news," she said.
- Longstanding claims -
Brunel's detention ends over a year of uncertainty and mystery over his whereabouts.
Now in his 70s, Brunel began his career as a model scout who in 1978 was involved in setting up the prestigious Karin Models agency.
He then moved to the United States where he co-founded the Miami-based agency MC2.
Brunel's lawyer in October 2019 said he vehemently rejected allegations made in the press but denied his client was on the run, insisting he was available for questioning.
French police last year raided the offices of Karin Models and searched Epstein's luxury Paris home not far from the Arc de Triomphe.
In US court documents, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, a key plaintiff against Epstein, accused the American tycoon of using her as a "sex slave" and said she had been forced to have sex with well-known politicians and businessmen, including Brunel.
She also alleged that Brunel would bring girls as young as 12 to the United States and pass them on to his friends, including Epstein.
These claims prompted a rare statement by Brunel in 2015 that itself broke years of silence in which he vehemently denied involvement, "directly or indirectly", in Epstein's crimes.
Long before the Epstein scandal broke, Brunel was accused of rape by several models in a 1988 documentary by CBS.
Meanwhile in a another case, Paris prosecutors in September opened an investigation into Gerald Marie, former European head of Elite Models, over a complaint by a former BBC journalist and claims of rape by three ex-models.