The arrest Thursday in the U.S. state of New Hampshire of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite and long-time friend of the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, is ringing legal alarm bells thousands of miles away in Buckingham Palace, former royal advisers say.
Maxwell, 58, has long been wanted for questioning by the FBI over allegations that she supplied underage girls to Epstein and his closest friends, including Prince Andrew, reputedly the favorite son of Queen Elizabeth.
Maxwell has publicly denied procuring girls for Epstein and his circle of intimates. Andrew, also known as the Duke of York, was forced to step down in November from public life over his friendship with Epstein amid allegations that he'd had sex with a 17-year-old girl who had been arranged for him by Maxwell. The prince has denied the claim.
Elizabeth's legal advisers will be trying to assess what ramifications Maxwell's arrest may entail for the beleaguered 60-year-old prince, a former Buckingham Palace official told VOA.
Maxwell was charged by New York federal prosecutors Thursday with six counts in connection with an ongoing investigation into Epstein's accomplices, according to court documents, including enticement and conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, transportation and conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, and two counts of perjury.
"In particular, from at least in or about 1994, up to and including at least in or about 1997, Maxwell assisted, facilitated, and contributed to Jeffrey Epstein's abuse of minor girls by, among other things, helping Epstein to recruit, groom, and ultimately abuse victims known to Maxwell and Epstein to be under the age of 18," the indictment states.
Epstein was found dead last year in a New York prison cell, where he was being held on charges of trafficking girls as young as 14 years old. His death, ruled a suicide, has not stopped a wide-ranging federal probe that is drawing in Epstein's friends.
The prince has been locked in a transatlantic dispute since January with U.S. prosecutors who say he has failed to assist them in their long-running probe into Epstein's history of sexual abuse, and the possible complicity of others, despite the prince's pledges to do so.
"Certainly, the worry will be that Andrew will be thrust back into the glare of the public spotlight, and that the arrest will embolden the federal prosecutors to press for Andrew's cooperation," a former palace official said. "This does risk wider political ramifications, including Britain's political relations with the U.S, as well as how the British public will view the royal family moving forward," he added.
The deepening Epstein saga is adding to the mounting woes buffeting Britain's royals. Buckingham Palace is also focused on trying to contain the fallout from the decision last year by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to move to the United States and carve out an independent life for themselves free from the protocol constraints of royal life.
The palace is braced for a string of upcoming books on the so-called "Megxit" of the young couple from royal life. The pair reportedly assisted some of the authors, and the lurid revelations are likely to deepen an alleged widening rift between royal family members, including between the Duke and his elder brother, Prince William - the sons of Prince Charles, the heir apparent.
Hours before Maxwell's arrest, Britain's media was focused on claims by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, that she felt shut out by the royal family and that the palace failed to protect her while she was pregnant with her first child, Archie, in 2019.
The claim was made in documents released as part of a High Court battle between the duchess and the Daily Mail newspaper, which she is suing for breach of privacy.
Andrew's legal woes - as well as the semi-public squabbling between members of the royal family, nicknamed "the firm" - is shaping up to turn 2020 into a year comparable to the series of troubles that rocked Buckingham Palace in 1992, which the queen dubbed an "annus horribilis" (horrible year).
That year included the public breakup of the Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and disclosures about their infidelities, followed by a fire at Windsor Castle that destroyed large parts of the 11th century building.
In June, the U.S. Department of Justice invoked America's Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with Britain, a rare legal move, to demand a formal face-to-face interview with Andrew. British media reports suggest that so far, Andrew has only offered to provide written answers to questions posed by federal prosecutors - and to do so without taking an oath.
He has publicly denied any wrongdoing and dismissed allegations that he slept with Virginia Roberts Giuffre at the billionaire's luxury apartments in London and New York and at his Caribbean retreat when she was a teenager.
Asked during a Fox News interview last month whether the U.S. would officially ask Britain to hand over the duke for questioning, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said there were no plans to seek his extradition.
"I don't think it's a question of handing him over. I think it's just a question of having him provide some evidence," he said.
Andrew's friendship with Epstein first came under intense scrutiny in 2010 when photographs emerged of the two together in New York when Epstein was already a registered sex offender. The prince, who has been accused in the past of forming ill-judged friendships and had a reputation as a hard-partying royal when younger, said in a BBC interview last year that he only visited Epstein at the time to tell him their friendship was over.
The 45-minute TV interview, in which he failed to express sympathy for the teenagers trafficked and exploited by Epstein, was widely condemned and prompted a backlash from businesses sponsoring his charities. The immediate impact was Andrew's announcement he was stepping down from royal duties - a move reportedly insisted on by his elder brother Charles during a family conference.
Speaking at a press conference in New York, U.S. Deputy District Attorney Audrey Strauss said she would not comment on the status of Andrew in the investigation, but added, "We would welcome Prince Andrew coming in and speaking with us."