The FBI said it was probing the death of alleged billionaire sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein while in custody early Saturday. His apparent suicide raised immediate calls for an investigation and spawned a multitude of conspiracy theories.
“The FBI is investigating the incident,” said the bureau, adding that Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center “from an apparent suicide.”
For many, the death — apparently by his own hand while supposedly under a 24-hour suicide watch after a similar attempt in recent weeks — appeared too suspicious and too convenient for the many rich and powerful who could have been implicated had his trial gone ahead.
Officials later said he had been taken off suicide watch a day before he killed himself.
Attorney General William Barr said he was “appalled” to learn of Epstein’s death while in federal custody. “Mr. Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered,” Barr said in a statement.
“If we were living in a paranoid fantasy universe, I would be very suspicious about the Epstein suicide, even about whether it was really suicide. And you know what? The Epstein case itself shows that we *are* kind of living in a paranoid fantasy universe,” tweeted Paul Krugman, The New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist.
Epstein, whose friends have included President Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton, Britain’s Prince Andrew and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, was convicted previously of paying young girls for sexual massages at his Palm Beach mansion.
But he avoided federal prosecution under a plea deal that required Epstein to admit to a single Florida state charge of soliciting prostitution from a minor and register as a sex offender.
Unbelievable and suspicious. https://t.co/fohGJRux0W
— Bret Stephens (@BretStephensNYT) August 10, 2019
He served 13 months in a county jail before being released in 2009.
Last month, Alex Acosta resigned as US labor secretary amid a backlash over the deal that he negotiated with Epstein in that case while he was a federal prosecutor in Florida.
“That Jeffrey Epstein could commit suicide after being on suicide watch defies belief. There are many powerful men who wanted him dead, and their secrets to die with him. Epstein epitomized the sickness in the souls of so many men,” wrote author and journalist Tony Schwartz, who ghost wrote Trump’s Art of the Deal.
The New York Fire Department said it received a call at 6:39 a.m. Saturday that Epstein was in cardiac arrest, and he was pronounced dead at New York Presbyterian-Lower Manhattan Hospital.
The medical examiner’s office in Manhattan confirmed Epstein’s death, but said it was still investigating the cause.
Authorities couldn’t keep Epstein alive by putting him under 24 hour surveillance? How convenient for a lot of rich and powerful men.
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) August 10, 2019
At the very least it raised questions about how the Bureau of Prisons ensures the welfare of high-profile inmates. In October, Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was killed in a federal prison in West Virginia where had just been transferred.
The Justice Department and the federal Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.
“We need answers. Lots of them,” tweeted New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Cameron Lindsay, a former warden who ran three federal lockups, said the death represents “an unfortunate and shocking failure, if proven to be a suicide.”
“Unequivocally, he should have been on active suicide watch and therefore under direct and constant supervision,” Lindsay said. “When you have an inmate as high profile as Epstein, it’s absolutely imperative the warden set the tone with his or her leadership to ensure these kinds of incidents don’t happen.”
Florida Congresswoman Lois Frankel called for investigations to continue.
“The death of Jeffrey Epstein does not end the need for justice for his victims or the right of the public to know why a prolific child molester got a slap on the wrist instead of a long prison sentence,” she wrote. “With the obvious end to criminal proceedings against Epstein, it is important that the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform begin its investigation immediately.
Prosecutors said Epstein sexually exploited dozens of underage teenagers, some as young as 14, at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, between 2002 and 2005.
They claim that Epstein was “well aware that many of the victims were minors.”
The girls were paid hundreds of dollars in cash to massage him, perform sexual acts and to recruit other girls, prosecutors allege.
Epstein was also accused of paying off possible co-conspirators to “influence” them, US media have reported.
One of Epstein’s accusers, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, says Epstein and his then-partner Ghislaine Maxwell turned her into a sex slave when she was 17. Giuffre has also accused Epstein and Maxwell of directing her to have sex with the well-known Jewish lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who helped Epstein secure his controversial 2007 plea deal.
Dershowitz has denied being involved in the sex crimes. He wrote in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he will continue to defend clients like Epstein.
Besides Dershowitz, several other prominent Jews were connected to Epstein, including Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder of the L Brands clothing conglomerate (formerly Limited Brands) who trusted Epstein to manage his money.
Last week, Wexner, whose foundation focuses on cultivating Jewish professional leaders, said that Epstein had “misappropriated vast sums of money” from him.
“I am embarrassed that, like so many others, I was deceived by Mr. Epstein. I know now that my trust in him was grossly misplaced, and I deeply regret having ever crossed his path,” Wexner said in a letter to his foundation.
Before his legal troubles, Epstein led a life of extraordinary luxury that drew powerful people into his orbit.
He socialized with princes and presidents and lived on a 100-acre private island in the Caribbean and one of the biggest mansions in New York. A college dropout, he became a sought-after benefactor of professors and scientists, donating millions of dollars in donations to Harvard University and other causes.
Still, it was never entirely clear how the middle-class Brooklyn math whiz became a Wall Street master of high finance.