The death Saturday morning of financier Jeffrey Epstein, an accused sex trafficker with connections to some of the most powerful people in the world, represents a perfect storm in the world of conspiracy theories.
Epstein was found unconscious in his cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center — the federal jail in downtown Manhattan — and pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The MCC is one of the most secure jails in the country, and Epstein, following an earlier suicide attempt, was being held in the Special Housing Unit, where inmates are under heightened protection, although NBC News reported he was not on suicide watch. He had been in the MCC since July 6, after FBI agents arrested him when he returned to the U.S. from France on his private jet.
Epstein’s death immediately set off speculation that he had been killed, or that someone who should have been watching him was looking the other way when it happened. With confirmed ties to political figures up to and including presidents of both parties, European royalty and headline names in business, finance and academia, Epstein was a lightning rod for conspiracy theories even before his death. Women who have accused him of forcing them into having sex when they were underage have also said he pimped them out to some of his powerful friends. His trial, more than a year away, could have proved embarrassing — or worse — to people who were part of his large social circle.
Attorney General William Barr put out a statement saying: “I was appalled to learn that Jeffrey Epstein was found dead early this morning from an apparent suicide while in federal custody. Mr. Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered. In addition to the FBI’s investigation, I have consulted with the Inspector General who is opening an investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Epstein’s death.”
“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,” wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “And you know what? The Epstein case itself shows that we *are* kind of living in a paranoid fantasy universe.”
Joe Scarborough tweeted, “A guy who had information that would have destroyed rich and powerful men’s lives ends up dead in his jail cell. How predictably...Russian.”
On the fringes of the political spectrum, Ann Coulter tweeted, “I knew this would happen! I warned you, [Bureau of Prisons].”
Later she managed to wrap in a whole documentary’s worth of conspiracy theorizing in a single tweet: “This ends the only plausible Epstein theory OTHER THAN a foreign country’s pedophile/blackmail operation. (That he was laundering Robert Maxwell’s hidden loot.)”
Epstein was close friends for years with Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, who drowned under suspicious circumstances in 1991. At least one of Epstein’s alleged victims has said Ghislaine participated in Epstein’s recruitment of young teenage girls for sex; she has denied any involvement.
Other tweets hinted at a conspiracy by the British royal family, and the hashtag #ClintonBodyCount exploded on social media, the subject of 13,300 tweets within the first hour. Lynne Patton, a Trump appointee in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, wrote on Instagram that Epstein was “Hillary’d.”
Epstein’s waterfront mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., where the alleged sex acts occurred, is less than a mile from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. Records show that Trump flew on Epstein’s private jet on occasion, and they had been photographed together at social events.
“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,” said Trump in a 2002 New York magazine profile of Epstein. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
Former President Bill Clinton flew on Epstein’s private plane multiple times and visited his island. Prince Andrew of Britain also has ties to the hedge fund magnate but has denied any involvement in sex trafficking.
Documents implicating other powerful figures began to be released yesterday, starting with sealed records related to a defamation lawsuit that Epstein’s self-described “sex slave” Virginia Roberts Giuffre filed against Ghislaine Maxwell. Giuffre alleges that Epstein told her to have sex with hedge fund billionaire Glenn Dubin, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
The men have all denied the allegations.
The New York Times reported last month that Epstein used his ties to Les Wexner, CEO of the L Brands corporation, which owns Victoria’s Secret, for access to both models and money. Wexner accused Epstein this week of misappropriating “vast sums of money.”
Epstein, early in his career, was a protégé of Donald Barr, the father of Attorney General Barr, who hired him to teach at New York’s prestigious Dalton School despite his lack of a college degree.
The amount and source of Epstein’s wealth, apart from his association with Wexner, has been a mystery. His Manhattan mansion has been described as having a “creepy décor,” while his private island has a gold-domed temple-like structure. When Epstein’s home was raided, investigators found a cache of videos in a safe that were described as potentially containing compromising images of third parties. The New York Times reported last month that Epstein had plans to “seed human race with his DNA” at his New Mexico ranch.
The latest round of charges were not the first faced by Epstein. He was charged by federal prosecutors in Florida in 2007 for, as the Miami Herald put it in its award-winning reporting on the case, “assembling a large, cult-like network of underage girls — with the help of young female recruiters — to coerce into having sex acts behind the walls of his opulent waterfront mansion as often as three times a day.” Epstein received what observers consider unusually lenient treatment by the U.S. attorney in Miami at the time, Alex Acosta. Acosta served as Trump’s secretary of labor but stepped down amid a slew of calls for his resignation after Epstein’s arrest earlier this summer. In that case, Epstein was defended by Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and former special counsel Ken Starr.
Epstein’s trial was not set to begin until June 2020 at the earliest. He had been denied bail due to his access to private jets, private islands and multiple passports. Civil cases against Epstein’s estate will continue despite his death.
According to Courthouse News reporter Adam Klasfeld, a former prosecutor said that after Epstein’s death “no one else will have standing to challenge the search warrant on his house. Everything will be admissible against any other defendant without possibility of a motion to suppress.”
In the wake of Epstein’s death, many were quick to point out that hundreds of people kill themselves in jail every year and experts say most deaths are preventable with proper mental health care and monitoring.
However, the fact that he was able to hang himself less than a month after a previous suicide attempt — particularly one in which a former cop charged with four murders being jailed near Epstein was questioned over his potential involvement — raised questions from those far from the conspiratorial fringes of the internet.
“I am not into conspiracy theories,” said Brooklyn-based public defender Scott Hechinger. “But Epstein had destructive information on an extraordinary number of extraordinarily powerful people. It is not easy to commit suicide in prison. Especially after being placed on suicide watch. Especially after already allegedly trying.”
“The Bureau of Prisons is part of DOJ,” said Michael Bromwich, who previously served as the Justice Department’s inspector general. “This should prompt an immediate and comprehensive DOJ Inspector General investigation to determine who is responsible.”
“We need answers,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., linking to a story about Epstein’s death. “Lots of them.”
Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., has already called on the House Oversight Committee to investigate Epstein’s death, saying in a statement that it “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.”
Additional reporting by Melissa Rossi
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