Jeffrey Epstein’s death triggers questions and conspiracy theories
Before his jail suicide, disgraced financier was left alone and not closely monitored
Jeffrey Epstein in a photograph taken for the New York state criminal justice services’ sex offenders’ register on March 28th, 2017. Photograph: New York state criminal justice services via Reuters
A car reportedly carrying the body of financier Jeffrey Epstein arrives at the chief medical officer’s centre in New York on Saturday. Photograph: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
It was Friday night in a protective housing unit of the federal jail in lower Manhattan, and Jeffrey Epstein, the financier accused of trafficking girls for sex, was alone in a cell, only 11 days after he had been taken off a suicide watch.
Just that morning, thousands of documents from a civil suit had been released, providing lurid accounts accusing Epstein of sexually abusing scores of girls. Epstein was supposed to have been checked by the two guards in the protective housing unit every 30 minutes, but that procedure was not followed that night, a law enforcement official with knowledge of his detention said.
In addition, because Epstein may have tried to kill himself three weeks earlier, he was supposed to have had another inmate in his cell, three officials said. But the jail had recently transferred his cellmate and allowed Epstein to be housed alone, a decision that also violated the jail’s procedures, the two officials said.
At 6.30am on Saturday, guards doing morning rounds found him dead in his cell. Epstein (66) had apparently taken his own life.
The disclosures about these seeming failures in Epstein’s detention at the Metropolitan Correctional Center deepened questions about his death and are very likely to be the focus of inquiries by the US justice department and the FBI.
Officials cautioned that their initial findings about his detention were preliminary and could change. The federal Bureau of Prisons has already come under intense criticism for not keeping Epstein under a suicide watch after he had been found in his cell on July 23rd with injuries that suggested he had tried to kill himself.
The law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation said that when the decision was made to remove Epstein from suicide watch, the jail informed the justice department that Epstein would have a cellmate and that a guard “would look into his cell” every 30 minutes. But that was apparently not done, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the death was still under investigation.
The city’s chief medical examiner, Dr Barbara Sampson, announced on Sunday night that her office had conducted a post mortem, but she declined to release a determination about the cause of death. She said a private pathologist, Dr Michael Baden, who was hired by Epstein’s lawyers, had observed the post mortem examination.
The medical examiner is confident the cause of death is suicide by hanging, but she wants more information from law enforcement before releasing her determination, a city official said. Senior law enforcement officials, members of Congress and Epstein’s accusers have all demanded answers about why Epstein was not being more closely monitored.
On Sunday, the Bureau of Prisons offered no explanation for why Epstein was left alone and not checked on.
Epstein’s death has also unleashed a torrent of unfounded conspiracy theories online, with people suggesting, without evidence, that Epstein was killed to keep him from incriminating others. Over the years, Epstein’s social circle had included dozens of well-known politicians, business executives, scientists, academics and other notables, including President Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew of Britain and Leslie H Wexner, the retail billionaire behind Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.
Investigators are expected to focus intensely on the timeline of what happened in the period after Epstein was found semiconscious less than three weeks ago in a shared cell, with bruises on his neck, after a judge denied him bail. He was placed on a 24-hour suicide watch and received daily psychiatric evaluations, the law enforcement official said.
But six days later, prison officials determined he was no longer a threat to his own life and put him in a cell in the protective housing unit with another inmate, a prison official familiar with the incident said.
It is standard practice at the Metropolitan Correctional Center to place people who have been on suicide watch with a cellmate, two people with knowledge of Epstein’s case said. The theory is a cellmate can provide company to someone who may be suicidal, helping them stave off depression, and can also alert guards in an emergency.
But Epstein’s cellmate was moved out of the protective housing unit, leaving him alone, the prison official said. Bureau of Prison officials said it is standard procedure for guards in protective housing units to check on inmates every half-hour. It remained unclear why that procedure was not followed in Epstein’s case.
Like many federal prisons and detention centers, the jail has been short staffed for some time, union leaders have said. The two guards on duty in the protective housing unit where Epstein was housed were both working overtime, the prison official with knowledge of the incident said. One of the corrections officers was working his fifth straight day of overtime, while the other officer had been forced to work overtime, the official said.
Eric Young, president of the national council of union locals that represents guards at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, said there were cameras in hallways and common areas, but not in the cells of the unit where Epstein was being held.
“From the moment you walk on to that property, you are under camera surveillance,” Young said, adding that there should be video evidence of when the last checks were made and of anyone who approached Epstein’s cell. Young said overnight checks in the protective unit are typically done every 30 minutes, but sometimes the schedule varies a bit, so that inmates cannot precisely predict when guards will come by their cells.
Young would not discuss whether the two guards on duty at the time of Epstein’s death were doing regular checks on him. But Young said he was certain that Epstein was in the cell alone – and nearly certain Epstein had a cellmate after he was removed from suicide watch.
Built in 1975, the Metropolitan Correctional Center is an imposing 12-story brick building at 150 Park Row, a stone’s throw from the two federal courthouses in lower Manhattan. It holds about 800 people in 10 housing units, most of them awaiting trial or sentencing.
Some of its wings – notably the 10 South special housing unit – have severe security measures, and have housed high-profile defendants over the years, among them Gambino boss John Gotti, terrorist Ramzi Yousef and Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo.
An investigation by The New York Times last year showed that federal prisons across the country, including the Metropolitan Correctional Center, have been dealing with rising violence as staffing at the centers has dwindled. Questions about the safety of such prisons arose late last year when James (Whitey) Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster, was brutally murdered in a West Virginia prison shortly after being moved there.
Cameron Lindsay, a former warden at the federal jail in Brooklyn and four other centres, said senior officials at the MCC made a series of mistakes in handling Epstein. Lindsay said Epstein should not have been taken off suicide watch, even if the prison’s chief psychologist had determined it was safe to do so. With a high-profile inmate, the warden should have erred on the side of caution and kept him under close surveillance, separate from other inmates, Lindsay said.
“A psychologist is going to think one way, but a warden needs to think a different way,” he said. “You have to take the conservative, safe route and keep an individual like this on suicide watch.”
Lindsay pointed out that Epstein was also at risk of being attacked by other inmates because of the nature of the allegations against him. “In the subculture of prisons, it’s a badge of honour to take someone out like that,” he said.
Other former prison officials also questioned the jail’s decision to put Epstein on suicide watch for such a short period of time. Though it is not uncommon for an inmate to be on suicide watch for less than a week, that is typically done in cases when an inmate receives bad news in court or from family – not soon after a suicide attempt, said Bob Hood, a former chief of internal affairs for the Bureau of Prisons.
In Epstein’s case, not only did he apparently attempt suicide on July 23rd, but humiliating information continued to be released to the public through news outlets, Hood said. That would normally have prompted prison officials to keep him under closer surveillance, not remove him from the 24-hour-a-day suicide watch, he said.
“Why he was taken off suicide watch is beyond me,” Hood said. He added, “A man is dead. The Bureau of Prisons dropped the ball. Period.” – New York Times