The death of financier and alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein in a high-security federal jail cell in Manhattan has lit up social media with conspiracy theories. Was it murder? Suicide? The wealthy Epstein for decades cultivated the rich and powerful: heads of state, barons of commerce, royalty. He skated on earlier Florida sex charges, a controversy that eventually brought down Labor Secretary Alex Acosta. According to conspiracy theories cresting on the internet, Epstein’s recent federal indictment on sex trafficking charges threatened too many prominent people—so somebody, somehow, bumped him off.
There’s no evidence that Epstein was murdered in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Officials at the lockup say he was alone Saturday morning and hanged himself. But it’s fair to say that at present there’s not much evidence, aside from a few official statements, that Epstein committed suicide. Huge challenges and high stakes loom in the Epstein case and the window on some key opportunities is closing fast.
Here are the questions that will decide the fate of the case:
Is the unit where Epstein died a crime scene? Preservation of evidence is critical. Fingerprints, hair samples, body fluids, location of body, method of death. Many investigations have been ruined at the outset from a failure to preserve the scene. Sound an alarm bell if the Epstein death location was not processed as a crime scene.
Are records preserved? A source at the Bureau of Prisons tells us there would be a “huge paper trail” on Epstein—documents, logs, interviews with prison psychologists and others related to an alleged July 23 suicide attempt, recordings of phone calls, text messages. Some of us with long memories remember the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster. The Foster case dragged on for years and gave birth to numerous conspiracy theories in part because the crime scene was mishandled and documents disappeared from his White House office.
Can the money be followed? Epstein’s finances were carefully concealed, but he was known for spreading money around to ease his problems. Prosecutors alleged he tried to buy off witnesses. And serving time at a Palm Beach county jail in 2008 and 2009 on a Florida prostitution charge—negotiated to keep him out of federal prison—Epstein managed to steer $128,000 to officials running the jail. Investigators should search for similar arrangements in New York.
Are Bureau of Prison insiders corrupt? Most Bureau of Prisons employees are honest, but the organization has been repeatedly buffeted by corruption cases. Investigators will take a close look at everyone connected to Epstein at the facility.
Are the Epstein lawyers complicit? How far can a lawyer go for a client? Did any of Epstein’s lawyers facilitate illegal acts? Getting information from Epstein’s lawyers is central to the case. Epstein met repeatedly with his legal team while in jail. The New York Times reports that two lawyers closely involved in Epstein’s finances have hired lawyers of their own—criminal defense specialists. The Times elsewhere reports that Epstein’s lawyers brought in their own pathologist—famed forensic examiner Michael Baden—to observe the Epstein autopsy. According to the Wall Street Journal, Epstein was taken off suicide watch, after the July 23 incident, “at the request of his attorneys.” Expect a big legal battle if investigators move on Epstein’s lawyers.
Is the Department of Justice incompetent? The Epstein case is a major challenge for Attorney General William Barr. He says both the FBI and the Justice Department inspector general will open investigations into the Epstein death, but that may not be enough. Years of controversy and mismanagement related to the Clinton emails, the Clinton foundation and other matters morphed into turmoil over the 2016 election, FBI leadership, the Russia case and President Trump. The Justice Department is now an institution in crisis.
Judicial Watch has launched its own investigation into the Epstein case. We’ve been hearing from sources connected to the incident and we’ve brought a series of Freedom of Information actions to make sure key documents don’t get buried. But that’s no substitute for a properly functioning Justice Department.