Federal authorities will investigate how Jeffrey Epstein, a well-connected financier accused of orchestrating a sex trafficking ring that preyed on underage girls, was able to apparently commit suicide in federal custody, the United States attorney general has said.
The FBI and the Department of Justice’s inspector general’s office will conduct the investigation, US Attorney General William Barr said, hours after Epstein was found unresponsive in the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in Manhattan on Saturday.
Barr said he was “appalled” that the apparent suicide happened while Epstein was in federal custody on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy.
“Mr. Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered,” he said in a statement.
The investigation into the sex trafficking and conspiracy charges against the 66-year-old will continue despite his death, the federal attorney in charge of the probe also said on Saturday.
The inquiry could still ensnare others involved in the alleged crime, the official said.
Death in custody
The suicide has raised questions over prison authorities’ oversight of Epstein, who had been kept in a special area reserved for high-profile inmates.
Epstein had been placed on suicide watch and given daily psychiatric evaluations after an incident in July in which he was found with bruising on his neck, according to local media. It had not been confirmed whether the injury was self-inflicted or the result of an assault.
He was taken off the watch at the end of July and was not being monitored at the time of his death, the reports said.
Authorities took Epstein into custody on July 6 and he pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking that allegedly ensnared dozens of underage girls, some as young as 14.
The alleged offences took place in his homes in Manhattan, New York and Palm Beach, Florida, between 2002 and 2005, according to prosecutors. If convicted, he faced up to 45 years in prison.
Epstein had previously lived a lavish lifestyle, often socialising with powerful people, including princes and US presidents. His arrest had put a spotlight on those relationships.
His most recent arrest also drew scrutiny to a 2008 deal that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida, while avoiding more serious federal charges.
The outcry led Alex Acosta, the then-US labour secretary who as a federal prosecutor helped Epstein negotiate the deal, to resign.
‘Heads must roll’
Accusers and elected officials expressed dismay that Epstein’s suicide allowed him to escape justice. They hoped the investigation would capture others involved in the alleged crimes.
Virginia Giuffre, an Epstein accuser who had filed a since-settled lawsuit against the financier’s former girlfriend, told the New York Times she was grateful Epstein will never harm anyone again, but was angry that there would be no chance to see him answer for his conduct.
“We’ve worked so hard to get here, and he stole that from us,” she told the newspaper.
Accuser Jennifer Araoz, in a statement, said that Epstein’s alleged victims will “have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives”.
Brad Edwards, a Florida lawyer for nearly two dozen other accusers, said that “this is not the ending anyone was looking for”.
“The victims deserved to see Epstein held accountable, and he owed it to everyone he hurt to accept responsibility for all of the pain he caused,” Edwards said in a statement.
Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a letter to Barr on Saturday, said that “heads must roll” after the incident.
“Every single person in the Justice Department … knew that this man was a suicide risk, and that his dark secrets couldn’t be allowed to die with him,” Sasse wrote.