Atty. Gen. William Barr on Monday slammed what he called “serious irregularities” at the federal jail in New York where alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein died in custody, vowing to “hold people accountable” for an episode that has rocked a Justice Department already accused of mishandling the high-profile case.
Barr described himself as “appalled” and “frankly angry” over the apparent suicide Saturday of the politically and socially connected financier in a cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, a lockup run by the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department.
An autopsy was completed on Sunday but Dr. Barbara Sampson, the chief medical examiner, said she was seeking more information before determining the cause of death for the 66-year-old Epstein, who once hobnobbed with Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Wall Street moguls, world-famous scientists and a member of the British royal family.
The uncertainty kept alive a storm of macabre conspiracy theories on social media, including a falsehood shared by President Trump that Epstein was killed — or secretly spirited away — to keep from implicating others in the alleged sex trafficking of minors.
Officials previously had said the FBI, the Justice Department’s inspector general and the Bureau of Prisons were investigating Epstein’s death in federal custody. On Monday, Barr made clear he was taking a direct role in the case.
“We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and that demand a thorough investigation,” Barr said in a speech to a Fraternal Order of Police convention in New Orleans. “We will get to the bottom of what happened ... and we will hold people accountable for this failure.”
Calling the Epstein case “very important” to the Justice Department, Barr pledged that his death would not stop the underlying investigation, which has been led by the Southern District of New York.
“Let me assure you that this case will continue on against anyone who was complicit with Epstein,” Barr said. “Any co-conspirators should not rest easy. The victims deserve justice, and we will ensure they get it.”
Epstein had been placed on suicide watch after he was found on July 23 with bruises on his neck that suggested he had tried to hang himself. But he was taken off suicide watch by the end of July, the Associated Press reported, and was shifted to a two-person cell where a guard was supposed to look in every 30 minutes.
Epstein was alone in his cell early Saturday, however, and guards reportedly were not checking on him as frequently as required, even though he was in a high-security unit known for holding such notorious prisoners in the past as mob boss John Gotti and Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Staffing shortages are common at the high-rise jail. Inmates staged a hunger strike in January after they were denied family visits.
Epstein had been arrested at an airport in New Jersey on July 6 after arriving on his private plane from Paris. He was charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy, and the indictment suggested that others who participated in the criminal scheme could still be charged.
The headline-grabbing case quickly expanded as new witnesses emerged, a former client accused him of stealing at least $46 million, and nearly 2,000 pages of newly unsealed court documents suggested Epstein had enjoyed an opulent lifestyle and abused dozens of young girls. Police found a trove of pornographic photos, including some of allegedly underage girls, in his New York townhouse.
The indictment said Epstein spent years bringing girls as young as 14 to his lavish homes in New York and Palm Beach, Fla., for “massages” that became “increasingly sexual in nature,” ending in molestation and abuse. Prosecutors said victims were paid hundreds of dollars in cash and received more money to recruit other girls.
“Epstein maintained a steady supply of new victims to exploit,” the indictment said.
He was denied bail and faced up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
The lurid case was already shrouded in mystery and scandal even before Epstein’s death added a morbid twist.
He was required to register as a sex offender years ago as part of a secretive plea deal reached with federal prosecutors in Florida. A federal judge ruled this year that the deal broke the law because victims were not informed of the details.
The ensuing controversy forced R. Alexander Acosta, who oversaw the original prosecution as the U.S. attorney in Miami, to resign as Trump’s secretary of Labor last month.
Epstein’s case long has proved a fertile ground for conspiracy theories because of the lenient plea deal and his connections to former President Clinton, who flew on Epstein’s private plane after leaving the Oval Office, and Trump, who socialized with him years ago in Palm Beach. Other global figures visited Epstein’s private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Now his death has sparked its own rampant speculation, and some suspected foul play despite the lack of evidence.
Trump pointed the finger at the Clintons, sharing a tweet from a conservative commentator that said “Jeffery Epstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead” and the hashtag “ClintonBodyCount.” Others quickly tweeted back counter-allegations under hashtag “TrumpBodyCount.”
Far-right figures have long accused the Clintons of being behind various deaths, most notably Vince Foster. The White House lawyer committed suicide in a Virginia park in 1993.
Trump has routinely embraced outlandish and false claims, including accusing California of allowing millions of illegal votes and denying that President Obama was born in the United States. The White House did not respond to a request for comment about Trump’s retweet.
New York’s former mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who represented Trump during the special counsel investigation examining Russian election interference, urged caution about jumping to conclusions.
“The conspiracy theories concerning the Epstein death are multiplying. The facts seem unbelievable,” he tweeted. “But it is best to wait for some key facts like the findings of the autopsy. Withholding judgment is the wisest course to follow.”
Epstein’s death drew new attention to the plague of suicides in the nation’s lockups, most of which receive little to no public attention. Hundreds of jail inmates commit suicide every year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a federal agency.