NEW YORK – U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide Saturday morning in a federal jail launched new conspiracies online in a saga that has provided fodder for them for years, fueled by Epstein’s ties to princes, politicians and other famous and powerful people.
Online theorists Saturday quickly offered unsubstantiated speculation — including some retweeted by President Donald Trump — that Epstein’s death wasn’t a suicide, or it was faked.
That chatter picked up on the conjecture and conspiracies that resurged after Epstein’s July 6 arrest on allegations that he orchestrated a sex-trafficking ring designed to bring him teenage girls. Some of his accusers have described being sexually abused by the wealthy financier’s friends and acquaintances.
The combination created fertile ground for theories and misinformation to breed on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Epstein, 66, had been denied bail and faced up to 45 years behind bars on federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges unsealed last month. He had pleaded not guilty and was awaiting trial next year.
The federal jail in lower Manhattan will face bracing questions and sharp criticism over the death of its highest-profile inmate despite his recently having been seen as a suicide risk.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons said the FBI was investigating the incident. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement that Epstein’s death “raises serious questions” and that the Department of Justice’s Inspector General is opening an investigation into the circumstances. The Manhattan U.S. attorney termed the days events “disturbing” and a hurdle for victims.
Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell Saturday morning in what authorities termed an apparent suicide. Jail staff tried to revive him and summoned emergency medical personnel to take him to a nearby hospital, but he was pronounced dead by hospital staff, according to a brief statement.
More precise details of how Epstein, 66, was able to kill himself were still emerging Saturday morning. Officials said he was found hanging in his cell, according to media reports. On July 23 prison guards found Epstein unconscious in his cell with marks around his neck, though it was unclear at the time the injuries were self-inflicted or he’d been attacked by another inmate. At some point he was briefly placed on, then taken off, a suicide watch.
Epstein’s suicide was likely recorded by jail cameras, according to Preet Bharara, the former federal prosecutor in Manhattan. “One hopes it is complete, conclusive, and secured,” he tweeted.
The death of Epstein, who evaded severe punishment for more than a decade thanks to lenient treatment by law enforcement, could mean that molestation victims who had finally been promised their day in court by federal prosecutors will not get one after all.
“Jeffrey Epstein’s victims have once again been cheated out of an opportunity for justice,” said Jack Scarola, a West Palm Beach, Florida, lawyer who represents some of Epstein’s victims. “I’m sure that none of them regret his death. All of them regret the loss of information that died with him.”
His relationships with President Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince Andrew were at the center of those online rumors and theories, many of which question what politicians knew about Epstein’s alleged sex crimes.
Other theories, however, have been easily debunked.
For example, days after his arrest online memes and Facebook statuses wrongly claimed the Obama administration, in order to protect former President Clinton, forged a once-secret deal in 2008 in Florida that allowed him to plead guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution to avoid more serious charges. The deal was actually executed before President Barack Obama took office, under former President George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, a manipulated photo, shared by thousands on Twitter and Facebook, falsely claimed to show Epstein with Trump and a young Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter.
Both Clinton and Trump have denied being privy to Epstein’s alleged scheme.
Clinton spokesman Angel Urena said the former president “knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York.” He said that, in 2002 and 2003, Clinton took four trips on Epstein’s plane with multiple stops and that staff and his Secret Service detail traveled on every leg.
Trump has acknowledged knowing Epstein but said he “had a falling out with him a long time ago.”
Other Epstein theories floating online have been darker, especially after Epstein was found injured on the floor of his cell last month with bruises on his neck. Some online commentators described it as a “murder attempt.”
“Men in high places want Epstein dead,” one Twitter use wrote.
Hours after Epstein’s death Saturday, as the hashtag #EpsteinMurder was trending worldwide on Twitter, the president joined Twitter speculation around Epstein’s death while under the federal government’s watch.
Trump, who rose to conservative prominence by falsely claiming Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., retweeted unsubstantiated claims about Epstein’s death.
Other politicians also took to social media to question the circumstances.
Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the state where some of Epstein’s alleged sexual abuse crimes took place, suggested the possibility that a criminal act was involved in Epstein’s death when he called on federal corrections officials to explain what happened at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.
“The Federal Bureau of Prisons must provide answers on what systemic failures of the MCC Manhattan or criminal acts allowed this coward to deny justice to his victims,” he said in a news release.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now an attorney for Trump, tweeted out several questions about Epstein’s death.
“Who was watching? What does camera show? … Follow the motives” Giuliani tweeted Saturday afternoon.