The year 2020 will be long remembered for the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic and the monumental Black Lives Matter protests. In an alternative timeline, there would have been a third seismic event to define 2020: the trial of billionaire sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein, which promised to shed a startling light into a hidden world of corruption and perversity among the wealthiest and most powerful people on Earth.
Of course, this ‘trial of the century’ cannot now take place, because Jeffrey Epstein took his own life in jail on 10 August 2019. Or did he? Ever since the shock news broke of the disgraced financier’s death, many have wondered whether it might have been homicide rather than suicide – a brazen assassination to silence a man who may have been holding dirt on the elites. The phrase ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ even became a social media meme.
The speculations and rumours around Epstein’s death mirrored the hushed musings that surrounded his life. Epstein had been an enigmatic figure ever since he appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on America’s social scene in the 1980s. Once a schoolteacher, Epstein had made an unlikely leap into the world of high finance, rapidly amassing an eye-watering fortune. The paradoxical contrast between his outlandish spending and his private, guarded nature led some to compare him with the reserved hero of The Great Gatsby. As the former CEO of Tiffany & Co once put it, ‘He’s very enigmatic… He’s a classic iceberg. What you see is not what you get.’
Those words were proven to be more correct than anyone could have predicted, when Epstein was investigated in the mid-Noughties for preying on teenage girls in Florida’s lavish Palm Beach. Police were given numerous reports of Epstein paying underage girls for sex, and of trafficking girls internationally.
‘This was not a ‘he said, she said’ situation,’ retired Palm Beach police chief Michael Reiter emphasised. ‘This was 50-something “shes” and one “he” — and the ‘shes’ all basically told the same story.’
Despite the damning evidence against him, Epstein used his immense wealth and connections to land a notoriously lenient deal which saw him serve a short and cushy sentence, even permitted to leave jail for long periods on work release. While his reputation was ruined by the fact he was now a registered sex offender, Epstein’s privileged status made it look like he’d never face full justice for his crimes.
But then, in 2019, he was arrested again on charges of sex trafficking. And, in the post-#MeToo era, it seemed a true reckoning was due. The women who’d survived Epstein’s abuse steeled themselves for their day in court, and their chance to see him pay for his crimes. But then came the morning of 10 August, when guards found the financier dead in his cell, his bedsheet tied around his neck in a crude noose.
Although the medical examiner’s office declared it a suicide, there was immediate scepticism over how such a prominent figure could have been allowed to kill himself. It seemed like a particularly egregious lapse considering that just weeks before, Epstein had been rushed to hospital after being found semi-conscious in his cell with wounds on his neck. The exact details of what happened remain hazy – was it a suicide attempt, or – as was alleged – an attack by his cellmate? Whatever the truth, Epstein was placed on suicide watch, but then abruptly put back into a regular cell less than a week later.
On the evening before he died, Epstein’s cellmate was transferred out of the jail, meaning he would be left completely alone. Not only that, but the guards on duty that night failed to perform the half-hourly checks that were required, only realising something was wrong at 6.30am. The guards were later charged for falsifying records in an attempt to cover up the lack of checks. Security cameras outside Epstein’s cell had malfunctioned that night, and CCTV footage from outside the cell during Epstein’s first apparent suicide attempt weeks before was found to have been lost ‘as a result of technical errors’.
I have never seen three fractures like this in a suicidal hanging
This perfect storm of mistakes has been regarded as a bit too perfect by conspiracy theorists who believe Epstein was murdered. And not all them are anonymous onlookers posting on message boards. The financier’s lawyers have confirmed he seemed upbeat and ready to defend himself in court, while Dr Michael Baden – a forensic pathologist hired privately by Epstein’s brother – has voiced concern over the injuries to Epstein’s neck.
‘There were fractures of the left, the right thyroid cartilage and the left hyoid bone. I have never seen three fractures like this in a suicidal hanging,’ Dr Baden said. ‘Going over a thousand jail hangings, suicides in the New York City state prisons over the past 40-50 years, no one had three fractures.’
Sceptics believe Epstein was silenced to protect other prominent VIPs who may have been embroiled in his sordid sex crimes. Epstein’s one-time friendship with Bill Clinton has been a particular fixation for conspiracy theorists, with the former US president’s frequent presence on Epstein’s private plane – aka the ‘Lolita Express’ – coming under scrutiny. There’s also the contentious issue of Epstein’s closeness with Prince Andrew and Donald Trump. The US president once called Epstein a ‘terrific guy’, saying that ‘he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.’
In the absence of any evidence, the conspiracy theories will remain just that: theories. The kinds of theories that are perhaps inevitable when a man as murky yet well-connected as Epstein dies unexpectedly. The counter-argument is a simple one: even if a secret elite wanted him dead, actually carrying out a jail assassination and making it look like a suicide, complete with tampering of technology and the cooperation of guards, is far too risky and difficult. The stuff of movies, not real life. No matter what, though, the controversy and speculation over the last days of Jeffrey Epstein will continue.
Surviving Jeffrey Epstein premieres on Crime+Investigation with a double episode airing on Tuesday 25th August at 9pm. Parts three and four will be broadcast the following evening on Wednesday 26th August at 9pm.