New York|Barr Says Epstein’s Suicide Resulted From ‘Perfect Storm of Screw-Ups’
WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr said in an interview published on Friday that the death of Jeffrey Epstein, the financier accused of sex trafficking, in a secure federal prison resulted from “a perfect storm of screw-ups,” rather than any nefarious act.
Mr. Barr’s statement refuted suggestions from members of Mr. Epstein’s family that he may have been murdered. His remarks came the same week thattwo prison guards were criminally charged, accused in an indictment of failing to check on Mr. Epstein every half-hour as they were required to and then lying about it on prison logs.
“I can understand people who immediately — whose minds went to sort of the worst-case scenario, because it was a perfect storm of screw-ups,” Mr. Barr said inan interview with The Associated Pressas he flew to Montana on Thursday night.
Mr. Epstein’s death in August at a federal detention center in Manhattan set off a rash ofunfounded conspiracy theorieson social media that were picked up and repeated by high-profile figures, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. No matter their ideology, the refrain of the theories was the same: Something did not add up.
Even after New York City’s chief medical examinerruled the death a suicideby hanging, conspiracy theories continued to percolate on the internet after lawyers for Mr. Epstein challenged that finding. Then Mr. Epstein’s family hired aforensic pathologist, who claimed that the broken bones and cartilage in Mr. Epstein’s neck “points to homicide.”
Mr. Barr said that he, too, was initially suspicious. How could someone who had been on suicide watch kill himself in one of the most secure jails in America? In the interview, he said that his concerns were sparked by the number of irregularities at the jail, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Mr. Epstein was being heldawaiting trial for sex trafficking charges.
But investigations by the F.B.I. and the Justice Department’s Inspector General have put to rest those suspicions, proving Mr. Epstein’s death was a suicide, Mr. Barr said. He said that he personally reviewed security camera footage showing that no one entered the area where Mr. Epstein was housed on the night he died.
Mr. Barr said Mr. Epstein was able to kill himself after a series of errors by prison officials and guards.The Justice Department was still investigating several aspects of Mr. Epstein’s death, he said, including why he did not have a cellmate the night he hanged himself, even though he had recently been on a suicide watch. Typically people at risk of suicide are not housed alone.
“I think it was important to have a roommate in there with him and we’re looking into why that wasn’t done, and I think every indication is that was a screw-up,” Mr. Barr said. “The systems to assure that was done were not followed.”
On Tuesday, prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging two jail employees, Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, who were responsible for guarding Mr. Epstein when he died.
Federal prosecutors accused the guards of shopping online, browsing the internet and sleeping while they should have been conducting regular checks of Mr. Epstein’s cell. They were charged with conspiracy and falsifying records to make it look as if they had performed their duties.
The evening Mr. Epstein died, from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., security cameras showed that nobody entered the wing where Mr. Epstein killed himself, alone in his cell, the government indictment said. He was discovered when the guards entered to bring him breakfast.
Both Mr. Thomas and Ms. Noel had rejected a plea deal. They have pleaded not guilty.
Montell Figgins, a lawyer for Mr. Thomas, said that his client, a single father with three children, was being scapegoated for severe staff shortages and mismanagement at the jail that led to Mr. Epstein’s death.
“We had hoped that the U.S. attorney’s office would make an effort to try to address the systematic failures with respect to the Bureau of Prisons,” he said. “They chose instead to indict Mr. Thomas.”
Mr. Barr, who has vowed to investigate and bring charges against people who helped Mr. Epstein procure young women for sex, said investigators were moving ahead in the case, despite the death of the main defendant.
“I’ll just say there is good progress being made, and I’m hopeful in a relatively short time there will be tangible results,” he said.
After Mr. Epstein’s death, Mr. Barrreassigned the acting director of the Bureau of Prisonsand named Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who ran the prisons bureau from 1992 to 2003, to the post.
Ms. Sawyer has focused on addressing the systemic problems. Aspokeswoman said that she had directed the staff to get “back to basics” —providing a safe environment for staff and inmates and hiring staff who are ethical, professional, well-trained and diverse.
The Inspector General released a report on Monday, before the charges against the guards were unsealed, that said the Bureau of Prisons faced “significant challenges in ensuring the safety and security of prison staff and inmates.”
The report cited multiple problems in the federal prison system, including faulty security camera systems, poor inmate monitoring and insufficient staffing.Suicide rates nearly doubled between the 2016 fiscal year and the 2018 fiscal year, it noted.
Danielle Ivory and Nicole Hong contributed reporting from New York.