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Jeffrey Epstein wasn't trafficking women — and he didn't kill himself, brother says

Julie K. Brown, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

Mark Epstein gets angry when he is asked probing questions about his brother. He curses, insists the questions aren't relevant and sometimes slams down the phone. Mostly, he defends his older brother, Jeffrey Epstein, insisting he wasn't a sex trafficker at all.

"He was innocent and, until proven guilty, you are entitled to bail in America," said Mark Epstein, Jeffrey Epstein's only sibling, next of kin and likely heir to his brother's estimated $500 million fortune.

Mark Epstein is talking, but only because he believes that his 66-year-old brother was killed, and he is challenging both the Department of Justice and New York City's chief medical examiner. He insists the pathologist erred in concluding that his brother hanged himself in August at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center.

"I could see if he got a life sentence, I could then see him taking himself out, but he had a bail hearing coming up," said Epstein, a real estate mogul who says he knows very little about his late brother's businesses -- or his brother's alleged sex crimes against underage girls and young women.

Mark Epstein, 65, lives in New York, where he grew up with his brother and parents in Brooklyn. He says at the time of his brother's death, on Aug. 10, he had not seen him in seven years, and did not speak to him often.

"Jeffrey and I were not that close, we shared brother stuff, but I was not involved in what he was doing. When he first got in trouble he called me. We were very straight with each other. I wasn't going to lecture him."

Jeffrey Epstein was first arrested in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2006. A multimillionaire whose exact source of wealth remains a mystery, Jeffrey cultivated friendships with powerful and elite scientists, politicians, CEOs, celebrities, academics and philanthropists -- as well as former and current presidents, such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.

In 2008, Epstein received an extraordinarily lenient federal nonprosecution agreement that allowed him to plead guilty to minor prostitution charges. Under the deal, negotiated by former Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, he received federal immunity on sex trafficking charges, and agreed to serve 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail.

He spent very little time in his jail cell, as he was granted a liberal work release arrangement by the Palm Beach County sheriff. Epstein's private valet picked him up nearly every day and took him to his downtown West Palm Beach office.

Mark says after his brother was released from jail in 2009, he reformed himself. Mark says to his knowledge, his brother didn't do anything illegal with other girls or women after that time. He points out that most of the women coming forward with allegations post-2009 were women who were 18 or older.

"Do I think that it was inappropriate for him, at age 50 or 60 to be with women who were 18 or 20? Yes, but it certainly wasn't illegal and it wasn't sex trafficking," Epstein says.

On Aug. 11, not quite 24 hours after Jeffrey Epstein's death, Mark Epstein hired one of the world's most famous forensic pathologists, Dr. Michael Baden, to observe his brother's autopsy. Baden, 85, and another noted forensic pathologist who reviewed Baden's findings, Dr. Cyril Wecht, 88, have both concluded that Jeffrey Epstein's injuries were more consistent with manual strangulation than hanging.

Their opinions, combined with the fact that New York City Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson has not released a full report on the investigation, have fueled widespread conspiracy theories that began almost immediately after Epstein was found in his cell, allegedly on his knees, with a sheet fashioned into a ligature around his neck, about 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 10.

Baden said Epstein had been dead for several hours, and his body should not have been moved. Emergency personnel however, transported him from the federal jail in downtown Manhattan to the hospital, Baden said. Baden was present at the autopsy, which was conducted the next day by medical examiner Kristin Roman. Both he and Roman agreed that the cause and manner of death were not clear, so she designated it pending further investigation, Baden said.

But just five days later, on Aug. 16, Sampson changed the cause of death to suicide by hanging.

Epstein had three fractures on the left and right side of his larynx, Baden said, and the chance of someone breaking three bones in their neck as a result of a low-velocity self-inflicted hanging, while not unheard of, is rare.

While damage to that bone is more common in cases of strangulation, medical experts have also said it is more easily damaged in older people like Epstein.

Sampson, who did not respond to the Miami Herald's request for comment, has stood by her findings.

Both Baden and Wecht say that the medical examiner should not have changed the cause of death until after the death had been fully investigated. Like all prison deaths, especially a high-profile one, it should have been treated, for investigative purposes, as a possible homicide from the start.

"Once you decide that it's a suicide, you don't do the same kind of evidence collection that you would if you considered it a suspicious death," Baden said.

"It is amazing how much information you can get by interviewing the prisoners in the nearby cell. Would the FBI have interviewed them if they thought it was a suicide?"

Mark Epstein, while not providing details, believes that there were people who wanted his brother dead, and he is concerned that his own life, and the lives of other people, may be in jeopardy because federal authorities have not fully probed the circumstances under which his brother died.

"Jeffrey knew a lot of stuff about a lot of people," Mark Epstein said.

Jeffrey Epstein began cultivating important clients as a trader on Wall Street, his brother said. He said his brother was a math whiz while growing up in Brooklyn and was accepted and attended Cooper Union, the renowned New York art, architecture and engineering school where Mark, also a Cooper Union alum, would later serve a rocky tenure as chairman of the board of trustees.

"People are calling Jeffrey a college dropout and make him out to be a really bad character. But my brother went to Cooper Union and it's hard to get in there. He didn't drop out. He didn't need a degree, he was really good at math and he didn't let not having a degree hold him back."

Because Cooper Union did not have a mathematics major, Mark said his brother applied and was accepted into New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. But ultimately Jeffrey accepted a low-level floor trader job with Bear Stearns, and decided to apply his mathematical skills to the options market.

"He got involved with Wall Street when it was the Wild West," Mark Epstein said. "When we were young men he came home one day and he said that if the general public knew what was taking place on Wall Street there would be a revolution. People would be appalled at how corrupt it was."

Jeffrey Epstein did leave Bear Stearns, abruptly, causing speculation that he had been under investigation for a securities violation.

Their parents, Seymour and Pauline, had been married in 1952 and remained together until his father's death in 1991 at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where he was undergoing treatment for a heart condition, Mark said.

Mark said he and his brother were both close to their father, a laborer and maintenance worker for the New York City Parks Department, and to their mother, who worked as a secretary for an insurance company.

 

"We grew up in a close family," Epstein said. But in later years, he said, he and his brother's paths went in different directions.

"He was in the financial world and I was more involved in the artist community," Epstein said.

Mark Epstein refused to talk about his art ties, but he once owned a silk-screening business before going into real estate. Mark's real estate company, Ossa Properties, owns a majority stake in a New York apartment high-rise at 301 E. 66th Street in New York. Court records show that Jeffrey Epstein often housed women in the building, although Mark has previously denied having any business connections to his brother.

Mark acknowledged that he put up his Florida condo as collateral to help with his brother's bail after Jeffrey was arrested in July on sex trafficking charges, months after the Herald published a series of stories, "Perversion of Justice," that highlighted his abuse of underage girls and efforts by Acosta -- then the U.S. attorney, later President Trump's labor secretary -- to keep victims unaware of the pending plea deal. The charges, brought by Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, alleged that Jeffrey Epstein was operating an illegal sex operation in New York and Florida for decades.

A judge denied Epstein's $77 million bail proposal on July 17, but Jeffrey Epstein and his lawyers were appealing the decision at the time of his death.

"He had a bail hearing in two days. He agreed to be on house arrest. He was going to hire armed guards to keep an eye on him at his own expense ... He was the most recognizable person on the planet. Where is he going to run and hide?" Epstein said.

On Aug. 10 -- the same day Epstein's body was found -- U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that Epstein had died that morning of "an apparent suicide," and called for investigations into his death.

"You never announce the results first," said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor and frequent Barr critic. "It's very hard to contradict what the most powerful law enforcement officer in our country has announced to the American people. It appears that he just wanted to shut down this and to cover up what Epstein knew about some very rich and influential people."

The Justice Department is probing the death, but Epstein's brother said there's no indication that they are investigating the cause and manner of his death.

FBI investigators, for example, haven't questioned Epstein's former cellmate, Nick Tartaglione, an ex-New York cop awaiting trial for four murders. Mark said that his brother claimed that Tartaglione had assaulted him.

"This is all conspiracy nonsense," said Bruce A. Barket, Tartaglione's attorney.

Tartaglione, awaiting a death penalty trial, was cleared of wrongdoing in the alleged jail attack, Barket said. But the details of the incident have not been made public by the Bureau of Prisons, nor has the report on Epstein's injuries from that incident been given to Baden for review.

Barket adamantly denies there is anything suspicious about Epstein's death, and has no doubt that the disgraced financier committed suicide. But he concedes that it's baffling that his client still hasn't been questioned by the FBI.

"I don't know how they did a thorough investigation when they haven't interviewed my client," Barket said.

Baden and Wecht --professional friends who, at times, have been on opposing sides of a death investigation -- agree that there are too many coincidences surrounding Epstein's death that haven't been examined.

"Epstein was accused of crimes of a heinous nature, that anyone -- even the most hardened criminals -- would be repulsed and angry about," Wecht said.

Child predators are usually prime targets in prisons, just by the nature of their crimes, he said.

"So what do they do, they give him a cellmate who happens to be over 200 pounds, a former cop. Then we are led to believe that on July 23 he had a 'suicide attempt,' when he is found unconscious, and so they move him to suicide watch. Then they let him off the watch, then they move his cellmate, then the camera doesn't work, then the guards fall asleep, then they cut him down and they move him before the medical examiner came, and they know full well not to do that.

"Remember this is not a one-cell cockamamie prison, this is a federal prison in downtown New York City that housed John Gotti and El Chapo (the drug Mexico lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman). To accept all these as facts is unbelievable."

Baden said the only piece of evidence they have seen of the death scene is a photograph, presumably taken by prison officials, of the cell after Epstein was removed.

"Everything we have is from two guards, who immediately lawyered up and refused to say anything. We have one photograph that shows the ligature laid out on the ground, which, if that's the way it was found, it looks like it was a planted kind of scene because that's not the way it would have been found if the guards had cut it."

Wecht said the photo also shows that the top bunk was being used to store toiletries, and the items didn't appear to be touched. If Epstein had tied the ligature to the top bunk and leaped or pulled himself with enough strength to break three bones in his neck, then the toiletries on the bunk would have been in disarray.

"I have never seen this kind of hanging scenario, this leaning forward, with three fractures. The bunk was 3 to 4 feet above, and there was not enough velocity there to produce three fractures," Wecht said.

Mark said he is awaiting further documents they've requested from the medical examiner, the paramedics and the Bureau of Prisons.

"It's all very suspicious, too much to be a coincidence."

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