The death of convicted sex offender and wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein in a Manhattan jail cell Saturday provided yet another shock in a grotesque, appalling story that still has many unanswered questions. Epstein was found unresponsive, and authorities say he somehow managed to kill himself -- despite having previously been under suicide watch.
Because of his many connections to the rich and famous, the news spawned a flurry of wild conspiracy theories: that he was killed to protect Donald Trump, that he was killed to protect Bill Clinton, and that he faked his death to escape justice. None was remotely believable. But Trump himself fed the speculation when he retweeted a post accusing Clinton of complicity, a gambit astonishing even for a president who routinely tells bald-faced lies.
The circumstances of Epstein's death are under investigation by the FBI and the Justice Department's inspector general, and Attorney General William Barr cited "serious irregularities" at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Epstein was supposed to have a cellmate and guards were supposed to check on him every half-hour, but those conditions reportedly were not met.
Epstein, 66, had obvious motives to end his life, having been indicted last month on federal sex trafficking charges that could have sent him to prison for 45 years. Prosecutors said he had recruited and paid dozens of girls, including middle schoolers, for sex acts at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida.
He pleaded guilty in 2008 to two felony sex offenses, including one involving a 14-year-old girl -- but his 13-month jail term was so mild that the federal prosecutor who negotiated it, Alexander Acosta, was forced out as labor secretary amid the outrage that erupted when the new indictment came down.
The questions about Epstein's treatment and his death, however, should not be allowed to shift the focus from where it should be: on the many women who say he lured them, tricked them and coerced them into providing him with massages and sex. An investigation by the Miami Herald "identified about 80 women who say they were molested or otherwise sexually abused by Epstein from 2001 to 2006."
Documents unsealed by a federal appeals court last week in a lawsuit revealed more details. A Florida police detective interviewed some 30 girls who were recruited to give massages and said some wept as they told their stories. Epstein's former butler said he was told to send roses to one of the girls when she appeared in her high school play. One alleged victim, Courtney Wild, earlier said that when Epstein molested her, "I was 14. I had braces on."
Retired Palm Beach police Chief Michael Reiter told the Herald, "This was not a 'he said, she said' situation. This was 50-something 'shes' and one 'he' -- and the 'shes' all basically told the same story." The many accounts were consistent, the Herald noted, "right down to their detailed descriptions of Epstein's genitalia."
The accusers who say he abused them can no longer hope to see him punished appropriately for his alleged crimes. But they can pursue a full airing of the facts and seek monetary damages from an estate reputed to be worth at least $500 million. And prosecutors have indicated that the evidence may lead to charges against others connected to Epstein.
Maybe in time the women who say they were cruelly abused for his pleasure will get financial compensation and a court verdict affirming that they are telling the truth. In the meantime, maybe they can take some solace in knowing that Epstein will never abuse another girl.
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