WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr on Monday decried what he called a "failure" by federal detention center officials in New York to secure Jeffrey Epstein, pointing to unspecified "irregularities" there that preceded the wealthy sex offender's apparent suicide while in government custody.
Barr's comments underscored the increasing scrutiny on the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where Epstein, 66, was found hanging in his cell Saturday morning, according to officials familiar with the matter. The Bureau of Prisons is part of the Justice Department and falls under Barr's authority, and he seemed to be blaming officials there for what happened.
The FBI and the Justice Department's inspector general have been aggressively investigating Epstein's death, focusing on apparent breakdowns of policy at the facility in the hours before staff discovered him unresponsive.
Barr made clear, too, that federal prosecutors' investigation into those who might have facilitated Epstein's alleged sex abuse of minors will continue, even if Epstein himself can no longer be prosecuted. Epstein was in jail awaiting a trial on new federal sex trafficking charges.
On Monday, ABC News showed footage of FBI and Customs and Border Protection personnel on the dock of a private island that Epstein owned.
"Let me assure you that this case will continue on against anyone who was complicit with Epstein," Barr said. "Any co-conspirators should not rest easy. The victims deserve justice, and they will get it."
Speaking to law enforcement officials in New Orleans, the country's top law enforcement official said he "was appalled . . . and, frankly, angry," to learn of the Metropolitan Correctional Center's "failure to adequately secure" Epstein.
"We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation," he said.
Barr did not specify what irregularities had been found in the aftermath of Epstein's death but vowed to "get to the bottom of what happened," adding, "There will be accountability."
Lawmakers also demanded answers from federal officials. The Democrat and Republican leaders of the House Judiciary Committee on Monday addressed a letter to Bureau of Prisons Director Hugh Hurwitz demanding answers to numerous questions about Epstein's time in federal detention, and asserted that Epstein's death "demonstrates severe miscarriages of or deficiencies in inmate protocol and has allowed the deceased to ultimately evade facing justice."
The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment Monday.
Those who say Epstein victimized them have long asserted the politically connected multimillionaire was able to evade justice, and many were disappointed that he will now never answer for his crimes at a trial. It is possible that prosecutors - or those who claim to have been abused by Epstein - could sue for his considerable assets. But they will be pursuing his estate for financial compensation, rather than the man himself for criminal wrongdoing.
Epstein was being held in a special housing unit of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, and should have been checked on by staff every 30 minutes. But corrections officers had not checked on Epstein for "several" hours before he was found around 6:30 a.m., when staff was handing out breakfast to inmates, a person familiar with the matter said.
This person, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Epstein, who had recently come off suicide watch, also should have had a cellmate, the person said. But a man who had been assigned to share a cell with Epstein was transferred Friday, and - for reasons that investigators are exploring - Epstein did not receive a new cellmate, a person familiar with the matter said Sunday night.
That left Epstein alone and unmonitored - at least in the hours before his death - by even those officers assigned to guard him.
Joel Sickler, a prison consultant hired by Epstein, said before Epstein's death, his legal team had discussed trying to get him transferred to another jail. Prison consultants advise clients - often white-collar defendants - how to navigate the bureaucracy and dangers of the prison system.
"He needed to be in a safer location, so we were taking measures to try to get him transferred out of the MCC," said Sickler. But Sickler said that had only reached the discussion stage among the lawyers, and no request had been made to the Bureau of Prisons at the time of Epstein's death.
"When you're a high-profile defendant who's identified as not only wealthy but a sex offender you're . . . basically a target in prison," said Sickler, who added that Epstein had asked to be taken off suicide watch last month.
What happened between the transfer of Epstein's cellmate to the time he was discovered dead is now a key focus of investigators. Union officials said while video cameras are prevalent in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, they generally do not show inmates' cells - meaning there might not exist footage of precisely what happened to Epstein.
New York City Chief Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson said that Epstein's autopsy was complete but that she had not reached a determination on the cause of death, "pending further information." The medical examiner allowed Michael Baden, a private pathologist, to observe the autopsy at the request of Epstein's representatives, Sampson said. Her office made no further public statements Monday.
Epstein was arrested July 6 after his private plane landed at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport from Paris. He was charged with sexually abusing dozens of young girls in the early 2000s. From that point on, he never left federal custody. He tried - unsuccessfully - to be released to home confinement while he awaited a trial, but a judge rejected his request to do so, and he was appealing that decision.
On July 23, Epstein was found in his cell with marks on his neck, and jail officials treated the episode as a possible suicide attempt, though they also explored whether Epstein had been attacked. At the time, Epstein had a cellmate: Nicholas Tartaglione, a former police officer in custody on murder and narcotics charges.
Immediately after the incident, officials at the detention center put Epstein on suicide watch, subjecting him to constant monitoring and daily psychological evaluations, people familiar with the matter said. After about a week, he was removed. He was returned to the special housing unit and assigned a different cellmate before that person was moved out Friday, people familiar with the matter said. The people declined to identify that cellmate.
By some accounts, Epstein seemed OK. He showed no apparent signs of distress at a July 31 court hearing, and even in the week of his death, he was meeting with his lawyers for many hours and seemed in good spirits, people familiar with the matter said.
Union officials said understaffing was a persistent issue at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, and it was possible overwork and exhaustion played a role in the incident. The two correctional officers assigned to the special detention unit where Epstein was held were working overtime - one forced to do so by management, the other for his fourth or fifth consecutive day, the president of the local union for staffers said.
Serene Gregg, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3148, said the Metropolitan Correctional Center is functioning with fewer than 70 percent of the needed correctional officers, forcing many to work mandatory overtime and 60- or 70-hour workweeks.
She said one of the individuals assigned to watch Epstein's unit did not normally work as a correctional officer but, like others in roles such as counselors and teachers, was able to do so. She declined to say which one or specify the person's regular role.
"If it wasn't Mr. Epstein, it would have been somebody else, because of the conditions at that institution," Gregg said. "It wasn't a matter of how it happened or it happening, but it was only a matter of time for it to happen. It was inevitable. Our staff is severely overworked."
The facility has long held high-profile inmates. Weeks after Epstein's arrest, one of MCC's most famous prisoners, convicted drug kingpin Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, better known as "El Chapo," was transferred out of the jail, after declaring his time there was "psychological, emotional, mental torture, 24 hours a day." The grim high-rise jail has also held al-Qaeda members, the late mob boss John Gotti, and Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernard Madoff.
Epstein was held in a section of the jail called Nine South, along with other inmates that officials decide require extra monitoring. But the strictest conditions in the MCC are found in a different section, 10 South, where the most dangerous prisoners are held.
This article was written by Matt Zapotosky, a reporter for The Washington Post.