Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges, found dead in jail cell

Epstein was charged with operating a sex trafficking ring in which he allegedly abused girls as young as 14

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published August 10, 2019 11:19AM (EDT)

July 27, 2006 arrest file photo made available by the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office, in Florida, shows Jeffrey Epstein. (AP/Palm Beach Sheriff's Office)
July 27, 2006 arrest file photo made available by the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office, in Florida, shows Jeffrey Epstein. (AP/Palm Beach Sheriff's Office)

Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire financier who last month was indicted on new sex trafficking charges a decade after he infamously avoided the possibility of life in prison by striking "the deal of a lifetime" with President Donald Trump's former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, has died by suicide.

The 66-year-old registered sex offender, who was awaiting trial at New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center, hanged himself. His body was discovered at 7:30 a.m. local time, according to the New York Times.

Last month, Epstein had been found semiconscious in a fetal position in his cell with marks on his neck. He reportedly showed no outside signs of injury when he appeared in court in the wake of what was then described as a possible suicide attempt.

Epstein was arrested July 6 at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport after his return from France. The billionaire was then charged with one count of sex trafficking minors and an additional count of engaging in the sex trafficking of minors. Epstein faced a prison sentence of up to 45 years if convicted — a de facto life sentence for a man of his age.

Federal prosecutors in New York charged Epstein with operating a sex trafficking ring in which he allegedly sexually abused dozens of underage girls, some as young as 14, across the Atlantic coast in New York and Florida. Prosecutors said the case involved new evidence and new victims, including a "vast trove of lewd photographs" of young-looking girls. Epstein pleaded not guilty to the charges. 

The arrest brought renewed attention to Epstein's earlier plea agreement, which critics criticized as too lenient, ultimately leading Acosta to resign from his powerful Cabinet post. As labor secretary, Acosta's duties included overseeing human trafficking and international child labor laws.

Then a U.S. attorney in Miami, Acosta cut a secret non-prosecution agreement in 2008 with billionaire Epstein. A federal probe of an alleged sex trafficking operation involving underage girls was brought to a close, while Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges involving a single victim.

Epstein avoided a federal trial at the time and served only 13 months in prison for state prostitution charges. While he was required to register as a sex offender, he was allowed to leave jail six days a week for 12 hours due to a work release provision.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Acosta defended his record as a U.S. attorney and addressed his decision not to indict Epstein on federal charges.

"At the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor's office decided that a plea that guarantees someone goes to jail, that guarantees he register [as a sex offender] generally and guarantees other outcomes is a good thing,'" Acosta said in March 2017.

Upon his resignation, Trump praised Acosta as a "great labor secretary — not a good one" and a "tremendous talent."

"This was him — not me," Trump said of the resignation decision. "I said to Alex, 'You don't have to do this.'"

Although Trump has claimed he "was not a fan" of Epstein, video footage recently resurfaced by NBC News revealed that he partied with the billionaire financier and registered sex offender in November of 1992.

The archival footage shows the future president partying at Mar-a-Lago, where he is surrounded by NFL cheerleaders from the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins teams. On the tape, Trump is seen joking with Epstein, who at one point doubles over in laughter. The future president appears to point to one of the women at the party as he tells Epstein, "Look at her back there — she’s hot."

A decade after footage showed him partying with Epstein, Trump told New York Magazine in 2002 that the sex offender was a "terrific guy,” who was "a lot of fun to be with.”

”It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side,” the future president said. “No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life."

Jesse Kornbluth, a former contributing editor to Vanity Fair, opened up about his relationship with the billionaire financier in a recent essay for Salon titled, "I was a friend of Jeffrey Epstein; here's what I know:":

Jeffrey Epstein didn’t abuse underage girls in a vacuum. He had enablers. And friends. For a few years in the ‘80s, I was one of his friends — in the transactional, Manhattan meaning of that word — and I got a preview of his sickness.

. . . In the commentary and in the conversations I’ve had since his arrest, the main topic is the fascinating monster who is now, to everyone’s delight, caged in a cell: Let him live there for the rest of his life. I’m the father of a teenage daughter, I can’t help but add my agreement. And then I catch myself and remember all the girls, now women, walking around exploited and tossed aside, with nothing to show for their humiliation but a few hundred long-spent dollars. Who knows their names? Who wonders if anything can be done, all these years later, to help them heal? And who, after the second cocktail, really cares?

Click here to read Kornbluth's full essay. 

Salon's Matthew Rozsa and Shira Tarlo contributed to this report. 

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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