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Questions Surround Epstein's Death


The story about Jeffrey Epstein was supposed to be the unsealed documents from a lawsuit revealing shocking details about his crimes. But now investigators are chasing answers in another mystery - his apparent suicide in federal custody. NPR's Colin Dwyer has more.

COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: This was not the first major incident involving Jeffrey Epstein since his arrest earlier this summer. Authorities had been investigating a possible suicide attempt last month as well. Bruce Barket is an attorney representing Nicholas Tartaglione, Epstein's cellmate at the time.

BRUCE BARKET: He tried to hang himself, and our client was able to alert the authorities and prevent it.

DWYER: Now, prison officials have not ruled out the possibility that he was attacked or that he had somehow staged his injuries. But Barket says that in the following days, authorities at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan placed Epstein on suicide watch in a special unit. Jack Donson, a former corrections case manager, says it's standard protocol to do that with at-risk inmates like Epstein; in other words, largely isolating them and removing any objects that could be used for self-harm.

JACK DONSON: They pretty much are stripped down to their underwear, placed in a special cell, and they really have nothing.

DWYER: Donson worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons for more than two decades. Now he's an independent consultant and advocate working on prison reform. He says based on his own experience, it's virtually impossible for an inmate to harm himself while on suicide watch.

DONSON: My job in that detail was to just sit at the window and have constant supervision of somebody. And you would actually document every 15 minutes, you know, anything that might have happened while you were directly supervising a person like that.

DWYER: The thing is Epstein was not on suicide watch by the time of his death, according to several media reports. Authorities haven't publicly confirmed one way or the other. And that has plenty of people voicing their doubts, especially given the high-profile nature of this case. Documents released Friday detailed how girls as young as 14 were brought into a sex trafficking ring that operated between at least 2002 to 2005. Those documents and the new investigation have brought renewed scrutiny to the prominent figures in Epstein's circle. His case also led to the resignation of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta last month. Acosta had come under heavy criticism for the lenient plea deal that he had negotiated for Epstein in 2007 while Acosta was still U.S. attorney in Florida. As for what happens next now that Epstein has died, here's Donson, the former corrections officer.

DONSON: I do know that there will be an after action review by the Bureau of Prisons, and they will come out and they will draw conclusions on this whole incident.

DWYER: Attorney General Barr for his part says both the FBI and the inspector general of the Justice Department are opening investigations into the incident. In a statement, he said he was appalled to learn of Epstein's death and that the tough questions it has prompted must be answered. Colin Dwyer, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.