Police officers stand next to a medical examiner car outside New York Presbyterian-Lower Manhattan Hospital, where Jeffrey Epstein's body was transported in Manhattan, New York, the US, August 10 2019. Picture: REUTERS/Jeenah Moon
Police officers stand next to a medical examiner car outside New York Presbyterian-Lower Manhattan Hospital, where Jeffrey Epstein's body was transported in Manhattan, New York, the US, August 10 2019. Picture: REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

New York — Outrage and intrigue over the apparent suicide in prison of well-connected accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein spread on Sunday as US lawmakers pushed for answers, including whether "criminal acts" played a role in his death.

Epstein, a convicted paedophile who hobnobbed with politicians and celebrities over the years, was found dead in his cell on Saturday while awaiting trial on federal charges he trafficked underage girls.

The discovery came a day after a court released documents in which one of Epstein's alleged victims claimed she was forced to have sex with well-known American political and business personalities. They have all denied the allegations.

Epstein's death in a high-security New York jail, an apparent suicide that came just weeks after an earlier possible attempt on his own life, meant he should have been under close watch and has fuelled anger and conspiracy theories.

"The Federal Bureau of Prisons must provide answers on what systemic failures of the MCC (Metropolitan Correctional Center) Manhattan — or criminal acts — allowed this coward to deny justice to his victims," said Florida Senator Rick Scott, a Republican.

 Cellmate reportedly moved

US attorney-general Bill Barr has instructed the justice department's inspector general to probe Epstein's death, saying it "raises serious questions".

The FBI is also investigating.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that guards were supposed to check Epstein every half hour but that procedure was not followed the night before he was found, citing an unnamed law enforcement official.

The jail had also transferred his cellmate, leaving him alone, the Times said, citing two officials.

Epstein, 66, had been charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors.

Prosecutors said Epstein sexually exploited dozens of underage teens, some as young as 14, at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, between 2002 and 2005. The young women were paid hundreds of dollars in cash.

Epstein denied the charges and faced up to 45 years in prison if convicted.

In July, Epstein was found unconscious with marks on his neck after a possible suicide attempt. He was put on suicide watch for six days before being returned to his cell in a high-security section of the prison, the Times has reported.

"Paedophiles facing federal criminal charges are at high risk for suicide," tweeted Rod Rosenstein, the former US deputy attorney-general.

"Detained pedophiles require special attention. Stopping people from harming themselves is difficult."

 'Unfounded conspiracy theories' 

Epstein — whose friends included Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew — had been convicted in 2008 in a Florida state court of paying young girls for sexual massages at his Palm Beach mansion.

Those men have all denied knowing anything about Epstein's alleged crimes.

The two thousand pages of previously sealed court documents released on Friday focused on testimony by a woman who claimed she was Epstein's "sex slave".

Virginia Giuffre detailed new allegations against Epstein and his high-profile acquaintances.

"Some of wealthiest people in the world committed a horrible crime. If they think for a second that they got away with it because Jeffrey Epstein is dead, they're dead WRONG," tweeted New York mayor Bill de Blasio, as prosecutors pledged to pursue the indictment.

Trump weighed in on Saturday, retweeting a conspiracy theory alleging that Bill Clinton may be connected to Epstein's death.

"This is another example of our president using this position of public trust to attack his political enemies with unfounded conspiracy theories," Beto O'Rourke, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, told CNN.

Cory Booker, another Democratic candidate, described Trump's retweet as "more recklessness" and "dangerous".

Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, asked on Fox News Sunday about her boss's retweet, said that "the president just wants everything to be investigated".

Epstein avoided a lengthy jail sentence when facing the charges in Florida over a decade ago.

He served just 13 months under a secret plea deal struck with the then federal prosecutor in the state, Alex Acosta, who was forced to resign as US labour secretary last month over the issue.

Alleged victims were hoping for more justice this time around.

"I really wanted him to... be put in jail and have to sit there and think about what it is he exactly did to so many people," one accuser, Michelle Licata, said.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, another Democratic presidential candidate, said on Sunday that "these survivors deserved a day in court. They deserved justice".

"It is a shame that he committed suicide," she said.

AFP