Three months after Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in a Manhattan jail cell, scepticism surrounding the official ruling of the sex offender’s suicide is very much alive — even being publicly aired on Capitol Hill this week.
“Christmas ornaments, drywall and [Jeffrey] Epstein. Name three things that don’t hang themselves,” John Kennedy, a Republican senator from Louisiana, said during a Senate hearing this week.
Doubts that Epstein did so with a bedsheet in his jail cell, as New York authorities concluded, cropped up online almost as soon as the findings were released in August. The gist was that the man who had consorted with presidents and business titans “knew too much”, and thus was murdered.
Epstein conspiracy theories also come in more baroque varieties. Some adherents insist that he is still alive and in hiding, possibly in Israel. Others believe that Epstein belonged to a cabal of powerful paedophiles and “deep state” agents who secretly run the world.
Two jail guards who were supposed to be monitoring Epstein in the hours before his death were arrested on Tuesday. The indictment detailed how the guards allegedly shirked their duties and said that video surveillance proved no one else entered the facility during the period in question.
Still, Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the new head of Bureau of Prisons, told the Senate judiciary committee this week that the FBI was investigating the possibility of a “criminal enterprise” in the matter.
William Barr, the attorney-general, attempted to tamp down speculation about Epstein’s fate. In an interview with the Associated Press published Friday, he acknowledged having his own questions initially about the circumstances of Epstein’s death, and said he personally reviewed security footage from the night of his death.
“I can understand people who immediately, whose minds went to sort of the worst-case scenario, because it was a perfect storm of screw-ups,” Mr Barr told the AP.
Epstein pleaded guilty in Florida in 2008 to charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor. After an unusually lenient sentence, he was arrested again in New York in July on charges of trafficking under-age girls for sex. His victims are now seeking compensation from his roughly $600m estate.
As fodder for conspiracy theorists, the Epstein case has several things working in its favour, according to Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami and co-author of the book American Conspiracy Theories: there was a motive to kill him, there was media coverage and Epstein was connected to prominent names across the political spectrum, including Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Britain’s Prince Andrew, among others.
“People on both sides of the political divide can agree on it,” Mr Uscinski said. “Then they can choose their own adventure as to who did it — or if he’s still alive.”
They do so in an era of “fake news” and at a time when opinion polls show that Americans largely distrust the mainstream media and government institutions. Unusually, the current occupant of the White House has also made a habit of using social media to spread conspiracy theories.
Fanning false claims about Barack Obama’s citizenship was a regular feature of Mr Trump’s presidential bid. Soon after Epstein’s death, he retweeted a message from a conservative comedian suggesting that Mr Clinton may have been involved. (“Ridiculous,” a Clinton spokesperson replied).
Mr Trump’s suspicions may have been encouraged by a renowned medical pathologist hired by Epstein’s brother. After observing the autopsy, Michael Baden, who once served as New York City’s chief medical examiner, pointed to a particular broken bone in Epstein’s neck, the hyoid, that he argued was more consistent with strangulation than suicide.
“The evidence points toward homicide,” Dr Baden concluded.
The city’s current medical examiner, Barbara Sampson, stood by her findings of suicide.
No matter — the conspiracists were off and running. During an appearance on a Fox morning programme to discuss dog adoptions, a former Navy Seal set off an internet craze when he announced, apropos of nothing, “Epstein didn’t kill himself.”
Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona, issued a similar message — albeit in a more cryptic fashion: Sleuths discovered that combining the first letter in a series of 23 tweets Mr Gosar sent over an eight-hour period spelt: “Epstein didn’t kill himself.”
“I’m hearing it all over,” said Jonathan Beaton, an Orlando-based publicist, who was surprised at a recent business dinner when two financial executives expressed their doubts that Epstein — who had recently been on suicide watch — was left alone in his cell to hang himself. “It’s not like [rightwing radio host] Alex Jones or people who think the moon landing was faked.”
In addition to Dr Baden’s findings, there are other peculiarities in the case that strike sceptics as more than coincidence. One is how Epstein won such lenient treatment from prosecutors in the first place. He was allowed, for example, to serve much of his Florida jail sentence in his private office.
Adding further mystery to the affair, his socialite partner, Ghislaine Maxwell, who has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing, has vanished from public view.
Mr Uscinski, for one, is not persuaded. Conspiracists tend to use facts to support their beliefs, not to challenge them, he noted.
They might overlook, for example, the fact that Dr Baden was a hired gun who has made provocative claims in the past, or that Epstein changed his will a few days before his death.
“Every conspiracy theory has [evidence],” he said, “even the really crazy stuff.”
Perhaps — but try telling that to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader. During a recent interview with Russian television he expressed his own opinion about the case, saying: “He was killed because he knew a lot of vital secrets connected with very important people in the British and American regimes, and possibly in other countries as well.”