Feds fight back as Epstein death conspiracy theories swirl

NEW YORK (AP) — At another time in history, the indictment of two jail guards responsible for monitoring Jeffrey Epstein the night he killed himself might have served as an emphatic rebuttal to suspicions that the wealthy sex offender was actually murdered.

Not in 2019.

Conspiracy theories continued to flourish, even after prosecutors took pains to point out the ample evidence backing a medical examiner’s determination that Epstein hanged himself.

Video surveillance confirmed, they said in a news release and an indictment, that nobody had entered the area where Epstein was locked in his cell.

The locked door to the unit, they said, could only be opened remotely by an officer in the jail’s control center, plus there was a second locked door to which only correctional officers assigned to the high-security housing unit had the key. Epstein had no roommate, they said, and had died alone.

No matter. Social media buzzed with “Epstein didn’t kill himself” memes, fueled by the financier’s past associations with Britain’s Prince Andrew and U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.

“People aren't buying the suicide story,” said one tweet.

“Epstein is alive on a beach somewhere in the middle east,” said another.

Democrats and Republicans — and even Epstein’s family and his alleged victims — were united in skepticism that Epstein could have taken his own life a month after his arrest on sex trafficking charges.

At a news conference Thursday, lawyer Gloria Allred, who represents several woman who say they were sexually abused by Epstein, said there remains quite a few “suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.” Dr. Michael Baden, the forensic pathologist hired by Epstein’s family to observe his autopsy, also remained incredulous, saying he wanted to hear from the guards before deciding whether it was suicide or homicide.

Eric Oliver, a University of Chicago professor who studies conspiracy theories, said no amount of evidence presented by government authorities is likely to change some people’s minds.

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NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against billionaire financier Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 08: Two of the purported victims of multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Michelle Licata (L) and Courtney Wild leave a Manhattan court house after a hearing on sex trafficking charges for financier Jeffrey Epstein on July 08, 2019 in New York City. Epstein is charged with having operated a sex trafficking ring in which he sexually abused dozens of underage girls. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: Two of Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims, Michelle Licata (L) and Courtney Wild (R), exit the courthouse after the billionaire financier appeared for a hearing on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, center, sits with attorneys Martin Weinberg, left, and Marc Fernich during his arraignment in New York federal court, Monday, July 8, 2019. Epstein pleaded not guilty to federal sex trafficking charges. The 66-year-old is accused of creating and maintaining a network that allowed him to sexually exploit and abuse dozens of underage girls from 2002 to 2005. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
NEW YORK, US - JULY 08: David Boies, attorney for the alleged sex victims of the US financier Jeffreey Epstein case, delivers a speech to the media outside the United States Federal Court on July 08, 2019 in New York, United States. (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: A residence belonging to Jeffrey Epstein at East 71st street is seen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein is charged with running a sex-trafficking operation out of his opulent mansion. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: Prosecutors exit the room after US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: Member of the press listen as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: A protest group called "Hot Mess" hold up signs of Jeffrey Epstein and President Donald Trump in front of the Federal courthouse on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman speaks during a news conference, in New York, Monday, July 8, 2019. Federal prosecutors announced sex trafficking and conspiracy charges against wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein. Court documents unsealed Monday show Epstein is charged with creating and maintaining a network that allowed him to sexually exploit and abuse dozens of underage girls.(AP Photo/Richard Drew)
In this courtroom sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, second from right, listens along with defense attorneys, from left, Marc Fernich, Michael Miller, and Martin Weinberg as Judge Richard M. Berman denies him bail during a hearing in federal court, Thursday, July 18, 2019 in New York. Judge Berman denied bail for the jailed financier on sex trafficking charges, saying the danger to the community that would result if the jet-setting defendant was free formed the "heart of this decision." (Aggie Kenny via AP)
FILE - This March 28, 2017, file photo, provided by the New York State Sex Offender Registry shows Jeffrey Epstein. A judge denied bail for jailed financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges Thursday, July 18, 2019, saying the danger to the community that would result if the jet-setting defendant was free formed the "heart of this decision." (New York State Sex Offender Registry via AP)
In this courtroom sketch, Judge Richard M. Berman speaking as he denies Jeffrey Epstein bail during a hearing in federal court, Thursday, July 18, 2019 in New York. Judge Berman denied bail for the jailed financier on sex trafficking charges, saying the danger to the community that would result if the jet-setting defendant was free formed the "heart of this decision." (Aggie Kenny via AP)
In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, left, and his attorney Martin Weinberg listen during a bail hearing in federal court, Monday, July 15, 2019 in New York. Epstein's lawyers want him released on house arrest to his Manhattan home while he awaits trial. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
This courtroom sketch shows Judge Richard Berman as he speaks during the Jeffrey Epstein bail hearing in federal court, Monday July 15, 2019. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, left, listens as accuser Annie Farmer, second from right, speaks during a bail hearing in federal court, Monday, July 15, 2019 in New York. Farmer says she was 16 when she "had the misfortune" of meeting Epstein and later went to spend time with him in New Mexico. Accuser Courtney Wild, right, said in the hearing that she was abused by the wealthy financier in Palm Beach, Florida, starting at age 14. Epstein's lawyers want him released on house arrest to his Manhattan home while he awaits trial. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, left, and attorney Reid Weingarten, second from right, listen as attorney Martin Weinberg, right, speaks during a bail hearing in federal court, Monday, July 15, 2019 in New York. Epstein's lawyers have insisted he will not run. They want him released on house arrest to his Manhattan home while he awaits trial. Courtney Wild, third from left, said in the hearing that she was abused by the wealthy financier in Palm Beach, Florida, starting at age 14. She called him a "scary person" and urged detention "for the safety of any other girls" out there. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
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“When there's already this kind of profound mistrust of the political system, of political institutions, of the media, any kind of official channel that seeks to overturn this belief is likely to be viewed with suspicion,” he said.

Oliver said a survey he conducted two weeks ago found that 30% of respondents believed Epstein’s death was a homicide. Most conspiracy theories gain traction with less than 20% of respondents, he said. The Trump-perpetuated theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. peaked at about 24%.

The Epstein conspiracy theories also cut across the ideological spectrum, Oliver said, in part because they speak to concerns some Americans have about concentrations of wealth and power: feeling that the wealthy have amassed too much political power.

“The idea that somehow or another they were able to sneak into his jail cell and murder him speaks to both that power — that they're somehow or another above the law — and the nefariousness of their intentions, that they'd be willing to murder some guy who could potentially expose the wealthy,” Oliver said.

The two corrections officers at the Metropolitan Correctional Center charged in connection with Epstein’s Aug. 10 death are accused of the relatively mundane crime of falsifying prison logs.

Guards Tova Noel and Michael Thomas were supposed to be checking on Epstein every half-hour. But prosecutors said they shirked that duty and were instead sleeping or surfing the internet for bargains on furniture and motorcycles, and Epstein “committed suicide overnight while unobserved.” The guards have pleaded not guilty and are free on bail.

Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press this week that he initially had his own suspicions about Epstein’s death but came to the conclusion that failures by the jail’s staff had allowed Epstein to take his own life.

“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,” Barr said.

The phrase “Epstein didn’t kill himself” has taken on a life of its own — sometimes more as a pop culture catchphrase than an actual belief.

It has shown up on a screen at San Diego’s airport, on a California brewery’s beer cans and as the name of a new Michigan brew.

This month, a former Navy SEAL appearing on Fox News blurted, “Epstein didn’t kill himself,” during an unrelated interview.

Last week, a man tried to register for a spot on the New Hampshire primary ballot as Rod "Epstein Didn't Kill Himself" Webber.

On Monday, the day before the officers were charged, a woman who says Epstein sexually assaulted her when she was 15 wore a bracelet to a news conference that spelled out: “Epstein didn’t kill himself.”

Even members of Congress got in on the act.

U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., spelled out the phrase with the first letter of each in a series of 23 tweets last week. At a prison oversight hearing on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy said drywall, Christmas ornaments and Epstein were “three things that don't hang themselves.”

“That’s what the American people think, and they deserve some answers,” the Louisiana Republican said.

Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said during that oversight hearing that Epstein’s death was “a black eye on the entire Bureau of Prisons.” But in an exchange with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, she reiterated that it was a suicide.

“Do you have any evidence to suggest otherwise?” Graham asked.

“I do not,” Hawk Sawyer said.

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Associated Press reporter Michael Balsamo contributed to this report from Kalispell, Montana.

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Follow Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak

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