Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide in prison on Saturday has launched new conspiracy theories online in a saga that has provided fodder for them for years.
Fuelled by Epstein’s ties to princes, politicians and other famous and powerful people, online theorists quickly offered unsubstantiated speculation – including some retweeted by President Donald Trump – that Epstein’s death wasn’t a suicide, or it was faked.
That chatter picked up on the conjecture that resurged after Epstein’s July 6 arrest on allegations that he orchestrated a sex-trafficking ring designed to bring him teenage girls. Some of his accusers have described being sexually abused by the wealthy financier’s friends and acquaintances.
The combination created fertile ground for theories and misinformation to breed on social media.
Epstein, 66, had been denied bail and faced up to 45 years behind bars on federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges unsealed last month. He had pleaded not guilty and was awaiting trial next year.
Death of financier | Epstein's final days
His relationships with Mr Trump, former President Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew were at the centre of those online rumours and theories, many of which question what politicians knew about Epstein’s alleged sex crimes.
Mr Trump retweeted a message from conservative actor and comedian Terrence K. Williams, who suggested Epstein’s death might be linked to Mr Clinton. Williams also questioned how Epstein could have died by suicide if he had been on suicide watch.
The claim is completely unsubstantiated, and, according to reports, officials say Epstein had been placed on suicide watch last month but then taken off within a week.
Clinton spokesman Angel Urena responded on Twitter: “Ridiculous, and of course not true — and Donald Trump knows it. Has he triggered the 25th Amendment yet?” The 25th Amendment spells out a process for the president’s cabinet to remove him from office.
Ridiculous, and of course not true — and Donald Trump knows it. Has he triggered the 25th Amendment yet? https://t.co/Pa8M8pAenr
— Angel Ureña (@angelurena) August 11, 2019
Many theories have already been easily debunked.
For example, days after his arrest online memes and Facebook statuses wrongly claimed the Obama administration, in order to protect former President Clinton, forged a once-secret deal in 2008 in Florida that allowed him to plead guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution to avoid more serious charges. The deal was actually executed before President Barack Obama took office, under former President George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, a manipulated photo , shared by thousands on Twitter and Facebook, falsely claimed to show Epstein with Mr Trump and a young Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter.
Both Mr Clinton and Mr Trump have denied being privy to Epstein’s alleged scheme.
Mr Urena said the former president "knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York." He said that, in 2002 and 2003, Mr Clinton took four trips on Epstein’s plane with multiple stops and that staff and his Secret Service detail travelled on every leg.
Hey @realDonaldTrump, you were friends with Jeffrey Epstein and were at parties with him. His death happened under your watch. Before you tweet out conspiracy theories, you may want to first talk with your AG Bill Barr and your head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. https://t.co/YZXV8oaAKS
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) August 10, 2019
Mr Trump has acknowledged knowing Epstein but said he "had a falling out with him a long time ago."
Other Epstein theories floating online have been darker, especially after Epstein was found injured on the floor of his cell last month with bruises on his neck. Some online commentators described it as a "murder attempt."
"Men in high places want Epstein dead," one Twitter use wrote.
Other politicians also took to social media to question the circumstances.
Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the state where some of Epstein’s alleged sexual abuse crimes took place, suggested the possibility that others might have been involved in Epstein’s death when he called on corrections officials to explain what happened at the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in Manhattan.
"The Federal Bureau of Prisons must provide answers on what systemic failures of the MCC Manhattan or criminal acts allowed this coward to deny justice to his victims," he tweeted.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now an attorney for Trump, tweeted out several questions about Epstein’s death.
"Who was watching? What does camera show? … Follow the motives" Giuliani tweeted Saturday afternoon.
What does the word watch mean in the phrase suicide
Watch? Who was watching? What does camera show? It is inconceivable Epstein could have hung himself if there was a suicide Watch? Follow the motives.
— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) August 10, 2019
The FBI and the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General will investigate the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death, Attorney General William Barr said.
"Mr. Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered," Barr said in a news release.
Epstein’s suicide was likely recorded by jail cameras, according to Preet Bharara, the former federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
"One hopes it is complete, conclusive, and secured," he tweeted.
Epstein’s arrest last month launched separate investigations into how authorities handled his case initially when similar charges were first brought against him in Florida more than a decade ago.
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US Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned last month after coming under fire for overseeing that deal when he was U.S. attorney in Miami.
Epstein’s lawyers maintained that the new charges in New York were covered by the 2008 plea deal and that Epstein hadn’t had any illicit contact with underage girls since serving his 13-month sentence in Florida.