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2 jail workers face criminal charges in Jeffrey Epstein case

But some say they’re scapegoats for bigger problems.

Protesters, including one holding a sign with a photograph of Jeffrey Epstein’s face.
Protesters hold up signs of Jeffrey Epstein in front of a federal courthouse on July 8, 2019, in New York City.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Jeffrey Epstein’s death in a Manhattan jail has been a topic of speculation for months, with many wondering why the sex offender was allowed to be alone long enough to take his own life.

A new development in the case came on Tuesday, when two jail workers were charged in connection with allegations that they failed to check on Epstein, the New York Times reports.

The workers, Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, were charged with making false records and conspiring to defraud the United States. They were supposed to check on Epstein every 30 minutes, but fell asleep instead, then falsified records to cover up what they had done, officials told the Times.

Epstein, a money manager whose source of wealth remains somewhat unclear, was first indicted on sex crime charges in 2007, when he was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls. But he served just 13 months in a county jail thanks to a lenient “non-prosecution agreement,” as Julie K. Brown reported in a groundbreaking exposé at the Miami Herald. After her story directed new attention to the issue, Epstein was arrested on new sex trafficking charges this July, and was jailed at New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center to await his trial.

But in August, he was found dead in his cell in an apparent suicide. Since then, questions have swirled around the case, with some (including a pathologist hired by Epstein’s brother) questioning whether his death was really a suicide, and others asking why protocols meant to prevent such deaths in the jail were not followed.

The arrest of the workers may lead to more answers, but some argue that the two are being scapegoated for larger failings at the jail, including understaffing — both were working overtime when Epstein died, according to the Times.

Meanwhile, others are pressing the Bureau of Prisons for more transparency around Epstein’s death. “This is a sex trafficking ring in the United States,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) said in a Senate hearing on the case on Tuesday. “This guy had evidence, he’s got co-conspirators, and there are victims out there who want to know where the evidence has gone.”

His comments were a reminder that even after Epstein’s death, the story of his crimes — and the other people who may have been involved in them — lives on.

Epstein’s death points to larger problems at the jail

Epstein’s death raised questions because he was thought to have information on others who might have abused underage girls at his parties or homes. During his life, he was known for his “collection” of famous friends, and had ties to both President Trump and former President Bill Clinton. Ever since Brown’s Herald story was published, speculation has swirled about what other powerful people might have been involved in his crimes — either in helping cover them up or in participating in abuse themselves.

For that reason, some believed that Epstein’s death was not really a suicide, and that someone might have had him killed to prevent him from revealing compromising information at his trial. These theories got a boost last month when a pathologist hired by Epstein’s brother said that the sex offender’s injuries pointed to homicide.

However, the family-hired pathologist, Michael Baden, has been accused in the past of exhibiting “poor judgment in many instances,” according to the Times, and the current New York City medical examiner has strongly disputed Baden’s finding. The examiner’s office has officially ruled Epstein’s death a suicide.

Ultimately, the arrest of the jail workers and accounts of their behavior on the night he died point to a more prosaic problem than a supposed conspiracy.

Epstein had been on suicide watch prior to his death, but was not on suicide watch when he died. Still, under jail policy, he should have been closely monitored.

But like many jails across the country, the Metropolitan Correctional Center was understaffed, according to the Times. One of the two workers arrested Tuesday had volunteered to work overtime on the night Epstein died, but had been doing so for five straight days, a prison workers’ union official told the Times. The other had been forced to work overtime.

Meanwhile, Senate testimony on Tuesday by Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, suggests that if the workers were in fact sleeping on the job, it wasn’t an isolated incident. There have been “a few” instances of such behavior, Sawyer said, according to the Times, and the bureau is attempting to identify problem employees.

But some say employees are being treated as scapegoats for bigger problems. Jose Rojas, an official with the prison workers’ union, told the Times that while he did not condone falsifying records, it would usually be treated as a policy violation rather than a criminal matter.

“There’s culpability at the top,” he said. “They always try to blame the lowest person on the totem pole.”

Whoever bears the ultimate blame for the failure to check on Epstein, the arrest of the two workers is unlikely to put to rest the questions around his death.

On Tuesday, Sasse, who has long been vocal about the Epstein case, expressed frustration that Sawyer was not more forthcoming about the sex offender’s death.

The incident “happened in the middle of August, early August,” Sasse said. “It’s Thanksgiving and you’re here to testify today, and you say you’re not allowed to speak about this incident. I think that’s crazy.”

Meanwhile, women who say they survived abuse by Epstein are suing his estate, as well as calling for the statute of limitations for sex crimes to be extended so that more survivors of abuse by the money manager and others can come forward.

Epstein’s death meant these women and others will never face him in court, but they haven’t stopped seeking justice, both for themselves and for survivors of sexual abuse around the country.

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