NEW YORK (AFP) - Outrage and intrigue over the apparent suicide in prison of well-connected sex-trafficking accused Jeffrey Epstein soared Sunday (Aug 11) as lawmakers pushed for answers, including whether "criminal acts" played a role in his death.
Epstein, a convicted pedophile who hobnobbed with countless politicians and celebrities over the years, was found dead in his cell Saturday while awaiting trial on charges he trafficked underage teen girls for sex.
The discovery came a day after a court released documents in which an alleged victim of Epstein's 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, just weeks after an earlier possible attempt on his own life, meant he should have been under close watch and has fueled anger and a conspiracy theory frenzy.
"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.
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 that must be answered." The FBI is also investigating.
On Sunday The New York Times reported that guards were supposed to check Epstein every half hour but that procedure was not followed the night before he was found.
The jail had also transferred his cellmate, leaving him alone, the Times said citing 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.
He denied the charges and faced up to 45 years in prison - effectively the rest of his life - if convicted.
Last month 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 prison, the Times has reported.
For him to be taken off suicide watch under such circumstances, "seems like a truly bizarre decision," tweeted Andrew Yang, who is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
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 to massage him, perform sexual acts and to recruit other girls, prosecutors alleged.
'Unfounded conspiracy theories'
Epstein, whose friends included US President Donald Trump, former US president Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew, had been convicted previously of paying young girls for sexual massages at his Palm Beach mansion.
They have all denied knowing anything about his alleged crimes.
The two thousand pages of previously sealed court documents released Friday focused on testimony by a woman who claimed she was Epstein's "sex slave." Virginia Giuffre detailed new allegations against Epstein and 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 without any evidence whatsoever that Bill Clinton may be connected with 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 Democratic nomination, told CNN.
Cory Booker, another Democratic candidate, described Trump's retweet as "more recklessness" and "dangerous." 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 Labor 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," Michelle Licata told ABC's This Week.