William Barr, the attorney general, has criticised “serious irregularities” at the Metropolitan correctional center (MCC) in New York where the billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in an apparent suicide on Saturday. Barr also vowed to pursue the federal sex-trafficking case against Epstein and said: “Any co-conspirators should not rest easy.”
Barr, who was speaking to the National Fraternal Order of Police in New Orleans, has come under increasing pressure to explain seeming lapses in jail protocol around Epstein’s death.
The case was important, Barr said on Monday, to the FBI, the Department of Justice, prosecutors at the southern district of New York and victims of Epstein “who had the courage to come forward and deserve the opportunity to confront the accused in the courtroom”.
Barr added that the federal case against Epstein was “very important to the Department of Justice and to me personally”.
He said: “I was appalled, and indeed the whole department was frankly angry, to learn of the MCC’s failure to adequately secure this prisoner.” He added that the DoJ was “now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation”.
Barr went on: “We will get to the bottom of what happened and there will be accountability. Let me assure you, this case will continue against anyone who was complicit with Epstein. The victims deserve justice and they will get it.”
Later in the day, the US House judiciary committee announced a bipartisan investigation into the circumstances of Epstein’s death and the Bureau of Prisons’ policies regarding inmates who are considered at risk of suicide.
Federal investigators on Monday swarmed Epstein’s private island in the Caribbean. Two senior law enforcement officials told NBC News that the FBI had launched a search of Epstein’s home off the coast of St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.
In 2008, Epstein received a widely criticised plea deal in Florida and served a year in prison on strikingly lenient terms.
He was arrested again in July on US federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges relating to the alleged abuse of hundreds of young girls. He pleaded not guilty and was denied bail. Alex Acosta, Trump’s labor secretary, resigned over the matter, having been the US attorney in Miami when the controversial plea deal was brokered a decade ago.
Speculation now centres on the whereabouts of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite and heiress who is accused of helping groom and procure young girls for Epstein to abuse. She has repeatedly denied such accusations.
News that Epstein had been found dead in his prison cell broke early on Saturday morning, the day after unsealed court documents in a settled civil case involving Maxwell detailed his connections with a web of powerful men including Prince Andrew, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. All have denied any wrongdoing.
Barr’s reference to “serious irregularities” followed a statement he released on Saturday, in which he said “serious questions” had been raised by Epstein’s death.
Barr said on Saturday: “I was appalled to learn that Jeffrey Epstein was found dead early this morning from an apparent suicide while in federal custody. Mr Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered.
“In addition to the FBI’s investigation, I have consulted with the [DoJ] inspector general who is opening an investigation.”
The federal prisons bureau announced that the FBI would investigate as it was revealed that Epstein was reportedly not on suicide watch despite an apparent suicide attempt three weeks earlier, when he was found unconscious on the floor of his cell.
It has widely been reported that the Manhattan jail in which Epstein was held has been operating without sufficient staffing. Two guards at the special housing unit where Epstein was placed were on overtime, ABC News reported, saying one officer was working a mandatory overtime shift and the other was on his fifth overtime shift of the week. Three prison officials told the New York Times that only one of the two guards normally worked as a correctional officer.
Epstein reportedly did not have a cellmate, which would be another serious breach of protocol in a high-security jail.
And Epstein was supposed to have been checked on by a guard about every 30 minutes. But investigators have learned those checks weren’t done for several hours before he was found unresponsive, a person familiar with the episode told the Associated Press. That person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and also spoke on condition of anonymity.
The jail does have a video surveillance system, but federal standards don’t allow the use of cameras to monitor areas where prisoners are likely to be undressed unless those cameras are monitored only by staff members of the same gender as the inmates. As a practical matter, that means most federal jails nationwide focus cameras on common areas, rather than cell bunks.
An autopsy has been carried out but the results were not immediately made public.
The situation was further complicated on Saturday by an outpouring of conspiracy theories on social media. To huge controversy, Donald Trump re-tweeted a claim that Bill and Hillary Clinton had somehow played a role in Epstein’s death.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.