US financier Jeffrey Epstein has died while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges in New York.
Epstein was found unresponsive in his prison cell on Saturday morning at the Metropolitan Correctional Centre, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Officials said Epstein took his own life, while a person familiar with the matter said he had been taken off suicide watch.
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US Attorney General William Barr said he was “appalled” to learn of Epstein’s death while in federal custody.
The FBI and the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General will investigate, he said.
“Mr Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered,” Barr said in a statement.
Fire officials received a call at 6.39am on Saturday that Epstein was in cardiac arrest, and he was pronounced dead in hospital.
The 66-year-old 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 on accusations of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls.
He had been placed on suicide watch and given daily psychiatric evaluations after an incident a little over two weeks ago, according to a person familiar
with the matter who was not authorised to discuss it publicly.
Epstein had been found with injuries to his neck; it hasn’t been confirmed whether they were self-inflicted or the result of an assault.
Epstein was taken off suicide watch at the end of July, the person said.
Nebraska Senator and Senate Judiciary Committee member Ben Sasse wrote a scathing letter to Barr that “heads must roll” after the incident.
“Every single person in the Justice Department – from your Main Justice headquarters staff all the way to the night-shift jailer – knew that this man was a suicide risk, and that his dark secrets couldn’t be allowed to die with him,” Sasse wrote on Saturday.
US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said the federal investigation into the sexual abuse allegations remains ongoing, and noted the indictment against Epstein includes a conspiracy charge, suggesting others could face charges.
On Friday more than 2000 pages of documents were released related to a since-settled lawsuit against Epstein’s ex-girlfriend by Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s accusers.
The records contain graphic allegations against Epstein.
Giuffre’s lawyer Sigrid McCawley said Epstein’s suicide less than 24 hours after the documents were unsealed was not a coincidence.
McCawley called on federal authorities to continue their investigation, focusing on Epstein associates who she said “participated and facilitated Epstein’s horrifying sex trafficking scheme”.
Other accusers and their lawyers reacted to the news with frustration that the financier won’t have to face them in court.
“We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed, the pain and trauma he caused so many people,” accuser Jennifer Araoz said in a statement.
© AAP 2019