On the evening of November 5, 1991, a Spanish fisherman spotted the body of Robert Maxwell, a controversial British press baron, floating in the Atlantic Ocean near the Canary Islands. The crew of Maxwell’s luxury motor yacht had been searching for him all day, after he had vanished that morning with no explanation. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories emerged. Maxwell, who came to Britain as an impoverished Eastern European émigré and turned himself into a larger-than-life figure and confidant of political leaders, hadn’t ended his own life: he had been murdered. The rumored perpetrators included agents of the K.G.B. or M.I.6, or a team of frogmen from the Mossad. In support of this theory, it was pointed out that Maxwell had long been rumored to have ties to various intelligence agencies, especially the Israeli one. Maybe he had been silenced to prevent him from spilling the beans.
Almost thirty years later, some people cling to these confabulations, despite the existence of a simpler and more convincing explanation for Maxwell’s death. When he set out on his boat, he knew that the debt-burdened business empire which he had spent decades building, Maxwell Communication Corporation, was on the brink of collapse. He also knew that, in a desperate and failed effort to prevent such an outcome, he and his associates had taken hundreds of millions of pounds from M.C.C.’s employee pensions and used the money to try to prop up the company’s share price. After the inevitable bankruptcy occurred, this illegal scheme would be revealed. Maxwell would be ruined, shamed, and, most likely, sent to jail. To a man who was eaten up by pride and insecurity even as he became a well-known figure on two continents—that year, he had purchased the Daily News—the prospect of financial ruin and public humiliation was too much to take. So he jumped overboard.
Having followed Maxwell’s career closely as a financial writer and editor for the London Sunday Times, I believed at the time, and continue to believe, this version of events. It doesn’t clear up all the mysteries surrounding Maxwell’s death, such as the lack of a suicide note and the fact that a team of coroners couldn’t agree conclusively on the cause, leaving open the possibility of heart attack or accidental drowning. But suicide is intuitively plausible, and it satisfies the principle of Occam’s razor, which says that when choosing between various theories we should choose the one that provides the simplest explanation and requires the fewest auxiliary hypotheses to be true.
In a remarkable quirk of history, the stories of Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein are linked, through Maxwell’s daughter, Ghislaine. The motor yacht on which Maxwell took his last steps was called Lady Ghislaine. Shortly after his death, Ghislaine Maxwell moved to New York, where she met Epstein, becoming his girlfriend, and, according to some accounts, his procurer. (She has vigorously denied these claims.) Like Maxwell, Epstein was a self-made figure—he hailed from Coney Island and didn’t graduate from college—who lived on his wits. Like Maxwell, he cultivated prominent people even though the source of his fortune was opaque. And, like Maxwell in 1991, at the time of Epstein’s death everything was being taken away from him.
Unlike a decade ago, when Epstein had used his money and influence to emerge from a two-year F.B.I. investigation facing just a single state charge of soliciting sex from a minor, he was trapped. In July, a team of federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York had accused him of running a sex-trafficking scheme involving dozens of underage girls. A judge had denied his plea for bail. New witnesses had come forward. The case had attracted enormous publicity. Virtually everyone associated with Epstein had turned on him, including Leslie Wexner, the retail billionaire who appears to have been a primary source of Epstein’s fortune. (Last week, Wexner claimed that Epstein “misappropriated vast sums of money from me and my family.”)
At sixty-six, Epstein was facing the prospect of languishing for months in a nightmarish jail that had housed the likes of John Gotti and El Chapo; facing his accusers in a criminal trial; losing his fortune in civil suits; and spending the rest of his life in a federal pen, this time without the work release he’d been granted during his first incarceration. He had lost what sociopaths like him value most: control. Based on what we know now, it appears that Epstein killed himself in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, on Saturday morning, and that no one else was involved. In some ways, this isn’t a very satisfying explanation, and it raises important questions about why Epstein wasn’t being supervised more closely. But it fits the facts that have been revealed so far. It also fits what we know about Epstein’s psychological profile. And it doesn’t require the involvement of Mossad frogmen, or their equivalent, to be true.
But how was he allowed to do it? According to the Wall Street Journal, Epstein’s own attorneys were the ones who requested that he be taken off suicide watch. This doesn’t explain why the authorities acceded to this request when Epstein, only weeks earlier, had been found unconscious in his cell, with bruises on his neck. Similarly, we don’t know why Epstein was left alone in his cell last Friday night, or why the guards didn’t check on him at regular intervals, as the jail’s standard procedure demanded. “It remained unclear why that procedure was not followed in Mr. Epstein’s case,” the Times reported on Sunday. Bob Hood, a former senior official at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the Metropolitan Correctional Center, told the Times, “The Bureau of Prisons dropped the ball. Period.”
That explanation won’t satisfy many people, of course—not with the President and members of his Administration spreading defamatory conspiracy theories about the Clintons. On Saturday, Trump retweeted a video from a conservative comedian, Terrence Williams, in which Williams suggested that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton were responsible for Epstein’s death. (Earlier on Saturday, Lynne Patton, an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, posted a headline about Epstein’s death along with the word “Hillary’d!!” and the hashtag “#VinceFosterPartTwo.”) What the forty-fifth President appears to be intimating is that an assassin, working for the forty-second President, broke into one of the most secure jails in the country, hanged Epstein, and left without disturbing the guards or being caught on internal cameras. And perhaps the most remarkable thing is that no one is really surprised to see Trump doing this—disinformation and incitement are two of his trademarks.