The Epstein Murder: Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

By Paul Thomas Zenki

Why we often crave more than mere reality …

A wealthy financier playboy, accustomed to a life of jet-setting and cavorting with young women on his own private island, is jailed for underage sex trafficking. He’s been busted before and set free, more than once.

This time, he knows he’s staring at a possible life sentence as a “chomo”. After attempting to take his own life, he’s placed on suicide watch for a week, then rotated out after a psychological evaluation. A couple of weeks later, after his cellmate had been released, on an evening when his guards decide to sleep through their rounds, he takes the opportunity and hangs himself in his cell.

It’s hardly a scenario requiring elaborate alternate explanations. Yet the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein has spawned a vigorous cottage industry in conspiracy theories.

So what’s the difference between a conspiracy theory and a genuine conspiracy? And why are we humans so often driven to conjure up improbable or even impossible narratives to account for events with obvious and mundane causes?

Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide offers an illuminating case study. But first, let’s glance quickly at an actual conspiracy case …

Back in 2008 the FBI had a theory that another wealthy financier, Bernard Madoff, had formed a conspiracy with family members and business associates to defraud investors. Turned out, the Madoff clique was running not only the biggest financial fraud in American history, but the largest Ponzi scheme on the planet to the tune of nearly $65 billion, more than the gross domestic product of Luxembourg.

So why was the FBI’s (correct) theory about the (real) Madoff conspiracy not a conspiracy theory? Well, it’s because the popular term “conspiracy theory” doesn’t mean a valid theory about actual conspiracies. Rather, it’s an alternative explanation to the “official story” of publicly known events, one which shares most or all of the following features:

  • Scope-balloons: The conspiracy encompasses much more than the event at hand  —  national or global networks (real or imagined), powerful agencies, governments, large industries, secret societies, or “elites” are drawn into the tale.
  • Protective facade: It is asserted that the “official story” — which may be a crime report, scientific theory, government statement or policy, historical record, news item, or any number of other accepted explanations — has been intentionally manufactured to protect powerful people, although the folks reporting it may themselves be patsies.
  • Presumed fabrication: Evidence for the official story is assumed to be invented.
  • Complicit experts: Experts are rejected as being insiders to the conspiracy, duped by it, threatened by it, or having self-interest in perpetuating the hoax, while non-experts are trusted as independent truth-tellers.
  • Negative inference: “Evidence” for the conspiracy consists largely of alleged holes in the official story — usually inconsequential gaps in knowledge about the event or else mere ignorance on the part of the conspiracy theorists themselves — which leave room for speculation and “connecting the dots”.
  • Blinkering: Counter-evidence against the conspiracy theory and contradictions among its many assertions are simply ignored.
  • Hyper-collusion: The conspiracy requires large numbers of people, often not connected by bonds of family, business, or membership in a criminal organization, none of whom rat it out.
  • Factoidism*: There’s a heavy salting of misinformation mixed with the speculation, often in the form of specious field arcana and technobabble which the average person doesn’t have the domain knowledge to falsify on their own.

All the above function in concert like a self-propelling machine. Bogus factoids resist debunking by claiming experts are in cahoots, which in turn supports claims of faked evidence. The need for a phony offical story is postulated by pointing the finger at power behind the scenes, which is deduced by focusing on supposed “holes” in the mainstream account. The improbabilities of keeping large numbers of conspirators quiet are simply brushed aside and the focus is moved elsewhere. And so, all well-intended debunkers find themselves traveling a Möbius strip with no exit ramps to reality.

The conspiracy machine roars to life

The Epstein suicide was of course a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories, which popped up in its wake like mushrooms after a rain. He hobnobbed with the wealthy and powerful, including US presidents, providing an ample field for scope ballooning. His A-list Rolodex, combined with the charges of sex trafficking, raised speculations that some of his celebrity associates — most notably Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump — may have been “clients” who would be anxious to “shut him up” by ordering a hit, thus creating the need for a protective facade supported by presumed fabrication and complicit experts who were either paid, threatened, or duped into crafting and supporting an official story.

Of course the problems with such a hypothesis are obvious. Kingpins don’t flip on clients — it works the other way round. Not only could Epstein gain nothing by ratting on anyone he might have pimped for, he would have been providing fodder for his own prosecution. Silence would be his only possible avenue for retaining supposed wealthy and powerful clients as allies behind the scenes (although by the time of his death it was clear he had become too toxic for anyone to support publicly).

A year before his death, Epstein had gabbed to New York Times reporter James Stewart about the Silicon Valley bigshots who he knew to be using drugs and hiring hookers. (Although no names were mentioned.) But even if he’d meant for that conversation to leak, his purposes couldn’t have been to threaten a reveal. Perhaps he could have intended to threaten potential witnesses into silence. But even that notion is suspect, seeing as how he kept the conversation “on background” and it wasn’t even attributed to him until after his demise. But once the story was printed just two days after Epstein’s death, it was sure to fuel shut-him-up assassination fantasies.

Then, too, how would any of his socially elite pals actually order a murder inside a prison? What sort of connection could they plausibly be expected to have with the prison gangs who would presumably carry out such a deed? And even if they had those connections, is it reasonable to imagine that anyone facing merely the possibility of being accused of sex with adolescent girls would respond by adding a murder-for-hire rap to their current (potential) legal predicament, a charge with no statute of limitations and a likely life sentence, and an act which would cede to their hirelings a much more dangerous secret about them than Epstein could possibly have had in the first place?

The scenario is preposterous on its face, yet the absurdities were blinkered away. But why? What psychological needs are served by these alternative realities?

The power of doubt

The human brain abhors ambiguity and despises randomness. Our obsession with patterns drives the curiosity and inventiveness that have allowed our species to dominate the globe. Reality, however, is chock full of random, meaningless, and pointless events.

That nagging feeling of uncertainty rises like an itch when our minds either cannot form a coherent pattern or cannot decide between alternative patterns. In random or ambiguous situations, no single pattern has achieved a threshold of confidence in our brains. This is an actual physical situation in which our neural networks cannot settle into a comfortable arrangement of neural firings. And our neurons don’t like it one little bit.

There are many reasons why doubt bubbles up. But all of them are based on biology and experience, on what we expect should happen. If it makes no sense to you that a handful of nobodies armed with boxcutters could bring down New York’s iconic skyscrapers and tear a hole into the headquarters of the world’s most powerful military, then your mind searches for another explanation, one which grants equal power and prestige to the perpetrators. Nine-Eleven must have been an “inside job” backed by world governments and international finance. If you believe only God, not mere humanity, is capable of manipulating the global climate, then an agreement by scientists around the world that we are facing a climate catastrophe is prima facie evidence of skulduggery. Are they perhaps committing a hoax to get grant money, or maybe in the pocket of ambitious politicians eager to wring power from a dystopian one-world government?

Even trivial instances of randomness can trigger bizarre conspiratorial beliefs. In the mid 1960s The Beatles began experimenting with lyrical and visual surrealism, inspired by Bob Dylan — who in turn was riffing off the zaniness of certain British and Appalachian folk tunes — as well as by the current artistic avant garde. By 1967 they were writing intentionally opaque lyrics for tunes like “I Am the Walrus” to thwart fans and critics who over-analyzed their music. Charles Manson infamously concluded that they were sending coded messages about a coming race war. But some other perfectly sane listeners came to believe that their bizarre lyrics and surrealistic imagery were a front for hidden clues about the death of Paul McCartney and his replacement with a body-double. For them, the idea that the world’s most popular band might be singing mere nonsense was more difficult to credit than the belief that they were transmitting cryptic messages to their fans.

Front covers of The Beatles' albums "Magical Mystery Tour", "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and "Revolver"
The art and words from Beatles albums like Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Revolver were scrutinized by fans around the globe for hidden meanings (images via Wikimedia Commons)

As it turns out, our neurons are none too picky about where they get their patterns. Common plots of mystery novels and cinematic thrillers, for example, create strong and persistent webs of association which our non-conscious minds find very satisfying when matched by events in the real world.

Jeffrey Epstein’s life, as reported in both mainstream and tabloid news, reads like a pulp fiction potboiler. In the summer of 2019, the plot appeared to be arcing toward its final chapters, the suave villain’s inevitable comeuppance. He was about to get his, and the victims would have their day.

Where the plots of such stories certainly don’t bend is toward the villain suddenly pulling down the curtain by killing himself before trial and judgment, resulting in the dismissal of all charges against him and no victory for the long-suffering targets of his abuse. Faced with such a shock, ordinarily rational people found this turn of events difficult to reconcile with their expectations. Even New York mayor Bill de Blasio felt that Epstein’s death was somehow “too convenient”. Thus began the rash of negative inference, the hunt for gaps in the official story that would reveal Epstein’s death to be part of something bigger, something that made more sense, that comprised a more satisfying narrative.

The machine gains steam

Jeffrey Epstein’s body was discovered about 6:30 AM on August 10, 2019, in a cell at the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center, hanging by the neck from a strip of bedsheet tied to the upper bunk. The subsequent investigation revealed a dysfunctional prison environment rife with neglect and insufficient training. Contrary to protocol, the body was rushed to New York Downtown Hospital and from there to the medical examiner’s office before any photos were taken of the death scene. The overnight guards who were supposed to be checking the cell every 30 minutes had instead taken a snooze and then faked their log books. And the two cameras with the best views of the cell didn’t work.

This was more than enough to get the conspiracy machine rolling. No, it wasn’t that the prison was badly managed. Obviously, there was something afoot here. The guards were paid off. The cameras were disabled on purpose. The first responders made sure no photographic evidence existed. Even trivial details of the scene were fodder for speculation, such as bottles left standing upright on the upper bunk which, supposedly, would have been overturned by the hanging (but not, one must assume, by the forced strangulation of the occupant of the lower bunk). Epstein’s family and attorneys insisted that he hadn’t appeared depressed immediately prior to his death (although many people who kill themselves show no outward signs of depression or suicidal thoughts leading up to their suicide).

This alternative explanation of events was much more elaborate, and infinitely less probable, but it removed that nagging feeling that the story hadn’t ended as it should, and filled the “holes” and connected the “coincidences” that left the official story so itchingly unsatisfying. Yet the conspiracy theories themselves could only be supported by massive doses of blinkering. Nobody appeared (or appears) able to identify anyone who could enforce the hyper-collusion between all the disparate parties needed to pull off the murder and its cover-up. Or explain why the guards would agree to cooperate in a scheme bound to wreck their careers and incur charges of falsifying state records, as inevitably happened. Or where the supposed hush money had gone. Or how the murderer managed to physically manifest in front of the cell and vanish again after the killing without being seen making his way to and fro on any of the surrounding cameras. Or why Epstein’s body showed no sign of a struggle, and the neighboring inmates who testified to hearing CPR being performed on the body had not heard anyone strangling an unwilling victim to death the night before.

The official autopsy and the Federal Bureau of Prisons investigation both arrived at the same unsurprising conclusion — Jeffrey Epstein hanged himself inside a badly run prison when he saw the chance. Charges of complicit experts rang out against each finding, only compounding the alleged hyper-collusion.

In this particular case, there was relatively little factoidism, especially compared to the extensive (and typically spurious) engineering minutiae mustered by 9/11 “truthers” and the sheer walls of charts, graphs, and tables often posted by climate change deniers. One of the few exceptions was the close attention paid to the breaking of Epstein’s hyoid bone, which is more common in strangulation than in hanging, but also more likely when an older person is hanged compared to a youth. And a statement in a 60 Minutes interview by a pathologist hired by Epstein’s brother who reviewed photos of forensic evidence, saying it “looks like” there was no blood on the strip of orange bedsheet used in the hanging, got elevated on Wikipedia to an assertion that “although there was blood on Epstein’s neck, it was absent on the bed-sheet ligature”.

The power of certainty

While doubt may drive people into conspiracy theories, the satisfaction of certainty keeps them there. Conspiracy theorists often refer to those who accept the official story as “sheeple”, reflecting their view that anyone who fails to believe isn’t thinking for themselves, is being led around by the nose, controlled by higher powers.

And therein lies the true lure of conspiracy thinking. Your average individual may not have any real power against governments, banks, global corporations, billionaires, law enforcement, or the military, but if you’re onto their game, if you’ve got them sussed out, at least you’re not being fooled. And not being fooled allows us to think of ourselves as wise guys of a sort, insiders who know the score. We may not hold all the cards, but at least we know who’s running the game, and we’re not about to get fleeced.

Once that satisfying pattern has settled into our brains, it’s extremely difficult to knock our neurons into a different configuration. Especially when doing so means admitting that, far from being the wise guy, we’ve been the patsy all along. Which is why firmly entrenched false beliefs develop a kind of immunity to evidence, to the point that factual counter-evidence can even strengthen belief in the misinformation while increasing distrust against those who think otherwise.

So how do we defend ourselves against falling into the conspiracy theory trap? How do we fight against that nagging subconscious urge to ignore the preposterous conclusions that the Epstein murder hypothesis, for example, demands we accept, and live instead with the random and deeply unsatisfying injustice of his suicide and the seeming coincidences which allowed it to happen?

One of the best guards against conspiracy thinking is simply to demand an actual theory, a complete and coherent story. Conspiracy theories tend to break down quickly when we stop “just asking questions” — to quote a 9/11 “truther” mantra — and actually try to construct a complete, coherent scenario from all the bits and pieces. Stop and examine the alleged motives. Do they really make sense? Does Bill Gates really need to make more money, now that he’s actively giving so much of it away? Think about the claims being made and if they add up. If Antifa and BLM are responsible for the Capitol attack, how come nobody spotted them as outsiders at the time, but somehow people are able to do so after the fact, and why haven’t any of these infiltrators been arrested and identified as such?

Another strategy is to tease out the consequences of the claims. Just ask, “If that were true, then what?” For example, if the US moon landing were faked, wouldn’t some other country, especially America’s enemies and its rivals in the space race, point out that no launch or splashdown had been observed? If the Holocaust never happened, wouldn’t at least some Nazis use that fact as a defense when their very lives were on the line at trial? If climate scientists are lying about climate change to get grant money, wouldn’t at least a few among them choose to sabotage their competition and get more grant money for themselves by exposing the fraud?

Another red flag is being asked to reject actual experts in favor of non-experts. Which goes hand in hand with being highly suspicious of scenarios requiring hyper-collusion. Could a school shooting actually be faked without anyone investigating the crime figuring that out? Could the engineers analyzing the collapse of the World Trade Center towers have realistically made mistakes so obvious that random Internet users can spot them? Could nanochips actually be slipped into our vaccines without anyone involved in their development, manufacture, transportation, and insertion into the doses noticing what’s going on, and without anyone detecting the money trail or paper trail, or for that matter detecting the transmission signals that would be necessary for such devices to be useful once injected?

It’s also worthwhile to question whether the supposed “unlikely coincidences” in the official story actually are coincidences. In the Epstein case, for example, the notion that his death was surrounded by inexplicable “coincidences” depends on viewing the event backwards, as though it had to happen, and to happen when it did, and so the conditions surrounding it are somehow “too convenient”. Once we realize that it didn’t have to happen in the first place, we can see that the circumstances themselves triggered the event. Epstein feigned a positive mental attitude to get out of suicide watch. When his cellmate was released and he was left alone, he seized the opportunity to attempt suicide a second time. The same mismanagement in the prison which failed to have a new cellmate immediately assigned and allowed guards to sleep through their shifts also led to security hardware lingering in disrepair and first responders breaching protocol by removing him from his cell. The conditions surrounding Epstein’s suicide aren’t coincidences, but causes. One might just as well be suspicious that a hurricane arises when the temperature, air pressure, humidity, and winds are so “conveniently” aligned for it to form.

As psychologically satisfying as it may be to believe that Jeffrey Epstein was murdered, stepping back and attempting to outline a complete and coherent narrative yields a story that is not only preposterous in its motivations and utterly implausible in its premises, but also logistically impossible to carry out. That’s why there is no actual conspiracy theory to be found, no story of who did what when and where. When you look directly at it, the phantom of an actual theory vanishes like a magician’s smokescreen.

And yet, on some deep psychological level, it can still feel so much more satisfying to turn our heads and believe the illusion is real.

*The word factoid originally referred to a “statement taken to be a fact because of its appearance in print” but which is actually “a product [used] to manipulate” public opinion. It has since evolved to mean something like a bit of trivia or a sound byte, an actual fact rather than a fabricated look-alike, but I’m using the term in the earlier sense here.

Header image: Mugshots of Jeffrey Epstein in 2006, 2013, and 2019, & Epstein’s jail cell after his suicide (public domain)

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.