On the afternoon of July 6, 2019, a force of NYPD officers and FBI agents were, appropriately enough, in a holding pattern at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
The high that Saturday was a sweltering 88 degrees. Skies were overcast and the humidity made the tarmac feel even hotter. A few of the federal agents and New York City detectives were wearing suits and ties; others perspired in their navy blue windbreakers, known as raid jackets, stamped with the yellow letters FBI. As the airport’s ground crew looked on, the small army of law enforcement—close to fifty in all—assembled near “Hangar One,” an area adjacent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office. They were awaiting the arrival of Jeffrey Epstein.
The arrest team had been poised for this moment ever since word came down hours earlier that Epstein had boarded his Gulfstream G550, tail number N212JE, in Paris. Four days earlier, United States Southern District magistrate judge Barbara Moses had signed a sealed arrest warrant for Epstein.
The operation at Teterboro would be the denouement of a carefully calibrated, confidential effort that Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney in the district, and his team of prosecutors had begun some six months earlier.
The problem, however, was that Epstein wasn’t in the country. He was in France. Law enforcement tracked the movements of his private jet. They knew their best chance for a clean apprehension would be right after he touched down in the United States. Trying to arrest someone like Epstein in one of his palatial homes presented challenges and dangers that the FBI and NYPD were keen to avoid.
Epstein had taken off from Paris four other times that year. His last flight, in April, took him from the French capital to Rabat, Morocco, for a nine-hour visit. Flights to and from Teterboro were routine for him—like taking a car service. He expected to be back in his mansion within an hour or so of N212JE’s crossing into American airspace over Maine. The arrest team waited.
The police officers and federal agents who made up the arrest force at Teterboro had arrested hundreds of violent felons among them—only seasoned officers and agents with impeccable service records were handpicked for task force work. But the Epstein operation and its secrecy made some nervous. Epstein was rich and had ties to powerful figures in New York media. A source close to the investigation said lawmen feared that someone would give the financier a heads-up.
“[Federal officials] were afraid if Epstein learned about the planned arrest in flight, he would turn into Roman Polanski and order his pilot to make a detour, to a place from where he could not be extradited,” said Lieutenant Gene Whyte of the NYPD. “[We] didn’t want to spook him because they were going to arrest him as soon as he landed and before his pilot could restart the engine.”
The precautions turned out to be unnecessary. As Epstein’s aircraft taxied to a stop on the tarmac, it was met by sedans and SUVs with lights and sirens blaring. NYPD detectives and FBI agents swarmed the aircraft. They wore their blue windbreaker raid jackets; their sidearms were out. Epstein offered no resistance as he was placed in cuffs. It was 5:30 p.m.
No one else on the plane was taken into custody. (Some media reports indicated that 30-year-old Karyna Shuliak—a Belarusian émigrée and dentist who was one of Epstein’s latest romantic interests and a woman with whom he had grown closer of late—had been vacationing with Epstein at his Paris apartment and that she had been on his jet when Epstein was arrested. Law enforcement sources familiar with Epstein’s apprehension, however, dispute this, insisting Shuliak was not on the arriving flight.)
After clearing U.S. Customs, Epstein was turned over to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and driven some ten miles south, to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, in Lower Manhattan, a federal jail known as the MCC, where prisoners charged with federal crimes are detained while awaiting arraignment or trial.
Epstein had grown up in modest surroundings, but he had never experienced conditions like those in the MCC. For a man who had long since grown accustomed to a pampered life, landing in the MCC was a rude awakening, far harsher than anything he’d experienced years earlier in the county lockup in Florida.
Robert Boyce had retired from his job as the NYPD’s chief of detectives in April 2018 after a 35-year career with the department. Even though Boyce was no longer the department’s top detective, his gregarious nature and close relationships with top brass within New York’s law enforcement community made him an inviting go-between for someone hoping to assist the beleaguered financier without so much as leaving a fingerprint.
Boyce revealed how in the days following Epstein’s July 2019 arrest, a handful of Police Foundation benefactors—those he termed “one-percenters”—embarked on what amounted to a stealth lobbying campaign on Epstein’s behalf meant to ease his discomfort behind bars. Despite the common knowledge that Epstein was a convicted sex offender, these “sweet people” believed the favor bank was open for business, and each caller importuning him sought to make a withdraw on Epstein’s behalf.
“They were upper-crust elites who met [Epstein] over cocktails and thought he was charming. He won them over,” Boyce explained.
The foundation members making calls on Epstein’s behalf had each, at one time, been generous benefactors of the Police Foundation—one contributed as much as $50,000. “You know, they’re calling not to say, ‘Hello Bob,’ but rather, ‘We’re concerned about a friend of ours who is imprisoned.’ They wanted to buy him things, certain comforts while he was in his jail cell, like a pillow or toiletries.” The callers gave Boyce the impression that each was prepared to cut a personal check on Epstein’s behalf on the spot.
Boyce was not inclined to help. By the time the callers reached the former chief of detectives, word had reached him through another former law enforcement official about the nature of the cache of lurid photographs that had been seized from Epstein’s townhouse. The trove of photos numbered in the hundreds, and the subjects were suspected victims of Epstein’s predations.
Boyce diplomatically discouraged the callers’ misguided impulses. “I told them, ‘Look, just walk away. This is a bad guy. He is much worse than you can ever know. Don’t walk. Run!’ They immediately said, ‘Thank you very much, chief,’ and hung up.”
Epstein’s first night inside the MCC was spent in what’s referred to as the general population. Ninety percent of the MCC population was in “Gen Pop,” including most pretrial prisoners, who tend to be more agitated and potentially more dangerous than those who have been sentenced and are awaiting a prison transfer, or those due for imminent release.
The tier Epstein was first sent to—7N—included gang members of MS-13 and various Bloods factions. It was a holding home for murderers, narcotraffickers, and other violent criminals, and jailhouse assaults—either to settle a score or for hire—were common.
On Epstein’s second day behind bars, the Bureau of Prisons administrators transferred Epstein from 7N to the ninth floor south, or 9S, and the Special Housing Unit, or SHU (pronounced “shoe”). It was also known in MCC vernacular as the Hole.
The MCC was a hard place to keep secrets. The nature of Epstein’s crimes became known inside the building. Rather than harming Epstein physically, several young prisoners in the unit initially sought to intimidate and extort him, according to inmate Michael “Miles” Tisdale, who ran the Inmate Companion Program that had been established to assist at-risk prisoners.
“He was ‘run out,’” Tisdale explained, meaning Epstein was ostracized from other prisoners in the housing unit. Tisdale said he heard about this effort initially from one of the guards and later from Epstein himself. “(Other inmates) tried to extort him… they tried to control him by selling him commissary items [like snacks, sodas, and certain meals] for way above what they’re supposed to be sold for.”
According to inmate accounts, Epstein did use commissary sales in an effort to secure his safety within the jail.
In conversations with another one of his counselors, inmate William “Dollar Bill” Mersey, Epstein expressed the fear that he would be targeted by Black inmates (Epstein did not raise these specific fears with Tisdale, who is Black). As Mersey understood it, Epstein’s worries about his safety were related to his experiences and feelings about race. “He mentioned he’d been bullied at school in Coney Island by Black kids—not by Italians, not by the Irish, but by Black kids,” Mersey recalled.
In one conversation, Mersey recalled Epstein asking, “Do I need a big shvar?” (Shvar, or shvartze, is a pejorative Yiddish term for a Black person.) Mersey said he tried to admonish Epstein about his insecurity, advising him to look fellow prisoners in the eye and stand his ground.
Within a few days of being assigned to the SHU, Epstein was put on “suicide watch,” which meant he was moved to an even grimmer environment. The suicide watch area consists of four-cell units on the second floor of the jail that provides some of the most restrictive housing in the facility. Inmates assigned to suicide watch are not permitted to leave their cells. Beds are without sheets; clothing is more minimal to prevent self-harming behaviors; lights are never turned off; and inmates are supposed to be under 24/7 watch by both prison guards and staff.
Tisdale remembered seeing Epstein in the unit, citing the distinctive jailhouse mufti worn by inmates on suicide watch—a gown with Velcro straps—as proof. Tisdale and Mersey would both assert that Epstein was moved to suicide watch soon after he became an inmate on July 6.
“They would not move him from the SHU to suicide watch unless he indicated to a prison psychologist or someone that he felt a desire to kill himself,” Mersey insisted. “You don’t go there unless you express intent to ‘hang up,’” prison parlance for a desire to take one’s own life.
The revelation of this previously unreported first instance of Epstein’s being placed on suicide watch raises new questions about prison officials’ efforts to safeguard their high-profile inmate. (A representative for the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the allegation.)
After several days spent on suicide watch, Epstein was transferred back to the SHU, where all seemed OK until the morning of July 23.
Five days after his request to be remanded to house arrest was denied by a federal judge on July 18, Epstein was found on the floor of his cell, semiconscious in the fetal position, with marks on his neck. Epstein’s cellmate, Nicholas Tartaglione, a muscle-bound former police officer accused of a drug-related quadruple homicide, summoned guards by yelling. (Tartaglione denied any complicity in the incident.)
Epstein went back to the SHU, only six days after his purported suicide attempt.
On August 9, Epstein’s then cellmate transferred out, with no immediate replacement. Epstein had his cell to himself.
In what would have been the last meal served to Epstein, a database from the Federal Bureau of Prisons shows the dinner that night was likely baked ziti or a tofu pasta alternative. By ten, Epstein and the other inmates were locked in their cells for the night.
By morning, he would be dead.
—Additional reporting by Philip Messing.
This is an adapted excerpt from THE SPIDER: Inside the Criminal Web of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. Copyright © 2020 by Scoop King Press, Inc. Published Tuesday by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Barry Levine is a veteran investigative reporter and editor in print and television. He received the HuffPost’s “Game Changer” award in 2010 and led a reporting team to a Pulitzer prize nomination for investigative reporting and national news reporting. He is the co-author of All the President's Women and lives in New York.