Melinda Henneberger

Jeffrey Epstein’s death cheated victims — and so did this suicide in Jackson County jail

After celebrity pedophile Jeffrey Epstein died in federal custody, I was among those whose first thought was that if his death really was a suicide, then he must have been allowed to sneak out the back exit one final time.

Well, not Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. When the news broke, she said, “it didn’t surprise me” that he’d managed to deny his victims the chance to see him prosecuted for trafficking underage sex slaves. “What surprised me was that we had to go straight to conspiracy theories.”

So no, she wasn’t wondering how he could have been left unguarded even briefly, despite an earlier suicide attempt. Or thinking about how convenient his death was for his powerful former pals. To believe anything other than the official explanation, Baker said, would have been to “misunderstand the plight of jails in America,” where “situational suicides” are common, and no facility has the staff for around-the-clock monitoring.

The guilty owe it to the rest of us “to stay alive and face the consequences,” as Baker sees it. And when that doesn’t happen, victims suffer.

Victim blamed himself for his abuser’s suicide in Jackson County jail

In September of 2017, after Michael S. McNurlin hanged himself in a closet in the Jackson County jail, the boy he’d been found guilty of sexually abusing blamed himself for his death, the prosecutor said. Just a few days earlier, McNurlin, who was already a registered sex offender, had been sentenced to 80 years in prison.

“I was so angry he wasn’t watched better,” Baker said. So that even in death, McNurlin was able to traumatize his victim all over again.

After 32-year-old Jessep S. Carter, who could have been a key witness in his half-brother Kylr Yust’s upcoming murder trial, committed suicide in the Jackson County jail in September of 2018, the families of Yust’s alleged victims worried about how his death might compromise the case. “I remember getting the call” that he’d died, Baker said, “and saying, ‘Not him!’ ‘’

Yust had always been suspected in the May 4, 2007, disappearance of his Belton High School girlfriend, 17-year-old Kara Kopetsky, who left class that morning, spoke to him on the phone a minute later and was never seen alive again. She’d already taken out a protective order against Yust, and told police he’d forced her into his car as she was leaving her job at Popeye’s Chicken on April 28.

Then, in September of 2016, 21-year-old Jessica Runions was last seen leaving a party in Grandview with Yust, whose friends told police he had been drinking heavily, arguing with her, and “acting very possessive.” Two days later, police found her burned-out car, and Carter told police that Yust had asked for his help in torching it.

Jessep Carter wanted families of Kylr Yust’s victims ‘to feel better’

After the remains of both women were finally found in 2017 in a wooded area south of Belton, Yust was charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Carter said he wanted the families of his brother’s victims “to feel better at night that he’s finally put away. I’m not OK, and my family is not OK with anything that he did.” He didn’t want that enough to stick around and testify, though.

With Yust’s trial set to start in Cass County in late October, Baker didn’t want to talk about the extent to which the case might have been hurt by Carter’s death. According to charging documents, Yust told at least three other friends that he’d choked Kopetsky to death, and told a fourth that he’d “snapped and something bad had happened to her.”

“Jessep was a guy that had a whole string of problems himself,” Baker said. He was in jail on an unrelated arson charge when he died, at different points had two protective orders taken out against him, and “was a witness that was always a little bit problematic. He came with a full bag of pros and cons.” And now? “Now,” Baker said, “they work with one less problematic witness.”

Jackson County jail is safer now

Security in the troubled jail has improved since Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forté took over in November, Baker said.

But there’s a reason there are some 300 suicides a year in American jails: “It’s not a secret jails are understaffed, and that when your shift is over you might not get to go home. And I’m not talking about a 10-hour shift but 18 hours or more,” Baker said, because there’s no one to take the next shift. Even while on suicide watch, inmates are left unsupervised for 30 minutes at a time, so those who try hard enough “still have the ability to hang themselves” in any jail.

The guards who should have been checking on Epstein were reportedly working overtime because of staffing shortages, too, and slept through much of their shift, only pretending to look in on him.

As a result, said Jennifer Araoz, who has accused Epstein of raping her at age 15, “he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed.”

What we can do for victims

One thing we could do for Araoz and other victims is realize who we’re punishing when we refuse to adequately fund and staff jails.

When we on The Star’s editorial board write about caca conditions in the Jackson County jail or chronic staffing shortages in dangerously overcrowded Kansas prisons, what we most often hear back from readers is that inmates don’t deserve to be kept safe.

The Eighth Amendment says otherwise, of course. And as we keep being reminded, not everyone in custody is guilty of any crime.

But Epstein’s cowardice has focused us on another reason jail safety ought to matter more than it does: Even if you think inmates don’t deserve to be protected from harm, justice does demand it.