Jeffrey Epstein: prison guards charged with hiding failure to keep watch

Victoria Bekiempis and Adam Gabbatt in New York
Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Two federal corrections officers were indicted on Tuesday for allegedly trying to hide their failure to check on inmates on the night the convicted sex offender and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan cell – a mere 15ft from the jail’s common area.

Related: New Epstein accuser sues estate and calls on Prince Andrew to share information

Officers Tova Noel and Michael Thomas “repeatedly failed to complete mandated counts of prisoners under their watch” in the special housing unit (Shu) of the Manhattan correctional center early on 10 August, even though Epstein had apparently tried to kill himself a few weeks earlier, prosecutors said.

Both pleaded not guilty to charges they falsely certified to having conducted inmate counts during Epstein’s final hours, and to a conspiracy charge. Neither Noel nor Thomas said anything as they left the courthouse surrounded by supporters who formed a protective barrier to block them from view.

“It is our hope that we will be able to reach a reasonable agreement in this case,” Noel’s lawyer, Jason Foy, told reporters outside the courthouse, but added that his client was prepared to defend against the charges.

Thomas’s lawyer, Montell Figgins, said his client was disappointed that prosecutors had decided to charge him criminally.

“We look forward to our day in court and we hope there will be a positive resolution,” he said.

The defendants were the first to be criminally charged in connection with Epstein’s death, which embarrassed federal officials because the case had an unusually high profile.

Epstein, who was awaiting trial for allegedly sex trafficking minors in Florida and New York, was found dead in his cell. The New York City medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.

The workers were supposed to check every half-hour on the wealthy financier, who counted Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew among powerful and well-known associates. Instead, Noel and Thomas “sat at their desk, browsed the internet and moved around the common area of the Shu”, the Manhattan US attorney’s office said.

Noel was looking at furniture websites while Thomas was looking at motorcycle sales and sports news, the indictment said. The officers allegedly slept for about two hours.

To cover up the fact they were not working as required, prosecutors said, the officers “repeatedly signed false certifications attesting to having conducted multiple counts of inmates that they did not do”.

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The bogus forms meant jail managers thought Shu prisoners were being monitored as required. “In fact,” the indictment said, “as a result of the defendants’ conduct, no correctional officer conducted any count or round of the Shu” from 10.30pm on 9 August until approximately 6.30am on 10 August.

When the officers made their rounds with the inmates’ breakfasts, it was discovered that Epstein was dead.

Noel allegedly admitted to not conducting several rounds. The indictment said Thomas told a supervisor: “We messed up. I messed up. She’s not to blame. We didn’t do any rounds.”

Court papers also provided new details about Epstein’s psychological distress – and how the jail handled him. After a 23 July suicide attempt, he was put on suicide watch for 24 hours. He was then put under psychiatric evaluation until 30 July.

After that Epstein returned to the Shu where, at the direction of psychological staff, he was supposed to have an assigned cellmate. The morning before Epstein’s death, his cellmate was moved in a “routine, pre-arranged transfer”.

“No new cellmate was assigned to his cell,” court papers said.

Asked for comment on the indictments, one of Epstein’s attorneys, Marc Fernich, said in an email: “It would be a shame if minor scapegoats … were made to take the fall for this tragedy on what amounts to a cover-up theory.

“Unless it prompts genuine self-reflection from all major participants and stakeholders in our criminal justice system and those who cover it, Mr Epstein’s death in federal custody – senseless and sad as it is – will have been entirely for naught.”

Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said in a statement: “Any allegations of misconduct are taken very seriously by the agency and will be responded to appropriately. I am committed to this agency and am confident we will restore the public’s trust in us.”

In 2008, Epstein was sentenced to 18 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to soliciting for prostitution, including soliciting an underage girl. A month before his death, he was arrested and charged with the sex trafficking of minors in Florida and New York.

In August, Epstein’s death was ruled suicide by Dr Barbara Sampson, New York City’s medical examiner. The Washington Post later reported that the autopsy found Epstein had broken bones in his neck, injuries consistent with strangulation.

Related: Prince Andrew faces calls to say sorry and speak to FBI

The report and Sampson’s finding touched off a number of conspiracy theories, including several retweeted by Trump, that Epstein’s death may have been untoward.

The arrest of the guards comes as a new Epstein accuser sued his estate, claiming he committed a “vicious, prolonged sexual assault” on her when she was 15. The woman, named as Jane Doe 15 in legal documents, is one of about a dozen women suing Epstein’s estate for alleged sexual abuses.

On Sunday, Prince Andrew gave a rare interview to the BBC in which he was quizzed about his friendship with Epstein. The interview prompted significant backlash, as the prince claimed he had no knowledge of Epstein’s behavior and said he believed staying with Epstein after the financier was convicted of child sex offenses was the “honorable thing to do”.

In announcing her lawsuit, Jane Doe 15 appealed for Prince Andrew to come forward with information about Epstein.

In a statement on Tuesday, Jane Doe 15’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, said: “All of the victims of Jeffrey Epstein and the public are entitled to the truth about what led to the death of Jeffrey Epstein when he was in custody awaiting trial in New York.”

Reuters contributed to this report