'We messed up' — Jeffrey Epstein jail guards charged for failing to do safety checks before death

Key Points
  • Two guards at a Manhattan jail were criminally charged in connection with allegedly botching safety checks on wealthy investor Jeffrey Epstein before his death in August.
  • Michael Thomas and Tova Noel were working at the Metropolitan Correctional Center at the time of Epstein's death, which authorities have ruled was a suicide by hanging.
  • Epstein, a former friend of Presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, as well as Britain's Prince Andrew, was facing child sex trafficking charges, which were sparked by a Miami Herald investigation.
Jeffrey Epstein in 2004.
Rick Friedman | Corbis News | Getty Images

Two guards at a federal jail in New York City were arrested Tuesday for crimes related to their alleged failure to perform safety checks on accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein for up to eight hours before he was found dead in August.

The guards, Michael Thomas and Tova Noel, browsed the internet and appeared to have been asleep for about two hours during the time that they were supposed to be making sure that Epstein, a wealthy investor, and other inmates in a special housing unit in the Metropolitan Correctional Center were safe and accounted for, prosecutors charged.

Both guards are accused of signing multiple false certifications that they did mandated inmate head counts and performed rounds of the jail unit in an effort "to conceal their failure to perform their duties," according to an indictment against Noel and Thomas unsealed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The indictment says that both guards effectively confessed their failure right after the 66-year-old Epstein was found unresponsive with a noose around his neck in his cell at 6:33 a.m. on Aug. 10.

"Epstein hung himself," Noel allegedly told a supervisor, the indictment says.

"We did not complete the 3 a.m. no 5 a.m. rounds," Noel allegedly told the supervisor.

Thomas then allegedly chimed in, "We messed up ... I messed up, she's not to blame, we didn't do any rounds," according to the indictment.

Both guards are charged with a single count of conspiracy.

Noel is also charged with four counts of false records, while Thomas is charged with two counts of false records.

"The defendants had a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care at the Metropolitan Correctional Center," said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman.

"Instead, they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction," Berman said.

The indictment also reveals that a day before Epstein died his cellmate was transferred out of his cell in a routine transfer, but he was not assigned another cellmate despite jail psychological staff directing that one be placed with him.

The charges are not likely to end controversy over Epstein's death, and speculation that he was the victim of foul play instead of a suicide while awaiting trial on child sex trafficking charges, as authorities have ruled.

That speculation has been fueled in no small part by Epstein's past friendship Presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, as well as Britain's Prince Andrew — and claims that Epstein and his alleged madam, Ghislaine Maxwell, had his victims have sex with high-profile men such as Andrew and others. Andrew has denied those claims.

Thomas and Noel, "repeatedly failed" to perform head counts of inmates in the jail on the night of Aug. 9 and into the following morning, according to the indictment.

The two guards also failed to perform "any of the required 30-minute rounds" of the special housing unit where Epstein was being held, the indictment charges.

"Instead, for a substantial portion of their shifts, Noel and Thomas sat at their desk, browsed the internet, and moved around the common area of the SHU," the indictment says.

"For a period of approximately two hours, Noel and Thomas sat at their desk without moving, and appeared to have been asleep."

The indictment said that while Noel periodically used a computer throughout the night, "including to search the internet for furniture sales and benefit websites."

Thomas used it briefly at three different points "to search for motorcycle sales and sports news."

Epstein was in a cell just 15 feet or so from the guards' desk, the indictment says.

The indictment says that no guard conducted a head count of inmates in the Special Housing Unit from 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 9 through about 6:30 a.m. the following day, when Epstein's lifeless body was found in his cell.

According to MCC rules, guards are supposed to check that each inmate is alive and accounted for in the jail five times each day: at 4 p.m., 10 p.m., midnight, 3 a.m., and 5 a.m.

The indictment says that video surveillance from the jail reveals that Noel at about 10:30 p.m. "briefly walked up to, and then walked back from, the door to the tier in which Epstein was housed."

"This was the last time anyone, including any correctional officer, walked up to, let alone entered, the only entrance to the tier in which Epstein was housed until approximately 6:30 a.m. on August 10," the indictment says.

Thomas had worked as a guard at the MCC since around 2007. Noel had worked there since 2016.

The New York City medical examiner's office ruled Epstein's death a suicide by hanging. But Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist hired by Epstein's brother, has said the injuries found on Epstein's neck were more consistent in cases of homicide than in suicide.

The jail is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Epstein's death remains under investigation by multiple federal agencies.

"Any allegations of misconduct are taken very seriously by the agency and will be responded to appropriately," BOP Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer. "I am committed to this agency and am confident we will restore the public's trust in us."

Epstein was being held in the SHU because of risk factors for suicide and safety concerns about placing him with inmates in the general population, according to the indictment.

Inmates are placed in the SHU typically because they are at risk from other prisoners, or pose a danger to other inmates, as well as to staff.

Epstein's death came less than a month after he was found July 23 semiconscious on the floor of his cell with a strip of bedsheet around his neck.

NBC archive footage shows Trump partying with Jeffrey Epstein in 1992

Thomas was one of the MCC officers who responded to the incident, the indictment says.

Epstein was placed on suicide watch after that incident for about 24 hours, but then was transferred to psychological observation, a less restrictive monitoring program, until July 30.

Federal prosecutors in July accused Epstein of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls at his homes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and in Palm Beach, Florida, from 2002 through 2005. He had pleaded not guilty in the case.

Epstein had been previously investigated by both state prosecutors in Florida and the U.S. attorney's office in Miami for that alleged conduct in the mid-2000s. But he ended up in 2008 pleading guilty to relatively minor state charges, one of which was paying for sexual services from an underage girl.

Epstein served 13 months in jail in Florida for that earlier case.

During much of that sentence, Epstein was out of jail on work release.

His arrest in July came six months after The Miami Herald newspaper reignited interest in the case by federal prosecutors in New York with a series of stories that highlighted the nonprosecution agreement Epstein obtained from the Miami U.S. attorney's office in 2007.

A woman who has accused Epstein of abusing her years ago, Virginia Giuffre, has claimed that he also directed her to have sex with other men.

Giuffre has said that she had sex with Prince Andrew at the behest of Epstein's former girlfriend Maxwell, who was also a friend of the prince.

Andrew denied Giuffre's allegations in an interview with the BBC that aired over the weekend.

The interview was widely seen as a public relations debacle for Andrew, who is also known as the Duke of York.

The co-executors of Epstein's estate last week asked a judge in the U.S. Virgin Islands to approve the creation of a compensation fund for his sex abuse victims. Epstein had a private island in that American territory.

More than a dozen women are now suing Epstein's estate, which was valued at more than $570 million.

— Additional reporting by CNBC's Jim Forkin.