Two corrections officers responsible for guarding Jeffrey Epstein on the night in August when he was found hanging in his jail cell were charged on Tuesday with failing to do their jobs and then covering up their dereliction.
Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, officers at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, were charged with making false records and conspiring to interfere with the functions of the federal prison.
Noel, 31, and Thomas, 41, failed to check on Epstein every half hour as required, the indictment says, and falsified logs to make it appear they had in fact been monitoring the Palm Beach multimillionaire and sex offender on Aug. 9 and 10.
Instead of performing their duties, according to the indictment unsealed Tuesday, Noel and Thomas “sat at their desk, browsed the internet, and moved around the common area of the SHU [Special Housing Unit].”
“The defendants had a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care at the Metropolitan Correctional Center,” said Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. “Instead, they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms.”
Epstein, 66, was found dead in his cell early in the morning on Aug. 10. He was awaiting trial on charges of trafficking teenage girls for sex. Epstein had a long list of friends and associates in political, academic and scientific circles, and theories abound that his death was meant to silence him before he implicated others.
The New York City medical examiner ruled Epstein’s death a suicide by hanging — a finding that has since been challenged by Dr. Michael Baden, a noted pathologist hired by Epstein’s brother, Mark Epstein, to monitor the autopsy.
The charges were unsealed on the same day that the Senate Judiciary Committee held an oversight hearing on the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The nation’s top prison administrator, Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, told committee members, who expressed skepticism about the official cause of death, that FBI agents are looking at the possibility that a “criminal enterprise” played a role in that death.
Sawyer, who became director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons after the previous director was summarily shipped out after Epstein’s death, was taking questions when Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and chairman of the committee, asked about the FBI investigation.
“With a case this high profile, there has got to be either a major malfunction of the system or a criminal enterprise afoot to allow this to happen,” Graham said. “So are you looking at both? Is the FBI looking at both?”
“The FBI is involved and they are looking at criminal enterprise, yes,” Sawyer replied.
Later during Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, lambasted the federal prison system and laid out his own theories on what may have happened to Epstein.
“What happened to Jeffrey Epstein is an enormous black eye for the BOP,” Cruz said, using the acronym for the Bureau of Prisons, “and yet he died in federal custody. He died in federal custody before he had a chance to testify about his crimes, about his wrongdoings, and about the other powerful men who were complicit in that sexual abuse. ... There were powerful men who wanted Jeffrey Epstein silenced.”
Cruz floated “two possibilities” for what happened to Epstein. The first was “gross negligence and total failure of BOP to do its job.” The second, he said, was “something far worse ... that it was not suicide but rather a homicide carried out by person or persons who wanted Epstein silenced.”
The Texas senator then asked Sawyer whether she saw “any indication” that Epstein was murdered.
Sawyer replied: “There’s no indication, from anything I know, that it was anything other than a suicide.”
Epstein had been held at the jail since his arrest on July 6. On July 10, he was assigned to the special housing unit, which is segregated from the general inmate population, due to a perceived risk of suicide and out of concern for his safety, according to the federal indictment.
Two weeks later, on July 23, corrections officers found Epstein on the floor of his cell, with a strip of bed sheet around his neck. Prison administrators then placed Epstein on suicide watch, which among other things required 24-hour monitoring.
At the time of the July 23 incident, Epstein had a cellmate, a former police officer charged with multiple murders. The cellmate called for help, according to reports, and denied he had anything to do with Epstein’s injuries.
Epstein remained on suicide watch for 24 hours, and then was placed on psychological observation, which required that he continue to be monitored around the clock.
On July 30, Epstein completed psychological observation and returned to the special housing unit. To make it easier to monitor the multimillionaire, Epstein was again assigned a cellmate and placed in the cell nearest to the corrections officers’ desk, about 15 feet away from guards.
Ten days later on Aug. 9 — the day before Epstein’s death — his cellmate was transferred out of the federal facility and no new cellmate was assigned despite the advice of the jail’s psychological staff, the indictment says.
That day, Epstein also had met with his attorney. Afterward, he was taken back to his cell by Noel, one of the correctional officers charged on Tuesday, and another officer.
The corrections officers placed Epstein in his cell at about 7:49 p.m., the indictment says, and then they left the area.
No one returned to check on Epstein again until Noel and Thomas found him dead in his cell at about 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 10, the indictment says.
Noel and Thomas had filled out and signed forms stating that they had conducted requisite headcounts. But internal surveillance cameras showed that the staffers never conducted tallies of Epstein and other inmates in the unit that night.
Noel and Thomas were the only officers on duty in Epstein’s unit from midnight to 8 a.m., the indictment says.
In total, the guards are accused of falsifying forms attesting that they had completed at least four headcounts and 75 separate 30-minute rounds.
Instead of performing their jobs, the indictment says, they sat at a desk about 15 feet away from Epstein’s cell, walked around the common areas, and used the computers to search the internet for furniture sales, motorcycles and sports news. Internal surveillance video also showed them sitting at the desk without moving for about two hours, apparently asleep.
When Noel and Thomas finally entered the unit where Epstein was held to serve breakfast to the inmates, they discovered Epstein alone in his cell and unresponsive, a noose around his neck. They sounded an alarm at about 6:33 a.m., the indictment says, and when a supervisor responded, Noel told her superior that, “Epstein hung himself.”
Noel and Thomas admitted their dereliction of duty, the indictment says, with Noel telling her supervisor that they had not completed their scheduled rounds.
Thomas stated, “we messed up,” and “I messed up, she’s not to blame, we didn’t do any rounds,” the indictment says.
Epstein was taken to a local hospital, where he was declared dead. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York conducted an autopsy and determined that Epstein had committed suicide by hanging.
-- By Julie K. Brown and Daniel Chang