Tova Noel and Michael Thomas are protected from being photographed while leaving a hearing at the Federal Court in New York City, the US, on November 19 2019. Picture: REUTERS/YANA PASKOVA
Tova Noel and Michael Thomas are protected from being photographed while leaving a hearing at the Federal Court in New York City, the US, on November 19 2019. Picture: REUTERS/YANA PASKOVA

New York — Two guards at a federal jail in New York City were indicted for failing to keep watch on the accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein just before he killed himself in custody three months ago.

The guards, Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, failed to check on the fund manager for about eight hours until he was found dead in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in lower Manhattan, prosecutors said. Noel and Thomas, who have been placed on leave, are accused of repeatedly signing false certifications claiming they conducted multiple counts of inmates.

The guards’ indictment was unsealed on Tuesday as the director of the federal prison system told Congress that the FBI is investigating whether there was anything criminal about Epstein’s death. The official said the FBI is “looking at criminal enterprise”, but declined to discuss specifics.

The guards did not check on Epstein after 10.30pm on August 9, until he was discovered after breakfast carts arrived in the unit at around 6am the next day, according to the indictment. In the intervening hours, they didn’t perform required checks every 30 minutes on Epstein or conduct regular rounds, but sat at their desk, searching the internet for furniture and motorcycle sales and sports news. For two hours they didn’t move, “and appeared to have been asleep”, prosecutors allege.

“The security risks created by this type of behaviour are immense,” FBI assistant director William Sweeney said in a prepared statement.

Epstein had been found in his cell with a strip of bedsheet around his neck in July. Thomas was one of the jail officers who responded to the earlier incident

Speculation is rife that Epstein was killed and his lawyers have disputed the official government conclusion that he committed suicide. However, the indictment makes no allegations of foul play, instead portraying Epstein’s death as the result of inept and lazy monitoring.

Noel and Thomas are charged with six counts of falsifying documents and conspiracy to defraud the US. Prosecutors said they surrendered themselves to the FBI shortly before 10am on  Tuesday. In a brief hearing before US magistrate judge Sarah Netburn on Tuesday afternoon, both guards pleaded not guilty to the charges. The judge approved an agreement between the prosecutors and defence lawyers that will allow the two to remain free on $100,000 bail each as they await trial.

Jason Foy, a lawyer for Noel, said he is “prepared to defend this case” if he can’t “reach a reasonable agreement” with prosecutors. Montell Figgins, an attorney for Thomas, said his client was offered a plea deal but it “is not something he wants to do”.

“Understand that Mr Thomas is a single father with three children. This case is going to ruin his life,” he said. “We had hoped that the US attorney’s office would make an effort to try to address the systemic failures with respect to the bureau of prisons,” Figgins said.

The Metropolitan Correctional Centre has been plagued by allegations of bribing guards for cellphones and drugs as well as inmate deaths and rape.

Epstein, who was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was arrested in July as he was returning to the US from Paris. He was charged with sex trafficking of girls, faced life in prison if convicted, and was being held without bail. He denied wrongdoing.

He was found unresponsive in his cell early on August 10 and declared dead at a nearby hospital shortly afterwards. He had earlier been placed on suicide watch but was subsequently removed from it.

Epstein had been found in his cell with a strip of bedsheet around his neck in July. Thomas was one of the jail officers who responded to the earlier incident, according to the indictment. Epstein was placed on suicide watch for one day and psychological observation for a week afterwards.

Once he was returned to his unit, he was assigned to the cell closest to the correctional officers’ desk and was required to have a cell mate. But the cell mate was transferred out of Epstein’s cell on August 9, and no replacement was assigned.

His death came the day after more than 2,000 pages of filings were unsealed, revealing allegations that prominent people were involved in his alleged acts. Prosecutors continue to investigate whether others were involved.

Epstein entered a controversial non-prosecution agreement with US prosecutors in Florida more than a decade ago, admitting to two state prostitution charges and serving 13 months in a county jail. A federal judge ruled during 2019 that the deal violated the law by failing to notify the accusers of it.

Bloomberg