Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges Tuesday against two jail staffers who allegedly did not check on Jeffrey Epstein in his cell on the night he hanged himself, in an indictment that seeks to quiet the crescendo of conspiracy theories that followed the multimillionaire sex offender's death.
A grand jury charged Tova Noel and Michael Thomas with conspiring to defraud the United States and making false records while working at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. They are accused of repeatedly signing false documents saying that they conducted regular checks Aug. 10 on Epstein and other inmates. Epstein was found hanging in his cell early that morning, and the city's medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.
For "substantial portions of their shifts, Noel, 31, and Thomas, 41, sat at their desk, browsed the Internet, and moved around the common area" of the section of the jail where Epstein was held, known as the Special Housing Unit, or SHU, the grand jury charged.
The indictment charges that Noel and Thomas repeatedly signed false "count slips" even though they failed to conduct the required counts at midnight, 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. They also failed to conduct more frequent checks on Epstein, which had been ordered by higher-ups at the jail, according to the indictment.
The document repeatedly notes that its charges are based on "video from the MCC's internal video surveillance system."
On the night of Epstein's death, the two jail workers "were seated at the correctional officers' desk . . . approximately 15 feet from Epstein's cell," 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."At another point, Noel allegedly used the computer at the desk to "search the internet for furniture sales and benefit websites. Thomas used the computer briefly . . . to search for motorcycle sales and sports news," the indictment says.
The two defendants entered not-guilty pleas at a brief court hearing Tuesday afternoon. Corrections union officials have said the two are being scapegoated for systemic failures in the prison system that leave members stretched too thin.
The medical examiner's finding of suicide has been challenged by a private pathologist hired by Epstein's brother who has claimed that evidence points to homicide not suicide.
The grand-jury document seeks to dispel the notion that someone sneaked into Epstein's cell in the middle of the night when all of his fellow inmates were locked away in their cells.
"Aside from those two officers, as confirmed by video surveillance, no one else entered the SHU, no one conducted any counts or rounds throughout the night, and no one entered the tier in which Epstein was housed," the indictment says.
As the grand jury was preparing the indictment Tuesday morning, lawmakers were pushing the new boss of the Bureau of Prisons to spell out exactly what happened in Epstein's case.
"Christmas ornaments, drywall and . . . Epstein - name three things that don't hang themselves. That's what the American people think," Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., told acting Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer.
After the charges were announced, Hawk Sawyer said 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."
According to the indictment, the two staffers didn't notice anything amiss the night Epstein died until they began serving breakfast about 6:30 a.m.
When a supervisor responded to their alarm, Noel allegedly said "we did not complete the 3 a.m. nor 5 a.m. rounds." Thomas added, "we messed up," and "I messed up, she's not to blame, we didn't do any rounds," according to the indictment.
At the time of his death, Epstein was being held at the jail while he awaited trial on sex trafficking charges that could have led to decades in prison. He had pleaded not guilty.
The death of the most high-profile defendant in the federal prison system led to a major shake-up at the Bureau of Prisons. Attorney General William Barr brought in a former director of the agency to run it again, and replaced the top official at the MCC, saying the preliminary investigation had found "serious irregularities at the center."
The two staffers were placed on leave shortly after Epstein's death; they were arrested Tuesday morning.
In recent weeks prosecutors sought to have the officers plead guilty, but they refused, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation.Multiple government investigations already have found a troubling lack of follow-through by Bureau of Prisons personnel after a July 23 incident in which Epstein may have tried to kill himself, according to people familiar with the inquiries.
In that incident, guards rushed to Epstein's cell when his cellmate at the time, Nicholas Tartaglione, began yelling, according to these people. Tartaglione told officers he had noticed that Epstein had a bedsheet around his neck and appeared to be trying to kill himself, the people said.
Epstein denied that, they said, and told prison staff that he had been attacked - something Tartaglione denied.
Some MCC staff doubted Epstein's claim, suspecting instead that he either faked a suicide attempt or intended to take his own life, the people said.
The new indictment charges that Thomas was one of the MCC officers who responded to that incident - suggesting he should have known better than most staff about the risks of leaving Epstein alone and unchecked.
Epstein was placed on suicide watch, but officials lifted those measures six days later, on July 29. On that day, MCC officials returned Epstein to the SHU - where officers were directed to check on him in his cell every 30 minutes. The other explicit condition of his removal from suicide watch was that Epstein would not be left alone in a cell - but he was, these people said.
In 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty in Florida to state charges based on allegations that he paid underage girls for sex acts. That plea deal was part of an agreement with federal prosecutors that has been criticized as too lenient.
This article was written by Devlin Barrett, a reporter for The Washington Post.