NEW YORK — Two jail guards responsible for monitoring Jeffrey Epstein the night he killed himself were charged Tuesday with falsifying prison records to conceal they were sleeping and browsing the internet during the hours they were supposed to be keeping a close watch on prisoners.
Guards Tova Noel and Michael Thomas were accused in a grand jury indictment of neglecting their duties by failing to check on Epstein for nearly eight hours, and of fabricating log entries to show they had been making checks every 30 minutes, as required.
Prosecutors allege that instead of making required rounds, the guards sat at their desks just 15 feet from Epstein’s cell, shopped online for furniture and motorcycles, and walked around the unit’s common area. During one two-hour period, the indictment said, both appeared to have been asleep.
The charges against the officers are the first in connection with the wealthy financier’s death in August at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, where he had been awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
The indictment also contained new details about the circumstances of Epstein’s death that might dampen conspiracy theories by people who have questioned whether he really took his own life.
Among them: Prosecutors said security camera footage confirmed that no one entered the area where Epstein was housed on the night he died.
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said the guards had “a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care.”
“Instead,” he said in a statement, “they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction.”
A lawyer for Thomas, Montell Figgins, said both guards are being “scapegoated.”
Noel’s lawyer, Jason Foy, said he hoped to “reach a reasonable agreement” with the government that could avoid a trial.
Both correctional officers pleaded not guilty Tuesday afternoon and were released on $100,000 bond. The defendants, hiding their faces with clothing, left the courthouse in separate cars waiting for them in the shadow of the jail where they had worked and Epstein died.
Epstein’s death was a major embarrassment for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
The cell where he died was in a high-security unit, famous for having held terrorists and drug cartel kingpins. Epstein’s death, though, revealed the jail was suffering from problems including chronic staffing shortages that lead to mandatory overtime for guards day after day and other staff being pressed into service as correctional officers.
Attorney General William Barr had previously said investigators found “serious irregularities” at the jail and the FBI’s investigation had been slowed because some witnesses were uncooperative.
The indictment said that Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell when the guards went to deliver breakfast. Noel confessed to a supervisor then that they hadn’t done either their 3 a.m. or 5 a.m. rounds.
The city’s medical examiner ruled Epstein’s death a suicide.