Federal agents arrested an American Airlines flight attendant from Charlotte on Thursday, after he was accused of trying to video-record a 14-year-old girl as she used a bathroom aboard a Charlotte-to-Boston flight on Sept. 2.
Estes Carter Thompson III, 37, was charged with attempted sexual exploitation of children and possession of child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor, according to a news release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.
Thompson was arrested in Lynchburg, Virginia, and will remain jailed until his first appearance in U.S. court in the Western District of Virginia, prosecutors said. He will appear in federal court in Boston at a later date.
In a statement to The Charlotte Observer, American Airlines said the airline immediately removed Thompson from service after the incident, and he hasn’t worked since for Fort Worth-based airline.
“We take these allegations very seriously,” according to the statement. “They don’t reflect our airline or our core mission of caring for people. We have been fully cooperating with law enforcement in its investigation as there is nothing more important than the safety and security of our customers and team.”
Recordings of other girls in airplane bathrooms
Besides the video-recording incident, Thompson is accused of possessing recordings of four other girls as they used lavatories aboard an American Airlines flight he previously worked.
“The deeply disturbing conduct alleged here is something no parent or child should ever have to worry about when they travel,” Acting U.S Attorney Joshua Levy said in a statement
“Mr. Thompson allegedly used his position to prey on and surreptitiously record innocent children, including unaccompanied minors, while in a vulnerable state aboard flights he was working,” Levy said.
What happened on Charlotte-to-Boston flight
About midway through the Charlotte-to-Boston flight, the girl got up to use the main cabin lavatory nearest to her seat, according to court documents. When she arrived, the lavatory was occupied, court records show.
Thompson approached the girl as she waited, told her that the first-class lavatory was free and escorted her toward first class, prosecutors said.
Before the girl entered the lavatory Thompson allegedly told her he needed to wash his hands and that the lavatory’s toilet seat was broken, according to the news release. He briefly entered and then left the lavatory.
As the girl entered the lavatory, she noticed red stickers on the underside of the open toilet seat lid, according to court documents. The words “INOPERATIVE CATERING EQUIPMENT,” “REMOVE FROM SERVICE,” and “SEAT BROKEN” were written in black ink on one of the stickers, prosecutors said.
Beneath the stickers, prosecutors said, Thompson concealed his iPhone to record a video. The girl used her phone to take a picture of the stickers and the iPhone, according to court records.
After she left, Thompson immediately reentered the lavatory, prosecutors said.
Victim’s father confronts Charlotte flight attendant
The girl returned to her seat and told her parents what happened. She also showed them the picture, prosecutors said.
The girl’s parents reported the incident to other flight attendants on the plane. The flight attendants alerted the captain, who notified law enforcement on the ground, court records show.
The girl’s father confronted Thompson, who then locked himself in the lavatory with his iPhone for three to five minutes before the flight’s descent, prosecutors said..
When the flight arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport, police found that Thompson’s iPhone may have been restored to factory settings, according to court records. A search of Thompson’s suitcase uncovered 11 “INOPERATIVE CATERING EQUIPMENT” stickers, prosecutors said.
A search of Thompson’s iCloud account revealed four more instances between January and August 2023 of him recording a minor using a lavatory on a plane. The victims were 7, 9, 11 and 14 years old at the time, prosecutors said.
At least 50 more images of an unaccompanied 9-year-old were found in Thompson’s iCloud, according to court documents. The images included photos taken while the 9-year-old was in her seat pre-flight and close-ups of her face while sleeping, prosecutors said.
All of the victims were identified, and police contacted their families, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Investigators also found hundreds of images of AI-generated child pornography on Thompson’s iCloud account.
Penalty for sexual exploitation of children
The charge of attempted sexual exploitation of children carries up to 30 years in prison. Possession of child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor carries a maximum 20-year sentence.
Thompson “repeatedly targeted unsuspecting children to sexually exploit them for his own gratification,” Jodi Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division said in a statement
Cohen called the incidents “disgraceful, and we believe, calculated, given that this alleged conduct occurred on at least five flights.”