An American Airlines flight attendant was arrested on Thursday after allegedly using his cellphone to secretly record young females using the bathroom on airplanes he worked on, with the most recent incident occurring on a flight to Boston in September 2023.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said 37-year-old Estes Carter Thompson III of Charlotte, North Carolina was charged with attempted sexual exploitation of children and possession of child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor.
He was arrested on Thursday in Lynchburg, Virginia and will remain in custody pending the outcome of an appearance in the Western District of Virginia, the DOJ said. Thompson is also expected to appear in federal court in Boston at a later date.
"The deeply disturbing conduct alleged here is something no parent or child should ever have to worry about when they travel. 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," Acting U.S. Attorney Joshua S. Levy said. "Everyone – especially children – should feel safe and secure as airline passengers, and parents should feel comfortable traveling with their children. Protecting children is a paramount priority for this office, and we will aggressively investigate and hold accountable people who victimize children."
The DOJ said Thompson was working as a flight attendant on Sept. 2, 2023, onboard an American Airlines flight from Charlotte to Boston when he allegedly attempted to record a 14-year-old female passenger as she used the lavatory on the aircraft.
The teenager got up to use the main cabin bathroom mid-flight, which was occupied. While waiting to use the lavatory, Thompson reportedly told her the lavatory in first-class was unoccupied, then escorted her there.
Before entering the first-class lavatory, the DOJ said, Thompson told her he needed to wash his hands, adding that the toilet seat was broken.
In a photo provided by the law firm Lewis & Llewellyn LLP, an iPhone is taped to the back of a toilet seat on an American Airlines flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Boston, Sept. 2, 2023. (Credit: Provided / Lewis & Llewellyn LLP)
When Thompson exited the bathroom, the young girl walked in and saw red stickers on the underside of the toilet seat propped up in the open position, which read "inoperative catering equipment," "removed from service," and "seat broken."
The DOJ alleges that Thompson concealed his iPhone beneath the stickers to record the young girl.
The victim snapped a picture of the red stickers and the iPhone before exiting.
Thompson then allegedly entered the bathroom right away.
After returning to her seat, the girl showed her parents the picture, and they relayed the incident to other flight attendants, who notified the captain.
The girl’s father allegedly confronted Thompson during the flight, and the DOJ said he went to the lavatory and locked himself inside with his iPhone for three to five minutes before the plane descended.
The captain notified law enforcement officials about the incident, and when the plane landed at Boston’s Logan airport, Thompson was arrested.
Law enforcement officials reported that Thompson’s phone may have been restored to factory settings before he was taken into custody.
The DOJ alleges that the suspect’s suitcase contained 11 "inoperative catering equipment" stickers like those seen on the back of the toilet seat.
When officials searched Thompson’s iCloud account, they allegedly found four instances between January and August 2023 when Thompson recorded minors using the lavatory on the aircraft, and the victims’ ages were 7, 9, 11 and 14.
He also allegedly had over 50 images of a 9-year-old unaccompanied minor on his iCloud, in which the child was captured sitting in the seat and sleeping.
The DOJ also claimed Thompson’s iCloud account contained hundreds of images of AI-generated pornography.
"We take these allegations very seriously. They don’t reflect our airline or our core mission of caring for people," American Airlines told Fox News Digital. "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."
If convicted, Thompson could face between 15-30 years in prison for the charge of attempted sexual exploitation of children, and between 5-20 years in prison for possessing child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor.
He could also get from five years to a lifetime of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000, plus restitution.