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An American Airlines flight attendant was arrested Thursday after authorities said he secretly recorded or attempted to record videos of girls on five flights last year.
An investigation began after a 14-year-old girl reported him to Massachusetts State Police following an incident on a flight from Charlotte to Boston in September 2023. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said he had similar videos of four other girls between the ages of 7 and 14.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts said in a news release that Estes Carter Thompson III, 36, was taken into custody in Lynchburg, Virginia, and will make his first court appearance in the Western District of Virginia. Thompson, a Charlotte resident, will appear later in federal court in Boston, where the family of the girl aboard the September flight has reported him to police.
Thompson is charged with one count of attempted sexual exploitation of a child and one count of possession of child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor. He faces 15 to 30 years in prison for the first charge and five to 20 years for the second charge. He also faces a lifetime of supervision, a $250,000 fine and restitution to victims.
“What Mr. Thompson is accused of is disgraceful and, in our opinion, calculated, given that this alleged conduct occurred on at least five flights,” Jodi Cohen, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Division, said in the release . “This case should make it clear that the FBI takes aircraft crimes and child sexual exploitation seriously.” If you have been the victim of, or witnessed, a crime on board an aircraft, we ask that you do so “To report this to your flight crew and to the FBI.”
The North Carolina family that reported Thompson in Boston filed a lawsuit against American Airlines on December 1, claiming the company “should have known that the flight attendant posed a danger” and that other crew members were using his phone during the flight had not confiscated, which gave him time to destroy evidence.
“We take these allegations very seriously,” American Airlines said in a statement Friday. “They do not reflect our airline or our core mission of taking care of people. We have cooperated fully with law enforcement in the investigation because nothing is more important than the safety of our customers and our team.”
American said Thompson was “immediately suspended following the incident in September 2023 and has not worked since.”
A 14-year-old girl, identified in court records as Minor A, was traveling with her family on a flight from Charlotte to Boston on Sept. 2. According to an FBI affidavit, the girl was waiting for a restroom when Thompson approached her and told her she could use the restroom in first class. Thompson told her he had to wash his hands before she entered and spent what seemed to the girl an unusually long time. Thompson also warned the girl that the toilet seat was broken, the document said.
According to the FBI affidavit, when the girl entered, she saw red stickers on the bottom of the toilet lid that read, “INOPERABLE CATERING EQUIPMENT.” After using the restroom, she noticed an iPhone with the light on was hidden behind the stickers, according to the document. She took a photo of the phone and stickers and immediately told her mother what had happened. When her mother got up to inspect the toilet, the stickers and phone were reportedly gone.
The girl's father confronted Thompson and two other flight attendants about the incident, the affidavit said. The other flight attendants tried to help the father check the contents of Thompson's phone to defuse the situation before Thompson took it back. The flight attendants reported the incident to the captain and called the local police. Thompson had time to lock himself in the toilet for three to five minutes, the affidavit states.
When Massachusetts state troopers interviewed Thompson in Boston, he gave them permission to search his iPhone. They found no records of calls, text messages, photos or videos on the phone. Thompson was allowed to leave, but authorities kept his phone and suitcase.
A search of the suitcase revealed 11 of the same red stickers that Minor A had photographed in the toilet. A forensic search of Thompson's phone by the FBI later revealed that it had been reset to factory settings on the day of the flight.
When checking Thompson's iCloud account, the FBI was unable to find any video of Minor A in the toilet. The FBI found four other videos in the account that were filmed between January and August last year on an iPhone 12, the same model as Thompson's phone.
The videos contained metadata indicating they were created during times when Thompson was working on American Airlines flights. The four minor victims in these recordings were 7, 9, 11 and 14 years old. The children were identified to the FBI by their parents.
To prove “further evidence of sexual interest in children,” the FBI affidavit said Thompson's iCloud account also contained 50 images of a 9-year-old unaccompanied minor from another flight. There were also hundreds of images of child pornography that appeared to have been created by an artificial intelligence website.