BOSTON – An American Airlines flight attendant has been arrested for allegedly surreptitiously recording or attempting to record a minor female passenger using a lavatory aboard an aircraft he was working in September 2023. The defendant is also alleged to have possessed recordings of four additional minor female passengers using lavatories aboard the aircraft he had worked previously.
Estes Carter Thompson III, 36, of Charlotte, N.C., was charged with one count of attempted sexual exploitation of children and one count of possession of child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor. Thompson was arrested today in Lynchburg, Va. and will remain in custody pending his initial appearance in the Western District of Virginia. He will 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,” said Acting United States Attorney Joshua S. Levy. “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.”
“Today, the FBI arrested Estes Carter Thompson III after he repeatedly targeted unsuspecting children to sexually exploit them for his own gratification. What Mr. Thompson is accused of doing is disgraceful, and we believe, calculated, given that this alleged conduct occurred on at least five flights,” said Jodi Cohen, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Division. “This case should make it crystal clear that the FBI takes crimes aboard aircraft and the sexual exploitation of children seriously. If you’ve been the victim of a crime aboard an aircraft or have witnessed one take place, we ask you to report it to both your flight crew and the FBI.”
According to the charging documents, on Sept. 2, 2023, while working as a flight attendant onboard an American Airlines flight from Charlotte, N.C. to Boston, Mass., Thompson video-recorded or attempted to surreptitiously video-record a 14-year-old female passenger as she used the aircraft lavatory. Specifically, approximately midway through the flight, the minor victim got up to use the main cabin lavatory nearest to where she was seated. When the minor victim arrived at the lavatory it was occupied. After the minor victim had been waiting a short time, Thompson allegedly approached her, told her that the first-class lavatory was unoccupied and escorted her toward first class. Before the minor victim entered the lavatory, Thompson allegedly told her that he needed to wash his hands and that the lavatory’s toilet seat was broken and briefly entered the lavatory. It is alleged that, after Thompson exited the lavatory, the minor victim entered and observed red stickers on the underside of the toilet seat lid, which was in the open position, that stated, “INOPERATIVE CATERING EQUIPMENT” and “REMOVE FROM SERVICE,” and “SEAT BROKEN” was hand-written in black ink on one of the stickers. It is alleged that, beneath the red stickers, Thompson had concealed his iPhone to record a video. The minor victim used her phone to take a picture of the red stickers and the concealed iPhone she found in the lavatory before exiting, at which time Thompson allegedly re-entered it immediately.
According to court documents, when the minor victim returned to her seat, she informed her parents of what she saw and showed them the picture. The victim’s parents reported the matter to other flight attendants onboard who notified the Captain, who in turn notified law enforcement on the ground. It is alleged that the victim’s father confronted Thompson who, shortly thereafter, locked himself in the lavatory with his iPhone for three to five minutes prior to the flight’s descent.
Upon the flight’s arrival at Boston’s Logan Airport, law enforcement observed that Thompson’s iPhone may have been restored to factory settings. It is alleged that a subsequent search of Thompson’s suitcase was found to contain 11 “INOPERATIVE CATERING EQUIPMENT” stickers, like those observed by the minor victim on the back of the toilet seat. A search of Thompson’s iCloud account allegedly revealed four additional instances between January and August 2023 in which Thompson recorded a minor using the lavatory on an aircraft. The minor victims allegedly depicted in the surreptitious recordings were seven, nine, 11 and 14 years old at the time. Additionally, over 50 images of a nine-year-old unaccompanied minor were allegedly found in Thompson’s iCloud. The images included photos taken while the minor victim was seated in her seat pre-flight and close-ups of her face while sleeping.
All minor victims involved in this matter have been identified and their families contacted by law enforcement.
It is further alleged that hundreds of images of AI-generated child pornography were also found stored on Thompson’s iCloud account.
The charge of attempted sexual exploitation of children provides for a sentence of at least 15 years and up to 30 years in prison. The charge of possession of child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor provides for a sentence of at least five years and up to 20 years in prison. Both charges also provide for at least five years and up to a lifetime of supervised release, a fine of up to $250,000 and restitution. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and statutes which govern the determination of a sentence in a criminal case.
Acting U.S. Attorney Levy, FBI SAC Cohen and John E. Mawn Jr., Interim Colonel of the Massachusetts State Police made the announcement today. Assistant U.S. Attorney Elianna J. Nuzum of the Major Crimes Unit is prosecuting the case.
This case was brought as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse, launched in May 2006 by the Department of Justice. Led by the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and the DOJ’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Project Safe Childhood marshals federal, state, and local resources to locate, apprehend, and prosecute individuals who exploit children, as well as identify and rescue victims. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, please visit https://www.justice.gov/psc.
The details contained in the charging documents are allegations. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.