The two federal jail guards assigned to watch over sex offender Jeffrey Epstein on the day he killed himself in his cell failed to check on him for more than eight hours and allegedly told a supervisor, “We messed up.”
That’s according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday that charges Tova Noel and Michael Thomas with falsifying prison records to cover up their dereliction of duty.
Noel and Thomas, who were both reportedly working overtime shifts at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, allegedly did not check on Epstein every 30 minutes as they were required to do during their tour.
Instead, they “sat at their desk, browsed the internet, and moved around the common area” of the extra-secure Special Housing Unit at the Manhattan Correctional Center, where Epstein was awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges, prosecutors said.
“For a period of approximately two hours, Noel and Thomas sat at their desk without moving, and appeared to have been asleep,” according to the indictment.
When they found Epstein in his jail cell on the morning of Aug. 10, Thomas allegedly told a responding supervisor, “Epstein hung himself,” adding, “We messed up... we didn’t do any rounds,” the indictment says.
The guards appeared before a federal judge Tuesday afternoon, and pleaded not guilty to charges of making false records, conspiring to make false records, and conspiring to defraud the United States. They were released on $100,000 bail.
During their court appearance—which was packed with family, fellow MDC corrections officers, and curious civilians—Thomas was informed he must refrain from “excessive use of alcohol,” and Noel was ordered to surrender her firearm and firearm permit as part of the bail package.
The guards each face a maximum of five years in prison if convicted.
“As alleged, the defendants had a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care at the Metropolitan Correctional Center,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said. “Instead, they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction.”
Thomas’ defense attorney, Montell Figgins, told reporters after the hearing that both guards are being “scapegoated.”
“This case is going to ruin [Thomas’ life], he is a single dad,” Figgins told reporters outside court, noting his client is “dismayed.”
Noel's lawyer, Jason Foy reiterated a similar statement, adding that while his client had hoped to get a reasonable plea agreement, she looks forward to having her day in court.
The arrest of Noel and Thomas comes days after the Associated Press reported that prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan had offered a plea deal to the guards, which they rejected.
Epstein’s Aug. 10 death sparked multiple investigations by the Department of Justice, including the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, and DOJ Inspector General, which are ongoing.
Attorney General Bill Barr, who as leader of the Justice Department oversees the Bureau of Prisons, said that federal investigators were “now learning of serious irregularities” at the Manhattan jail “that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation.”
The charges were announced as a U.S. Senate committee was holding a hearing on the Federal Bureau of Prisons in which Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who was appointed by Barr to take over the agency in the aftermath of Epstein’s death, said that the FBI is looking at “criminal enterprise” as part of its investigation.
The new twist in the investigation surrounding Epstein’s death came when Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Sawyer, “with a case this high-profile, there’s got to be major malfunction in the system or a criminal enterprise afoot to allow this to happen. So are you looking at both? Is the FBI looking at both?”
Hawk Sawyer replied, “If the FBI is involved, then they are looking at criminal enterprise, yes.”
Epstein’s death has sparked conspiracy theories that Epstein was murdered. The New York City Medical Examiner deemed it a suicide by hanging but Epstein’s family hired an outside expert who cast doubt on that.
During the hearing, Sawyer said she had no evidence to dispute medical examiner’s finding.
Epstein was found unconscious around 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 10 at the jail where he had been housed for more than a month while awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges.
After attempts to revive him at the prison were unsuccessful, Epstein, 66, was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The New York City medical examiner concluded six days later that Epstein died of suicide by hanging, but Epstein lawyers and a private pathologist hired by his family have disputed those findings.
Epstein was arrested July 6 on charges he recruited girls for sexual massages and after four days in MCC’s general population, on July 10 was assigned to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) for his own safety, the indictment says.
The financier was placed on suicide watch about three weeks before his death after he was found the floor of his cell in a state of medical distress with a strip of bedsheet around his neck, the indictment says.
He was moved to a special cell and subjected to daily psychiatric evaluations. But on July 30 he taken off suicide watch and moved back to the SHU.
There, jail officials “took steps to guard against future suicide attempts by Epstein,” including assigning him to the cell closest to the correctional officers’ desk which was located about 15 feet from Epstein’s cell, the indictment said.
Epstein was also assigned a roommate, who was moved out of the cell around 8 a.m. on Aug. 9 as part of a “routine, pre-arranged transfer,” the indictment says. Despite direction from MCC medical staff to assign Epstein a new cellmate, he never got one.
Officers assigned to watch over inmates in the SHU are required to conduct regular head counts of inmates “to ensure that each inmate is alive and accounted,” authorities said.
Protocols call for two officers to complete the counts and to document that they performed the procedure on what is know as a count slip. Along with the count, officers assigned to the SHU are “required to complete rounds every 30 minutes to ensure that each inmate is alive and accounted for within his cell,” and are required to document the date and time of each 30-minute round on a designated form, officials said.
But according to the indictment, Epstein returned from a meeting with his lawyers shortly before 8 p.m on Aug. 9 and surveillance video shows him being escorted back to the SHU. Around 10 p.m. all the inmates, including Epstein were then locked into their cells for the night, the indictment says.
The guards are accused of falsifying six counts and dozens of inmate rounds before they found his body as they were preparing to serve him breakfast the next morning and activated an alarm at 6:33 a.m., the indictment says.
Investigators were able to corroborate the claims from surveillance cameras in the prison that show the guards never entering the jail blocks.
Instead prosecutors says the men can be seen at their desk, sleeping and using the computer to search the internet for furniture, motorcycle sales and sports news.
In the days following Epstein’s death, the guards were placed on leave and the warden at MCC was reassigned to a prison in upstate New York. The then-acting head of the Bureau of Prisons was removed from his role.
Noel has been an officer at the jail since 2016, and Thomas since 2007, authorities said. Both were regularly assigned to work shifts in the SHU.
The union that represents the prison guards has complained the jail is chronically understaffed, with some guards having to work “mandatory overtime” 16 hour shifts.
According to the indictment, Noel had worked a double shift Aug. 9 and 10, working a tour from 4 p.m. to midnight and was on an overtime tour from midnight to 8 a.m. on the morning Epstein died. He had also worked from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. the day before on Aug. 8.
Thomas did not work his regular shift on Aug. 8 and Aug. 9, but worked overtime shift on Aug. 10 from 12 p.m. to 8 a.m., on the morning Epstein died. He also worked an overtime tour Aug. 9 from 12 p.m. to 8 a.m.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741