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Flight attendant charged with filming young girls in airplane bathroom

An American Airlines flight attendant is accused of using his iPhone to film girls as young as 7 on flights he worked

This 2021 file photo shows two American Airlines passenger jets preparing for departure from Boston Logan International Airport. (Steven Senne/AP)
5 min

An American Airlines flight attendant was arrested Thursday after authorities say he secretly recorded or attempted to record videos of girls while they used the bathroom on five flights last year.

An investigation began after a 14-year-old girl reported him to the Massachusetts State Police after an incident on a September 2023 flight from Charlotte to Boston. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said he possessed similar videos of four other girls between the ages of 7 and 14.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts said in a news release that Estes Carter Thompson III, 36, was taken into custody in Lynchburg, Va., and will make an initial court appearance in the Western District of Virginia. Thompson, a Charlotte resident, will later appear in a federal court in Boston, where the family of the girl aboard the September flight reported him to police.

Thompson faces one count of attempted sexual exploitation of children and one count of possession of child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor. He could receive 15 to 30 years in prison for the first charge and five to 20 years for the second. He also faces the possibility of a lifetime of supervision, a fine of $250,000 and restitution to the victims.

“What Mr. Thompson is accused of doing is disgraceful, and we believe, 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 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.”

The North Carolina family who reported Thompson in Boston filed a lawsuit against American Airlines on Dec. 1 alleging the company “should have known the flight attendant was a danger” and that other crew members failed to confiscate his phone midflight, allowing 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 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.”

American said Thompson was “immediately withheld from service following the September 2023 incident and hasn’t worked since.”

A 14-year-old girl identified in court filings as Minor A was traveling with her family on a Sept. 2 flight from Charlotte to Boston. According to an FBI affidavit, the girl was waiting for a lavatory when Thompson approached her and told her she could use the one in first class. Thompson told her he had to wash his hands before she entered and spent what seemed to the girl to be an unusually long time inside. Thompson also warned the girl the toilet seat was broken, the document says.

According to the FBI affidavit, when the girl entered, she saw red stickers on the underside of the toilet lid labeled “INOPERABLE CATERING EQUIPMENT.” After she used the toilet, the document says, she noticed the stickers were concealing an iPhone with a light turned on. She took a photograph of the phone and the stickers and immediately reported what happened to her mother. By the time her mother got up to inspect the lavatory, the stickers and the phone were reportedly gone.

The girl’s father confronted Thompson and two other flight attendants about the incident, the affidavit says. The other flight attendants attempted to help the father review the contents of Thompson’s phone to de-escalate the situation before Thompson took it back. The flight attendants reported the incident to the captain and notified law enforcement on the ground. Thompson had time to lock himself in the lavatory for three to five minutes, the affidavit says.

When Massachusetts state troopers interviewed Thompson in Boston, he gave them consent to search his iPhone. They found no record of calls, texts, photos or videos on the phone. Thompson was allowed to leave, but authorities retained his phone and his suitcase.

A search of the suitcase found 11 of the same red stickers that Minor A photographed on the toilet. A forensic search of Thompson’s phone by the FBI later found it had been reset to factory settings on the day of the flight.

Upon reviewing Thompson’s iCloud account, the FBI was not able to locate video of Minor A in the lavatory. 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 showing they were created at times when Thompson was working on American Airlines flights. The four minor victims in these recordings were 7, 9, 11 and 14. The children were identified to the FBI by their parents.

To establish “other evidence of sexual interest in children,” the FBI affidavit says 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.