BOSTON (AP) — Police arrested an American Airlines flight attendant on Thursday on suspicion of trying to secretly record a 14-year-old female passenger using a bathroom aboard an airplane he was working on last September.
Police also allege Estes Carter Thompson III, 37, of Charlotte, North Carolina, had recordings of four other minor female passengers using lavatories on an aircraft he had worked on previously.
Thompson was charged with attempted sexual exploitation of children and possession of child sexual abuse images depicting a prepubescent minor.
He was arrested in Lynchburg, Virginia, and will remain in custody pending his initial court appearance in Virginia. He will appear in federal court in Boston at a later date, officials said.
“The deeply disturbing conduct alleged here is something no parent or child should ever have to worry about when they travel,” acting U.S. Attorney Joshua Levy said in a statement. “Mr. Thompson allegedly used his position to prey on and surreptitiously record innocent children, including unaccompanied minors.”
American Airlines issued a statement saying they take the allegation very seriously. They also said the flight attendant was “immediately withheld from service following the September 2023 incident” and hasn’t worked since.
“They don’t reflect our airline or our core mission of caring for people,” the statement read. “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.”
A phone number could not be found for Thompson, and it was unclear if he has a lawyer.
Investigators said that about midway through the Sept. 2, 2023, flight from Charlotte to Boston, the 14-year-old got up to use the main cabin lavatory nearest to her seat but found it was occupied.
Thompson then told her the first-class lavatory was unoccupied and escorted her there, investigators said. Before she entered the bathroom, Thompson allegedly told her he needed to wash his hands and that the toilet seat was broken.
After he left, the teen entered the bathroom and saw red stickers on the underside of the toilet seat lid, which was in the open position, stating, “INOPERATIVE CATERING EQUIPMENT,” “REMOVE FROM SERVICE” and “SEAT BROKEN” handwritten in black ink on one of the stickers, according to court documents.
Beneath the stickers, Thompson had concealed his iPhone to record a video, investigators said. The girl used her phone to take a picture of the stickers and concealed iPhone before leaving. Thompson then immediately went back into the bathroom.
The girl told her parents, and her father confronted Thompson, who locked himself in the lavatory with his iPhone for three to five minutes before the flight’s descent, investigators said.
A search of Thompson’s suitcase found 11 “INOPERATIVE CATERING EQUIPMENT” stickers, investigators said. A search of his iCloud account allegedly revealed four additional instances between January and August 2023 in which Thompson recorded a minor using the lavatory on an aircraft.
Those depicted in the recordings were 7, 9, 11 and 14 years old at the time, investigators said. More than 50 images of an unaccompanied 9-year-old were also found in his account.
All minor victims involved in this matter have been identified and their families contacted by law enforcement, Levy said.
A lawyer representing the family members of the 14-year-old, who have said they are suing the airline, said he’s pleased an arrest has been made.
“It is also shocking to hear that he allegedly preyed on at least five minors while they were flying on American,” Paul Llewellyn said in a statement. “It remains to be seen whether American Airlines will now finally take some measure of responsibility.”
Investigators also said hundreds of AI-generated child sexual abuse images were also found stored on Thompson’s iCloud account.
The charge of attempted sexual exploitation of children carries a sentence of at least 15 years and up to 30 years in prison. The charge of possession of child sexual abuse material 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 up to a lifetime of supervised release, a fine of up to $250,000 and restitution.
The Associated Press does not name victims of sexual assault or abuse unless they come forward publicly.
American Airlines is based in Fort Worth, Texas, and has a major operation at the airport in Charlotte.