A now-former American Airlines flight attendant has been arrested for allegedly recording a minor female passenger in an airplane bathroom on a flight he was working.
Thirty-six-year-old Estes Carter Thompson III was charged with one count of attempted sexual exploitation of children and one count of possession of child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Massachusetts.
The arrest stems from a flight Thompson was working on Sept. 2, 2023, but law enforcement also found him in possession of recordings of other minors during its investigation.
In the September incident, a 14-year-old girl got up during the flight to use the lavatory closest to where she was seated.
After the girl waited a short time for the occupied bathroom to clear, Thompson allegedly approached her and told her the first-class bathroom was unoccupied, and escorted her to it. Before she entered, Thompson entered briefly, saying that he needed to wash his hands and that the toilet seat was broken.
When the girl entered, she observed the seat’s lid in the upright position with a handwritten sign and red stickers that read things like "seat broken" and "remove from service."
It is alleged that Thompson concealed his phone behind the stickers in an attempt to record the female minor in the bathroom. The girl took a photo of the stickers and the hidden iPhone with her cellphone, and exited. Thompson then re-entered the restroom immediately after.
The victim informed her parents of the incident on board, and showed them the photo. They then notified other flight attendants, who told the captain, who in turn, notified law enforcement on the ground.
It is alleged that the victim’s father confronted Thompson on board, and that shortly after, the crew member locked himself in the bathroom with his iPhone for three to five minutes prior to landing.
Upon arrival, law enforcement found that Thompson had restored his phone to factory settings, and found the red stickers that the victim captured in a photo in Thompson’s luggage.
"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," U.S. attorney Joshua Levy said in a press release.
"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," Levy said.
A search of Thompson’s iCloud revealed recordings of four additional minors captured in aircraft bathrooms — who were ages 7, 9, 11 and 14 at the time. An additional 50 images of a 9-year-old unaccompanied minor were also found in his iCloud. Hundreds of images of AI-generated child pornography were also discovered.
All victims and their families were contacted by law enforcement.
"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, in a press 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," Cohen said.
The charge of attempted sexual exploitation of children carries a sentence between 15 to 30 years in prison; the charge of possession of child pornography depicting a prepubescent minor carries a sentence between five to 20 years in prison. Both charges also provide for at least five years and up to a lifetime of supervised release, in addition to a fine of up to $250,000 and restitution, according to federal prosecutors in Boston.