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As Epstein died, guards allegedly shopped online and slept

NEW YORK (AP) — Two jail guards responsible for monitoring Jeffrey Epstein the night he killed himself were sleeping and browsing the internet instead, according to an indictment released Tuesday charging the guards with lying on prison records to cover themselves.

The grand jury indictment provides a damning glimpse of safety lapses inside a high-security unit at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, where Epstein had been awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

The indictment, leaning in part on images from security cameras on the cell block, also contains new details reinforcing the idea that, for all the intrigue regarding Epstein and his connections to powerful people, his death was a suicide and possibly preventable.

“The defendants had a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care at the Metropolitan Correctional Center,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said. “Instead, they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction.”

Instead of making required rounds every 30 minutes, guards Tova Noel and Michael Thomas sat at their desks just 15 feet from Epstein’s cell, shopped online for furniture and motorcycles, and walked around the unit’s common area, the indictment said. During one two-hour period, it said, both appeared to have been asleep.

Prosecutors said security footage confirmed that no one entered the area where Epstein was housed on the night he died — evidence that might also dampen conspiracy theories by people who have questioned whether he really took his own life.

A lawyer for Thomas, Montell Figgins, said both guards are being “scapegoated.” “We feel this is a rush to judgment by the U.S. attorney’s office,” he said. “They’re going after the low man on the totem pole here.”

Noel’s lawyer, Jason Foy, said he hoped to "reach a reasonable agreement" with the government that could avoid a trial. Both correctional officers pleaded not guilty Tuesday afternoon and were released on $100,000 bond. The defendants, hiding their faces with clothing, left the courthouse in separate cars waiting for them in the shadow of the jail where they had worked and Epstein died.

Epstein’s death was a major embarrassment for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The cell where he died was in a high-security unit, famous for having held terrorists and drug cartel kingpins. Epstein’s death, though, revealed the jail was suffering from problems including chronic staffing shortages that lead to mandatory overtime for guards day after day and other staff being pressed into service as correctional officers.

Attorney General William Barr had previously said investigators found "serious irregularities" at the jail. Epstein had been placed on suicide watch after he was found July 23 on the floor of his cell with a strip of bedsheet around his neck, according to the indictment.

After 24 hours, he was transferred to the facility’s hospital wing for a psychological observation, where he remained under close watch. Epstein was moved back to a regular cell July 30 where he was required to have a cellmate, but he was left with none after his cellmate was transferred out of the MCC on Aug. 9, the day before his death, the indictment said.

The indictment said that Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell when the guards went to deliver breakfast. Noel confessed to a supervisor then that they hadn’t done either their 3 a.m. or 5 a.m. rounds, according to the indictment.

According to the indictment, Thomas said: "We messed up." And then added, "I messed up, she's not to blame, we didn't do any rounds." Prosecutors had wanted the guards to admit they falsified the prison records as part of a plea offer that they rejected, according to people familiar with the matter. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to publicly discuss the investigation.

Marc Fernich, a lawyer for Epstein, said: "It would be a shame if minor scapegoats — classic low-hanging fruit, the softest targets — were made to take the fall for this tragedy on what amounts to a coverup theory. Unless it prompts genuine self-reflection from all major participants and stakeholders in our criminal justice system and those who cover it, Mr. Epstein’s death in federal custody — senseless and sad as it is — will have been entirely for naught.”

The city’s medical examiner ruled Epstein's death a suicide. Dr. Michael Baden, the forensic pathologist hired by Epstein's family to observe his autopsy, recently suggested some of Epstein’s injuries were more consistent with homicide rather than suicide, though other experts disputed that.

Baden said Tuesday the arrested officers could have information that’s “going to be critical in determining whether it's homicide or suicide.” Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday there is "no evidence to suggest” anything other than suicide.

Falsification of records has been a problem throughout the federal prison system. Sawyer, who was named director of the Bureau of Prisons after Epstein’s death, disclosed in an internal memo earlier this month that a review of operations across the agency found some staff members failed to perform required rounds and inmate counts but logged that they had done so anyway. A copy of the memo was obtained by the AP.

Epstein’s death ended the possibility of a trial that would have involved prominent figures and sparked widespread anger that he wouldn't have to answer for the allegations. He had pleaded not guilty and was preparing to argue that he could not be charged because of a 2008 deal he made to avoid federal prosecution on similar allegations.

__ Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak and Jim Mustian contributed to this report. Balsamo reported from Washington.

This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of the name of one of the accused guards. She is Tova Noel, not Toval Noel.

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