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Courtroom sketch shows Lawyer Jason Foy speaking next to Tova Noel, lawyer Montell Figgins and Michael Thomas as Thomas and Noel appear on charges they falsely certified to having conducted inmate counts during Jeffrey Epstein's final hours at the Federal Court in New York City, New York. - Reuters

NEW YORK: Two prison guards on duty when Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide were charged Tuesday over their alleged failure to monitor him, the latest development in the mystery surrounding his death.

The charges are the first in a federal investigation into how the wealthy financier, one of America’s most high-profile detainees, was able to kill himself in a high-security jail.

They come as Britain’s Prince Andrew faces a growing storm for defending his relationship with Epstein in a much-criticized television interview.

Epstein, 66, was found dead in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center on August 10 as he awaited trial on allegations that he trafficked girls as young as 14 for sex.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center, the location of the death of Jeffrey Epstein is photographed in New York City. - Reuters

New York prosecutors charged Tova Noel, 31, and Michael Thomas, 41, with failing to carry out regularly required prisoner checks and then signing false records to cover their tracks.

“For substantial portions of their shifts, Noel and Thomas sat at their desk, browsed the internet, and moved around the (jail’s) common area,” the indictment, unsealed in a Manhattan court, alleges.

No correctional officer checked on Epstein from approximately 10:30 pm on August 9 to 6:30 am the next morning when his lifeless body was discovered, prosecutors said.

They don’t say why the checks weren’t carried out. Prisons unions suggested at the time that the facility was understaffed and officers were working overtime.

Attorney Montell Figgins makes a statement to the media on behalf of his client Michael Thomas, a correctional officer charged with falsifying reports in the Jeffrey Epstein suicide investigation, on November 19, 2019 in New York City. - AFP

Epstein was a multi-millionaire hedge fund manager who befriended countless celebrities over the years, including US President Donald Trump.

Epstein was charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and another of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors.

He denied the charges but faced up to 45 years in jail if found guilty.

Epstein’s death fueled several conspiracy theories, mostly speculating that he had been murdered to stop him from revealing compromising information about some of his wealthy acquaintances.

His death also deprived countless alleged victims of justice.

Dozens of women have come forward to say they were abused by him and several have sued his estate for damages.

Attorney Jason E. Foy makes a statement to the media on behalf of his client Tova Noel, a correctional officer charged with falsifying reports in the Jeffrey Epstein suicide investigation, on November 19, 2019 in New York City. - AFP

The latest allegation came on Monday when an unidentified woman using the name Jane Doe 15, told reporters in Los Angeles that Epstein raped her at his ranch in New Mexico when she was 15.

“Epstein took my sexual innocence in front of a wall of framed photographs of him shaking hands and smiling with celebrities and political leaders,” she said.

“After, he wanted to talk with me about what had just been my first sexual experience and directed me to take time to myself that night to cry. He said that would be beneficial to my growth.”

The guards’ indictments also come after Prince Andrew denied allegations he had sex with a 17-year-old girl allegedly trafficked by Epstein.

Queen Elizabeth II’s second son was widely criticized for showing little empathy for the victims during the lengthy BBC interview broadcast on Saturday.

Epstein was convicted in Florida in 2008 of paying young girls for massages but served just 13 months in jail under a secret plea deal struck with the then state prosecutor.

New York City chief coroner Barbara Sampson ruled that Epstein hanged himself but a forensic pathologist hired by his brother said last month that his injuries were “more indicative of homicidal strangulation.”

Prosecutors have pledged to pursue any co-conspirators in his alleged crimes.--AFP

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