An American Airlines flight attendant was arrested on Thursday, accused of using his cellphone in an attempt to secretly record a 14-year-old girl as she used the lavatory on a domestic flight in September, federal prosecutors said.

The flight attendant, Estes Carter Thompson III, 37, of Charlotte, N.C., was arrested in Lynchburg, Va., and charged with attempted sexual exploitation of children and possession of child pornography after investigators found evidence that he had surreptitiously recorded video footage of four other girls as they used the lavatory on American Airlines flights last year, the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Massachusetts said.

“The deeply disturbing conduct alleged here is something no parent or child should ever have to worry about when they travel,” Joshua S. Levy, the acting U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “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.”

According to a criminal complaint, Mr. Thompson was working as a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight to Boston from Charlotte on Sept. 2. About halfway through the flight, the 14-year-old girl got up to use a lavatory in the main cabin, the document says.

She had been waiting for a short time when Mr. Thompson told her that she could use the lavatory in first class, which was unoccupied, the complaint says. Before the girl entered the lavatory, Mr. Thompson told her that the toilet seat was broken and that he needed to wash his hands, according to the charging document.

Once inside the lavatory, prosecutors said, the girl noticed that red stickers had been affixed to the toilet seat lid that read, “INOPERATIVE CATERING EQUIPMENT” and “REMOVE FROM SERVICE.” On one of the stickers, the words “SEAT BROKEN” had been handwritten in black ink, the complaint said.

As she was dressing after using the toilet, the girl noticed that an iPhone with its flashlight on was protruding from under the stickers. She used her phone to photograph it, according to the complaint, and as she was returning to her seat, she observed the flight attendant entering the lavatory after her. She returned to her seat and told her parents what she had seen, the complaint said.

Her parents told the other flight attendants what had happened. They informed the captain, who reported the episode to law enforcement personnel on the ground, prosecutors said.

After the plane landed at Logan International Airport in Boston, law enforcement officers who confronted Mr. Thompson noticed that his phone had been restored to its factory settings, wiping out any photos, videos, text messages and other signs of activity, according to the complaint. While searching Mr. Thompson’s suitcase, officers found 11 “INOPERATIVE CATERING EQUIPMENT” stickers, according to the complaint.

A search of Mr. Thompson’s iCloud account later revealed evidence of four other instances in which he had recorded minors using lavatories on American Airlines flights in 2023, prosecutors said. The search also found hundreds of images depicting child sexual abuse that had been generated by artificial intelligence, and more than 50 images of a 9-year-old girl who flew as an unaccompanied minor on an American Airlines flight to San Antonio from Charlotte in July 2023, according to the complaint.

Mr. Thompson was immediately removed from service after the September flight, and he has not worked since then, according to American Airlines. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer.

The parents of the 14-year-old girl filed a federal lawsuit against American Airlines in December. John Buric, a lawyer representing the family, said on Thursday that Mr. Thompson’s actions were “despicable.”

In a statement after Mr. Thompson’s arrest, American Airlines said that it takes “these allegations very seriously.”

“They don’t reflect our airline or our core mission of caring for people,” the airline said. “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.”

Mr. Thompson was in custody in the Lynchburg Adult Detention Center in Virginia on Thursday, according to jail records, and prosecutors said he would remain in custody until a court appearance in Virginia that has not been scheduled. Mr. Thompson is also expected to appear later in federal court in Boston.

He faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty of attempted sexual exploitation of children, and up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the child pornography possession charge, prosecutors said.

Jodi Cohen, special agent in charge of the F.B.I. Boston field office, said in a statement that Mr. Thompson had “repeatedly targeted unsuspecting children to sexually exploit them for his own gratification.”

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

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