The DEA announced that two former and two current Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners, who worked at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) were arrested on federal narcotics trafficking and bribery charges. The TSA screeners allegedly took cash payments and allowed large shipments of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana to pass through the X-ray machines at security checkpoints.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also apprehended one drug courier and expects another smuggler to surrender to authorities tomorrow. DEA agents working the case are continuing their search for another alleged drug courier named in the unsealed 22-count grand jury indictment.
The indictment highlights five incidents in which TSA employees acquired cash payments to allow suitcases filled with drugs to slip past the X-ray machines unnoticed.
“This case underscores the unique nature of 21st century drug smuggling,” according to Briane M. Grey, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the DEA in Los Angeles. “Here, the defendants traded on their positions at one the world’s most crucial airport security checkpoints, used their special access for criminal ends, and compromised the safety and security of their fellow citizens for their own profit.”
Aviation security expert, Glen Winn, a 36-year military veteran, airline and airport security industry insider said he “would classify this as a catastrophic break down of security that threatened the airport.”
This case also demonstrates American airports remain under threat from more than just terrorists.
“Airport screeners act as a vital checkpoint for homeland security, and air travelers should believe in the fundamental integrity of security systems at our nation’s airports,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. “The allegations in this case describe a significant breakdown of the screening system through the conduct of individuals who placed greed above the nation’s security needs.”
The unsealed indictment named the following individuals: Naral Richardson, 30, of Los Angeles, (who was terminated by TSA in 2010), John Whitfield, 23, of Los Angeles, (who was currently employed by TSA), Joy White, 27, of Compton, (who was terminated by TSA last year), Capeline McKinney, 25, of Los Angeles, (who was a current TSA screener), Duane Eleby, 28, of Downey, (who is expected to surrender to authorities), Terry Cunningham, 28, of Los Angeles, (an alleged drug courier, who is currently being sought by authorities), Stephen Bayliss, 28, of Los Angeles, (an alleged drug courier, who is currently is state custody).
All the apprehended defendants will be arraigned at United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles. “If they are convicted of the charges in the indictment, the current and former TSA officials each face stiff mandatory minimum penalties, and each would face a potential sentence of life imprisonment,” according to U.S. attorney Birotte.
“The indictment outlines five separate incidents in which the TSA officials conspired with either drug couriers or an undercover operative working with the Drug Enforcement Administration to smuggle narcotics through security checkpoints at LAX.”
The incidents under investigation began in February 2011 and continued until early July 2011, according to the indictment.
“One incident, Richardson and White allegedly agreed that Eleby would bring about five kilograms of cocaine through a security checkpoint that was being staffed by White. But when Eleby failed to follow White’s instructions and went to the wrong security checkpoint, TSA officials uninvolved in the scheme seized Eleby’s bag, which was filled with cocaine,” the DEA explained. “In the final incident outlined in the indictment, Richardson and Whitfield allegedly conspired with the DEA’s ‘confidential source’ to allow about eight pounds of methamphetamine to pass through a security checkpoint that was being staffed by Whitfield. After the methamphetamine went through security, Whitfield met the confidential source in an LAX restroom to receive $600 in cash, which was the second half of the agreed-upon $1,200 fee for that pass through.”
If convicted of their respective crimes, Richardson, Whitfield, McKinney, will serve a minimum of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Eleby, Cunningham and Bayliss face a five-year mandatory minimum sentences and a maximum statutory sentence of 40 years in prison for their part in the drug smuggling.
“TSA has assured the investigating agencies we will do everything we can to assist in their investigation,” said Randy Parsons, TSA Federal Security Director at LAX.
“While these arrests are a disappointment, TSA is committed to holding our employees to the highest standards.”
The multi agency investigation was conducted by the DEA, the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) and the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), which worked in conjunction with the Transportation Security Administration, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, the Los Angeles International Airport Narcotics Task Force, and the Los Angeles Airport Police.
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