In announcing the filing of theft charges against 11 people, including eight former security screeners at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Los Angeles city attorney Rocky Delgadillo said a new multi-agency task force has been formed to crack down on crime, particularly theft by employees, at the airport.
Delgadillo announced at a news conference at LAX Friday, March 23rd, that criminal charges have been filed against eight former employees of the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA), two employees of an airport subcontractor and one transient.
The alleged crimes, which involved thefts of passengers’ property at LAX, included the theft of a limited edition watch reportedly valued at more than $100,000 from hotel heiress Paris Hilton’s baggage and the theft of a $7,000 watch of R&B singer Keyshia Cole, Delgadillo said.
Other passenger property that was taken in the alleged crimes included jewelry, foreign currency, cameras and a bag containing duty-free cigarettes, Delgadillo said.
All TSA employees charged have been terminated, said Larry Fetters, TSA federal security director.
In announcing the filing of the charges, city and airport officials said LAX remains one of the safest areas in Southern California and they noted that overall crime at the airport dropped 6.4 percent last year.
“The good news is that crime is down at LAX, but the bad news is that crime here continues,” Delgadillo said. “The fact is, no amount of crime is acceptable. We can do better and we must do better.”
In an effort to enhance the safety and security of employees and passengers at the airport, Delgadillo said officials have formed the Los Angeles International Airport Security Enhancement Initiative, a partnership involving a dozen local and federal law enforcement agencies.
Among the agencies involved in the partnership are the Los Angeles Police Department, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Secret Service and Los Angeles World Airports — the city agency that owns and operates LAX.
The task force will focus on improving public awareness of prosecutions in an effort to boost public confidence in the safety and security of LAX, as well as discourage other employees at LAX from committing crimes, Delgadillo said.
“LAX is absolutely a vital thread in the tapestry of our city, and thus it is critical that we do everything we can to ensure the safety and security of the airport and its passengers,” the city attorney said.
He said a main component of the new security initiative is the targeting of thefts committed by airport employees. Members of the partnership will share information to “aggressively prosecute” those who commit crimes at LAX, he said.
Officials praised the formation of the airport security initiative as a way to improve safety for LAX travelers.
“We must ensure the safety and security of our traveling public,” said Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl of the 11th District, which includes the LAX area.
“I applaud city attorney Rocky Delgadillo for moving forward with an initiative that will help to improve public safety for LAX passengers.”
Fetters of the TSA said the agency has a “zero tolerance policy toward dishonesty” regarding its employees.
The incidents of theft allegedly involving TSA screeners date back to June 2005.
The charges resulted from an internal investigation and some were brought to the attention of the agency by “honest” TSA employees who witnessed the incidents and reported them to agency officials, Fetters said.
“We hold our Transportation Security officers to the highest ethical standards,” Fetters said.
The number of theft cases involving former TSA screeners represents a “miniscule” number compared to the number of TSA employees who work at the airport, Fetters said. The agency employed over 4,000 people at LAX during the time the incidents occurred, he added.
Among the individuals charged is former TSA screener George Penaranda, 27, who was stationed at the British Airways terminal at LAX, where he was allegedly observed taking a limited edition watch from Paris Hilton’s bag in May 2006. Penaranda allegedly returned the watch after another employee witnessed the act and reported it, city attorney officials said.
Two other former TSA employees, Qualonda Matthews, 32, and Millicent Pounds, 49, stole a $7,000 watch that singer Keyshia Cole had left behind at a security checkpoint and sold it in Las Vegas, city attorneys alleged.
Former TSA screener Monica Zuniga, 28, was charged with one count of burglary for allegedly stealing several items of jewelry, foreign currency and cameras from baggage reportedly belonging to passengers with Asian surnames.
Other former TSA employees charged are Joanna Chang, 30, who allegedly stole a bag containing four cartons of duty-free cigarettes; Brandon D. Wells, 21, and Cornell Braggs, 23, who allegedly stole a digital camera from a passenger’s bag; and Heather Hall, 25, who is accused of stealing a watch from the screening station.
Charges were also filed against Lazaro Borjas, 27, and Gabriel Becerra, 30, who were employees of a subcontractor at LAX and allegedly stole a digital camera while loading luggage onto an aircraft, city attorneys said.
Gary Lee Jones, a transient, is accused of stealing two bags from Terminals 3 and 6 at LAX, officials said.
Delgadillo said passengers can prevent potential thefts by avoiding placing valuables in checked luggage and by double-checking that all possessions have been removed from security checkpoint bins.
Officials also encourage passengers to report any suspicious activity by baggage handlers and screeners to authorities.